Synthetic marijuana ban on Duluth City Council’s plateIf the Duluth City Council passes a ban tonight on the sale, purchase or possession of synthetic marijuana, the city might have a fight on its hands.
By: Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune
If the Duluth City Council passes a ban tonight on the sale, purchase or possession of synthetic marijuana, the city might have a fight on its hands.
Jim Carlson, owner of Last Place on Earth, a Duluth head shop, said he and other local retailers are exploring a lawsuit with the help of civil liberties attorney Randall Tigue.
“We’re looking into suing the city if this passes,” Carlson warned the City Council during a recent agenda session meeting.
Duluth City Councilor Todd Fedora introduced an ordinance that could make Duluth the first city in the state to ban synthetic marijuana.
Brian Lukasavitz, coordinator for the 6th Judicial Drug Court, first became aware of synthetic marijuana gaining a foothold in Duluth about eight months ago and said that since then, “Its use has clearly been expanding.”
The local drug court has added synthetic marijuana to its list of banned substances for offenders ordered to maintain their sobriety.
Carlson said synthetic marijuana accounts for about half his store’s sales. He predicts that disallowing the sale of synthetic marijuana in Duluth would simply prompt locals to buy it from shops in neighboring communities and probably do little to reduce its use.
“You’re also going to lose the city and sales taxes on it to communities like Hermantown or Superior,” Carlson said.
City Councilman Jay Fosle suggested people might also turn to the Internet if Duluth tries to outlaw synthetic marijuana.
“If we ban it here, people are just going to go online and buy it,” he said.
Despite these concerns, Fedora remains convinced that other communities’ failure to address the threat of synthetic marijuana doesn’t justify inaction.
State Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, said she plans to introduce a bill during the next legislative session to outlaw synthetic marijuana in the state. Ten other states have done the same.
But Fedora contends Duluth can’t afford to bide its time in hopes the state will step up to the plate.
“I don’t want to wait for the state to do something. It’s my preference that Duluth gets a jump-start on this issue,” he said.
Fedora also said his ordinance is an opportunity for Duluth to send a message.
“If the state’s fourth-largest city takes this step, I’m hopeful it will provide some sort of momentum for others,” he said.
Cheryl Berg will drive 170 miles from her Augusta, Wis., home so she can offer encouragement to the City Council tonight as it takes up Fedora’s resolution.
She wants to make sure no other family goes through what hers has. Her 25-year-old son, Jason Bell, has been institutionalized in a mental-health unit for the past few months after binging on K2 — a popular brand of synthetic marijuana.
“I felt compelled to do something, because I don’t want to see anyone else hurt. This stuff does not belong on the street,” she said.
“This poison needs to be stopped before it hurts any more families or any more kids,” said Rick Bell, Jason’s father.
Lukasavitz said synthetic marijuana use is growing dramatically. He noted that just 13 hospitalizations related to the use of synthetic marijuana were reported in 2009, as compared with about 700 nationally this year. A 3-gram package of synthetic marijuana sells for about $25 locally.
Lukasavitz said synthetic marijuana typically is three to five times more potent than the naturally grown drug.
The synthetic drug affects individuals in different ways but has been known to cause the heart to race and to produce severe anxiety. In some cases, heart attacks, seizures and hallucinations have been reported.
Councilor Kerry Gauthier said he plans to support the proposed ordinance, especially after witnessing the effects of K2 on a neighbor boy who “got loud and angry” after smoking the stuff.
“It’s about protecting our community,” Gauthier said. “We need to step in until the state does something to stop this.”
Synthetic marijuana has enjoyed much success in part because it doesn’t register on conventional drug tests.
Tests for the substance have since been developed but remain very expensive.
Whereas a test for marijuana use costs about $5 to $10, screening for synthetic marijuana costs about $140 a pop, Lukasavitz said.
The active agent in synthetic marijuana can be a variety of compounds, with JWH-018 and JWH-073 being two of the most common. These synthetic agents are sprayed on herbal leaves which serve as a carrier, and they are released and usually inhaled during combustion. The drug was developed by John W. Huffman, an organic chemist at Clemson University, who hoped it could be used as an appetite stimulant for people who were having trouble eating because of treatments such as chemotherapy.
Those efforts were eventually abandoned, but the easily-synthesized and inexpensive-to-make drug quickly found a secondary recreational market.
Duluth Police Lt. Steve Stracek said several local retailers carry synthetic marijuana products, which are marketed under a variety of names, including K2, Spice, Bayou Blaster, Spike Gold, Yucatan Fire, Armageddon and Judgement Day (sic).
He said that while local vendors have adopted an in-store policies to sell synthetic marijuana only to patrons 18 and older, there is nothing in the law to keep the product, which is marketed as “incense,” from being purchased by minors.
Stracek supports Fedora’s resolution, saying: “If our community were to condone this, young people would think it was OK.”