By Don Davis
Trying to control dangerous synthetic drugs is a lot like playing the old carnival game whack-a-mole.
In the game, every time a player uses a mallet to whack a mole sticking its head out of one hole, another mole pops up in another hole, Executive Director Cody Wiberg of the Minnesota Pharmacy Board told a state House committee Tuesday. In the serious game of synthetic drugs, also called designer drugs, when a drug becomes illegal by a new law or government rule, 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,” said Wiberg, who lives in Red Wing.
Wiberg testified to a five-member committee created to provide fellow lawmakers with solutions to the expanding synthetic drug problem. Chairman Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, said he hopes to have a plan ready by the time legislators return to work Feb. 25.
Testifiers told the committee that synthetic drugs are not like their traditional illegal counterparts.
“There have been reports of all types of medical problems with these drugs that you typically don’t see with regular marijuana,” Wiberg said about what is called synthetic marijuana, sold by names such as K2, Scooby Snack, King Kong, Yukatan Fire and Spice Gold.
Brian Marquart, statewide law enforcement task forces coordinator, told the committee that synthetic drug use is increasing across the state. He said teens and young adults especially are affected.
Deaths attributed to designer drugs have been reported in a Twin Cities suburb, western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota.
The state has changed laws in recent years in an attempt to make designer drugs illegal, but more is needed, the committee heard.
“We’re better off than we were in July of 2011,” Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Jon Holets said.
His office is conducting two criminal cases against people connected with Last Place on Earth, accused of selling illegal designer drugs. The downtown business is a “major and visible source” of Duluth synthetic drugs, he said.
In other areas, synthetic drugs are sold on the street like traditional illegal drugs.
Marquart said a Moorhead city ordinance slowed sales in stores there and he encouraged other cities to take like action.
Committee members agreed with testifiers that Minnesotans need to learn more about designer drugs. Rep. Kathy Lohmer, R-Stillwater, said the committee also needs to teach fellow lawmakers why it is important to crack down on the drugs.
“These drugs often are synthesized by people who don’t know what they are doing…” Wiberg said. “So users of these drugs don’t know what they are getting.”
He said that taking the drugs is “like Russian roulette.” Synthetic drug users may experience no problems for some time, then get a bad batch and face serious health issues.
“There is a real misunderstanding out there,” Simonson said, because synthetic marijuana is not at all like plant-based marijuana.
“They are far, far more dangerous,” he said about synthetic versions, which often are more potent than other drugs.
Besides synthetic marijuana, designer drugs are sold as “bath salts,” under names like blue silk, cosmic blast, ivory soft and bliss. Also available are LSD-type hallucinogenic drugs.
Symptoms vary greatly among types of drugs and among batches of drugs, testifiers told lawmakers.
Many of the drugs are available via the Internet, some are sold in stores and some on the street. In many cases, users are told they are legal, and some prosecutors say they have a hard time proving the drugs are illegal.
Simonson’s goal is to come up with a bill that will make that task easier.
“We are trying to pull out all the stops,” Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, said.