Our view: Duluth has been left standing alone in the battle to purge the scourge of synthetic drugsIn the battle against dangerous synthetics, the attorney general in North Dakota issued a cease-and-desist order on the sales of incense, bath salts and other products misused and ingested to mimic the highs of marijuana and harder drugs. In Indiana and Illinois, the attorneys general partnered with retailers and impacted communities to purge the scourge of synthetics.
In the battle against dangerous synthetics, the attorney general in North Dakota issued a cease-and-desist order on the sales of incense, bath salts and other products misused and ingested to mimic the highs of marijuana and harder drugs. In Indiana and Illinois, the attorneys general partnered with retailers and impacted communities to purge the scourge of synthetics.
And in Minnesota?
“I’m not aware of (Attorney General Lori Swanson’s) efforts — if there have been any,” Duluth Mayor Don Ness said in an interview with the News Tribune Opinion page. “I can tell you, a little bit of support can go a long way toward helping. We’ve tried to bring it to her attention and to her staff’s attention. We’ve seen other attorneys general across the country take very active roles and be very effective on this.”
The efforts in Minnesota have been markedly different for very good reasons, each of them only further fueling the frustrations of Ness, Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay, St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin and others on the front line — and often feeling alone on the front line — of Minnesota’s synthetics struggles.
“I’m convinced if this problem was in downtown Minneapolis or downtown St. Paul it would have much more urgency for leaders at the statewide level,” Ness said. “This is one of the most significant legal issues facing our state, with huge impacts on our community and small business owners. So it would be nice to see greater involvement from the attorney general in at least assisting our efforts in Duluth.”
The state hasn’t been entirely silent on synthetics, of course, even as crowds gather at the downtown Duluth Last Place on Earth head shop, even as the stuff sold there is smoked or otherwise used on the Lakewalk and elsewhere in plain view of tourists and the public, even as police officers patrol virtually nonstop, and even as hospitals treat patient after patient to the point where nurses at one Duluth medical center disparagingly refer to their psych floor as “Bath Salts and Beyond.”
Over the past two years the Minnesota Legislature has passed bills to outlaw the more mind-altering and more dangerous ingredients and chemical compounds found in the products being sold. But that’s been quite easy for manufacturers and sellers to “get around,”
state Rep. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, told the Opinion page.
“They simply change the make-up of what they’re selling a little bit,” he said. “Such laws don’t seem to be very effective.” All over the country alterations are made as quickly as laws can be written. Lawmakers clearly are losing this game of Whack-a-Mole.
But the game isn’t over, and lawmakers in Indiana and Illinois have a promising new approach. They outlawed specific ingredients and chemical compounds, too, but then they went further. They also banned unspecified ingredients and compounds that have the same effects on users as those listed. “Lookalike substances,” Rep. Simonson called them.
“Regardless of what ingredients you use, if it looks like a duck and smells like a duck, it’s a duck. And it’s illegal,” he said.
Simonson introduced a bill in St. Paul this session to outlaw lookalikes. His bill also called for investing in education about the dangerous realities of synthetics with nonprofits taking the lead.
Unfortunately — and despite a hearing before a public safety committee that featured Chief Ramsay and others from Duluth — Simonson’s bill didn’t gain much traction. The House is expected to establish a subcommittee, but Simonson was left only able to pledge to bring his legislation back next year.
Lawmakers from elsewhere in the state whose communities aren’t facing the same sorts of problems as Duluth were confused by and skeptical of this year’s legislative attempt. And they lack the same sense of urgency as Northland lawmakers, said Duluth’s state Sen. Roger Reinert, who introduced a companion to Simonson’s bill.
“Didn’t we just deal with this?” they asked, according to Reinert, a fellow DFLer. “Shouldn’t we give the laws we just passed more time to see if they prove effective?”
“If this is a route we want to pursue again next session we have to do more homework — because we’re it. There aren’t a lot of other communities with this problem,” Reinert said in an interview with the Opinion page. “I would love our attorney general to get engaged on the issue. I’ve mentioned it to her staff. … But it just hasn’t happened yet at this point. Everyone else has been willing to be proactive, and I’d love to see that from our attorney general, as well.”
But Minnesota hasn’t given its attorney general and attorney general’s office the same powers and authorities as other states have, Minnesota Deputy Attorney General David S. Voigt explained in a May 3 letter to Mayor Ness that was obtained by the News Tribune Opinion page.
As one example, the attorney general’s office in Minnesota can’t legally issue a cease-and-desist order like the attorney general’s office did in North Dakota.
“As you know this office does not have the jurisdiction to prosecute criminal offenses,” Voigt wrote. Cities have jurisdiction over misdemeanors, and counties have jurisdiction over felonies.
“I should note that this office has no authority over executive branch state agencies,” Voigt continued. “These agencies are headed by gubernatorial appointees who do not report to this office.”
So what can the state attorney general’s office do for Duluth and other Minnesota communities on this matter? Not much, according to Voigt.
But here’s one thing: The state attorney general could be more vocal and could be a stronger, more visible presence in the battle against dangerous synthetics. She could sound a far louder alarm than Duluth can all by itself. And she could at least stand with us, shoulder-to-shoulder, sharing our frustrations and our desires to keep constituents and streets safe.
A few meetings and a four-page letter isn’t strong enough leadership.
“Attorneys general in other states have been the strongest advocates at their capitols to get the laws passed that are necessary to prosecute on this issue,” Mayor Ness said. “An attorney general is an extremely powerful and influential voice.”
But only if that voice is used in an effective way.