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Minnesota lawmakers move to get tough(er) on synthetic drugs

Attorney General Lori Swanson said that in spite of stronger laws, the battle is still “a game of Whac-A-Mole.”

Those who testified Wednesday included Moorhead Police Lt. Brad Penas, left, Attorney General Lori Swanson, and Lynn Habhegger, of Carlton, Minn., whose son suffered permanent mental-health damage after ingesting synthetic drugs.
MinnPost photo by Sarah T. Williams

A mother’s anguished testimony underscored the announcement Wednesday of recommendations to further crack down on the sale of synthetic drugs in Minnesota and warn potential users, especially young people, of the drugs’ lethality.

Courtesy of Lynn Habhegger
Corey Habhegger

“Corey didn’t lose his life to synthetic drugs, he lost his mind to them,” Lynn Habhegger, of Carlton, Minn., told members of the bipartisan House Select Committee on Controlled Substance and Synthetic Drugs. “And ultimately we have lost our son and the man he could have become. Corey will never be able to hold a job, go to college, have a profession, serve his country, get married or have a family.”

After eight months of gathering testimony from across the state – including from emergency-room doctors, treatment providers, toxicologists, law-enforcement officials and families – committee members presented their findings and recommendations during an hour-long hearing Wednesday at the State Office Building in St. Paul.

The recommendations include:

  • eliminating the work-around that some head-shop owners have found by slapping on the label, “Not for human consumption”;
  • granting power to the state Board of Pharmacy to issue cease-and-desist orders to suppliers;
  • permanently expanding the Board of Pharmacy’s rule-making authority to name new compounds as banned controlled substances;
  • appropriating funds for prosecuting synthetic drug cases and analyzing and testing the drugs;
  • funding a public education program, especially targeted to young people, warning of the drugs’ hazards.
MinnPost photo by Sarah T. Williams
Rep. Erik Simonson

“We have really good analog laws here in Minnesota that are very useful and productive tools,” said committee Chair Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth. “But we also thought that essentially what we need to do is put another tool or two in the toolbox to give law enforcement [and] prosecutors a better opportunity to control this problem in their own communities.”

Simonson’s district unwillingly became the epicenter of the scourge as law-enforcement officials tried time and time again to shut down The Last Place on Earth, a head-shop in downtown Duluth whose owner became adept at skirting the laws and whose customers began showing up in emergency rooms. Jim Carlson was found guilty in October on 51 felony counts involving mislabeling of drugs and money laundering, and a judge ordered his multimillion-dollar operation closed for at least a year. His conviction and appeal are being closely watched by other communities and jurisdictions as they seek to close the loopholes involving the sale and manufacture of the drugs.

The medical and social costs are almost incalculable, Simonson said. In a study of one trauma center in Duluth, he said, more than 75 patients who were treated for adverse effects of synthetic drugs generated more than $425,000 in costs over the course of just one year.

‘A game of Whac-A-Mole’

Over the past few years, Minnesota has strengthened its laws to combat the sale and possession of synthetic cannabinoids (“K2” and “Spice,” which mimic THC) and cathinones (“Bath Salts,” which mimic amphetamines), including aligning with federal analog laws, increasing penalties, and working more closely with the Board of Pharmacy to identify and classify the many iterations of the drugs.

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State Attorney General Lori Swanson told committee members Wednesday that, in spite of stronger laws, the battle is still “a game of Whac-A-Mole,” with suppliers tweaking compounds by a single molecule just as they are added to the list of banned substances. The committee’s recommendations, she said, would, among other things, help expedite the process of identifying and banning new substances.

Moorhead Police Lt. Brad Penas told committee members of his department’s frustration, not only in laying down the law to the head-shop owners in town (there were five, now there are three) but also in locating expert witnesses and getting charges to stick. The drugs have taken a toll in his city, he said, with increased burglaries, robberies and school suspensions. He described one situation in which a person on synthetic drugs jumped through a glass window and, despite being severely injured, fought with an officer who was trying to help.

Once head-shop owners feel the heat, they move on to other cities that might be less familiar with the problem, he said. “We need to step up our enforcement actions,” Penas said. “These guys continually try to skirt the law. They regularly change the name, the wording of these products, they try to mask the contents. It’s a burden on law enforcement, a burden on our BCA lab. We need to be diligent and unified in this process.”

A son in crisis

Habhegger said the state’s stronger analog laws came too late for her son, Corey Kellis, who in June 2011 bought a small packet of Bath Salts at The Last Place on Earth, believing that they were innocuous. “They were readily available, being sold publicly, over-the-counter, and until recently were considered legal,” she said. “Given these circumstances it is understandable how a lot of our youth could reach the conclusion that my son did. ‘If it’s legal it can’t be bad for me. It can’t really hurt me or they wouldn’t be selling it.’ ”

Within minutes of taking the drug, Habhegger said her son was “perspiring profusely, having auditory and visual hallucinations, and experiencing a rapid and irregular heartbeat.” Over the next few hours, he experienced heart attack, rhabdomyolysis (a condition in which damaged skeletal muscle tissue breaks down) and renal failure. Though emergency room doctors saved his life, they could not save his mental health, she said.

During the past two years, she said, “Corey has been diagnosed with several mental-health disorders including psychosis, mood disorder, anxiety disorder, personality disorder, schizoaffective disorder, and schizophrenia. He has posed a credible threat to his own safety and the safety of others. He has been missing, homeless, reckless and impulsive” and involuntarily committed three times. His most recent commitment hearing was just last week, Habhegger said, after he’d been found outside in subzero temperatures wearing nothing but long underwear and experiencing severe psychosis.

The damage is permanent, she said. “He will continue to be a risk for suicide, unable to properly care for himself, constantly at war within his mind about what is real and what is not. He will continue to burden and cost the local medical, civil, social and judicial systems – most likely for the rest of his life.”

MinnPost photo by Sarah T. Williams
Attorney General Lori Swanson thanked Lynn Habhegger for her testimony.

Habhegger commended the committee members for their work, and made an urgent plea “to work together to prevent the heartache and devastation caused by synthetic drugs.”

Simonson and other committee members, visibly moved by her testimony, thanked her and expressed their sympathy.

“We owe you an apology for not being able to get to this fast enough,” said Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul. “I almost want to say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ You get to hold your son, but emotionally he’s just not there. It’s about time that [we] as policymakers do something.”

In adddition to Simonson and Schoen, committee members included Reps. Kathy Lohmer, R-Stillwater; Jim Newberger, R-Becker; and John Ward, DFL-Baxter. Their unanimously approved recommendations will go to House leaders when the Legislature convenes Feb. 25.