Lawmakers puzzle over ever-changing synthetic drugs

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One state employee likened fighting synthetic drugs to playing Whac-a-Mole, the old arcade game, while lawmakers wondered what new laws are needed to curb a growing problem.

That's the word from the first meeting of a state House committee created by lawmakers in May to look at how to handle an influx of synthetic drugs into the state, and what to do about a target that is ever-changing.

Synthetic drugs are engineered to mimic the effects of cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine, as the Star Tribune reports, but when a drug becomes illegal by a new law, drug makers can make a tiny change to make it legal again.

“As fast as they tweak a molecule, we are going to have to tweak the law and the rules,” Cody Wiber of the state's pharmacy board told the five-member committee, according to the Forum News Service.

Although they're outlawed, the synthetics are still being sold over the counter at some convenience stores, gas stations and tobacco shops, reports KSTP-TV, and the committee was told the federal Drug Enforcement Agency has cited some synthetic drugs as an "imminent threat to public safety."

Duluth has been ground zero for the flow of synthetics, and the state representative from there heads the committee.

“We have good legislation in place right now that bans specific substances, but we need to take it to the next level,” said Rep. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, according to the Star Tribune.

Simonson added, according to KSTP: "We need to think outside the box. The people who are making these synthetic drugs are anticipating our response. If we outlaw one substance, they'll just tinker with the chemical makeup to escape that law. We need to come up with effective, long-lasting solutions, not short-term, stop-gap fixes."

Duluth's Last Place on Earth head shop was cited for its ongoing battles with law enforcement over what the shop's owner contends are legal substances he's selling, but it's clear that the synthetic drug business goes far beyond one storefront.

Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Jon Holets, whose office handed off the Last Place confrontation to the Feds, wants to make the possession and sale of synthetic drugs a felony, according to the Strib.

According to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, St. Louis County consistently leads the state in the number of synthetic drug cases, the Strib says.

“This drug is worse than methamphetamine, particularly the bath salts,” Holets said, according to the paper, “so let’s make it punishable the way it should be.”

The Strib says testimony lasted for hours, and KSTP lists the names of all those who attended in some official capacity. Next panel meeting is August 22 in Brainerd.

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