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Last Place on Earth trial: Embattled head shop owner expected to testify

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Chemists are testifying in the case of embattled Duluth head shop owner Jim Carlson, who is also likely to testify early next week, the Duluth News Tribune reports.

Carlson, 56, is charged with 55 federal crimes, accused of selling and mislabeling substances that are almost exactly like illegal drugs – just slightly different enough in their chemical makeup to make them technically different products, or "analogues." It can be more difficult for prosecutors to bring cases against analogue sellers.

Carlson for four years has sold incense and bath salt products out of his downtown Duluth shop, products that witnesses in the trial have said were taken as drugs.

Carlson's shop, The Last Place on Earth, has long been the focus of controversy and criticism from downtown boosters who say the store is a nuisance. Police agree; they are routinely called to the shop.

Carlson says he is being harassed by the government. "They're not bothering anybody else," Carlson said, MPR reported.

The trial in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis began Sept. 18. At issue in the case is what store employees sold, and what they knew about the legality of the chemical compounds in their most popular products, which amount to synthetic drugs, Forum Communications reported.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Surya Saxena told the jury in opening statements that evidence proves Carlson, along with co-defendants girlfriend Lava Haugen and son Joseph Gellerman, knew they were selling "analogues" — products substantially similar to illegal drugs, Forum reported. Saxena said evidence shows Carlson gave the products to employees and encouraged them to use them as drugs, WDIO reported.

Prosecutors say 80 percent of Carlson's business has been selling synthetic stimulants, cannabinoids and analogues – netting him millions of dollars, Northland's Newscenter noted.

But Defense lawyers said Carlson went to great lengths to comply with the letter of the law, and that the defendants did not believe they were selling anything illegal.

In testimony Thursday, defense lawyers questioned a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency chemist who acknowledged that the agency did not tell the public – specifically, Carlson – that several of his products qualified as illegal analogues.

Among the witnesses in the case has been Jamie Anderson, 25, who testified that Carlson instructed staffers to sell the products as “spice” or “incense” – and not to tell any customers that they were for smoking, Forum Communications reported. Carlson told his workers not to sell to any customer who referred to their intention of using the substances as drugs. But store staff knew that customers were using the products to get high, Anderson said.

The trial takes a break Friday, and the government is expected to rest its case when the trial resumes Monday. Defense lawyers are expected to call chemists Monday, and Carlson is expected to testify, possibly Tuesday. The trial could go to the jury as early as Wednesday.

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