Winona prosecutors call for tougher penalties for synthetic drugs
ST. PAUL — Prosecutors urged lawmakers on Tuesday to toughen the penalties for people caught with synthetic drugs, saying the substances pose a danger to both users and the community.
"We believe that designer synthetic substances are even more harmful to our communities than methamphetamine," Winona County Assistant Attorney Christina Davenport told members of a new legislative task force charged with tackling the synthetic drug problem.
Soon after the drugs surfaced in Winona County in 2010, reports starting coming in of people believing they were being chased by werewolves or attacked by demons, Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman said. In some cases, children were being bitten by their parents or having knives put up to their throats. While legislative efforts to ban synthetic drugs did help get it off local store shelves, the problem remains.
"What's happening is that now it's illegal, people are much more secretive about their use," Davenport said. "That danger is still there. It's just not being flaunted in the way it was before."
The Select Committee on Controlled Substances and Synthetic Drugs held its first official meeting Tuesday at the state Capitol, listening to experts outline the challenges faced in cracking down on these designer drugs. The group is working to put together a package of recommendations for lawmakers to consider next session. Committee Chairman Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, said that while recent legislation has helped law enforcement agencies address the problem, more needs to be done.
"We need to take it to the next level and start talking about how we get these things off the shelves, off the streets, so they can't find ways around our current statutes," he said.
That's a daunting challenge given that manufacturers of these drugs are constantly inventing new chemical formulas to get around the state ban.
"In many cases, we're trying to prohibit substances that haven't been invented yet," Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Superintendent Wade Setter told the committee.
Minnesota lawmakers passed legislation in 2011 and in 2012 aimed at banning these drugs and toughening criminal penalties. Despite those efforts, synthetic drug use has remained a problem in the state.
While designer drugs date back to the mid-1980s as a heroin substitute, they only recently became a problem in Minnesota, according to Cody Wiberg, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy. These drugs fall into three categories — synthetic cannabinoids that mimic the effects of marijuana, stimulants that are similar to cocaine and methamphetamine and hallucinogenics similar to LSD. Often they are labeled as "herbal incense," "plant food," "bath salts" and even "Cell phone screen scratch remover." The packages say "Not for human consumption" — an attempt to get around federal law.
Wiberg equated the use of these drugs to a game of Russian roulette. Buyers have no idea what they are buying, and the drug's potency and chemical makeup can vary dramatically from one package to the next.
Statewide, there's been an explosion in the amount of synthetic drugs being seized by law enforcement agencies, according to Statewide Gang and Drug Coordinator Brian Marquart. In 2012, law enforcement agencies seized and purchased a total of 5,020 grams of synthetic drugs. In the first quarter of 2013, 52,000 grams had been purchased or seized and in the second quarter that number is projected to climb to 500,000 grams.
In order to combat these drugs, the committee's chairman has proposed a bill modeled after an Indiana law dubbed the "lookalike bill." Instead of focusing on particular chemicals, the bill states that if a reasonable person concludes an individual is selling a particular product in order to get someone high, it's illegal. That law passed in May and is currently being challenged in the courts.
Other ideas include broadening the Board of Pharmacy's powers to crack down on retailers who are selling synthetic drugs. Wiberg suggested the board be given cease-and-desist authority to prohibit sales of these products. He also suggested the board's embargo authority be broadened, which would allow it to search stores where these drugs are sold, take samples for testing and prohibit the owner from selling the materials for 60 days while seeking an order of condemnation from the courts.
"I am hopeful that with the actions that can be taken that maybe a year from now we can get rid of retail sales," Wiberg said.
While the issue of stores selling these drugs has continued to be a major problem in cities like Duluth and Brainerd, retail sales has largely ceased in Southeast Minnesota, according to Olmsted County Sheriff's Department Capt. Mark Erickson, who heads the Southeast Minnesota Narcotics and Gang Task Force. He said there had been smoke shops in Austin, Houston, Winona and Red Wing that were selling the drugs, but they have stopped.
Erickson said the biggest synthetic drug issues in Southeast Minnesota have been in Winona and Houston counties. The popularity of the synthetic drugs do appear to be waning somewhat.
"We're still seeing a little bit of it, but not as much as we had," he said. "It seems like a lot of our people that were using synthetics have moved back to methamphetamine."
Testifiers also urged lawmakers to put aside more funding for a public education campaign aimed at preventing teenagers and young people from starting to use synthetic drugs in the first place.
A major problem still remains when it comes to prosecuting these sorts of cases. Davenport said that in one case, a man had ordered a package from China that contained 124 grams of Alpha PVP, a synthetic drug. Under current state law, the individual could only be charged with fourth-degree intent to sell. Based on that individual's criminal history, the sentence would likely be probation for about 15 months.
Authorities did find 10 grams of methamphetamine in this individual's home and determined there appeared to be an intent to sell. And while the amount of meth in the home paled in comparison to the synthetic drugs, Davenport said she was able to charge him with first-degree sale of a controlled substance because of the meth.
She added, "The statutes do not actually reflect the devastating effect we've seen (from synthetic drugs) in our community."