Duluth city councilor seeks to license sales of synthetic drugsA Duluth City Council member is working on new ordinances that would regulate businesses that sell synthetic drugs while punishing people who consume them.
By: Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune
A Duluth City Council member is working on new ordinances that would regulate businesses that sell synthetic drugs while punishing people who consume them.
Councilor Sharla Gardner plans to introduce the seemingly contradictory ordinances at Tuesday’s council meeting. One would set fines for people caught using synthetic drugs, but the other would allow businesses to apply for a license to sell the very same products. Police say they approve of the approach. The goal is to better regulate the products since efforts to ban them so far have proven largely ineffective.
“At this point, anyone can open up one of these establishments almost anywhere, and we have enough trouble already dealing with the fallout from an existing operation,” Gardner said, referring to Last Place on Earth, a Duluth head shop that’s been the source of repeated complaints.
Particularly in light of the large profits being made from the sale of synthetic drugs, Gardner said she worries about a local proliferation of shops trafficking in the products.
Her ordinance would prohibit sales of synthetic drugs within 500 feet of any park, school, day care facility or any area zoned residential or mixed-use neighborhood. Businesses already selling synthetic drugs in those areas would be allowed to obtain a license to continue the practice.
City Attorney Gunnar Johnson said despite the restrictions, “there are a lot of places where these businesses could still be located.”
“In our minds, the proposed restrictions are very reasonable,” he said.
Gardner proposes to charge a $140 annual licensing fee for businesses selling synthetic drugs, in keeping with what the city charges cigarette retailers. Prospective licensees would be required to disclose any criminal convictions, other than traffic violations, as well.
The ordinance would require that all synthetic drugs be clearly labeled with information about the ingredients they contain. The manufacturer, packer and distributor of each product would need to be disclosed, with contact information provided as well.
“We hear all the time from physicians and first responders, who are the heroes out there doing everything they can to save lives, that they cannot identify the chemicals people have taken when they misuse these synthetic drug products,” Gardner said. “They don’t know the antidotes to help people, and it’s a big frustration.”
The proposed ordinance would limit the hours of operation to between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. It also would forbid the sale of synthetic products to anyone younger than 21.
Jim Carlson, owner of Last Place on Earth, said he currently requires anyone purchasing synthetic drugs to be at least 18, which is the legal smoking age, and questioned the need for stricter age limitations.
Synthetic drugs often are marketed as products such as incense, bath salts or watch cleaners labeled “not for human consumption.”
Gardner’s second ordinance goes after anyone who smokes, snorts, ingests or injects any product labeled as not fit for human consumption.
“It will give our local police another tool to go after people who are using these drugs in public places,” she said.
First-time offenders could be slapped with a $100 ticket and an $80 surcharge. Subsequent offenses would result in stiffer fines.
Duluth Chief of Police Gordon Ramsay said Gardner’s ordinance is similar to one already on the books to combat the practice of huffing, or inhaling intoxicating fumes, for a quick high.
“We’ve used that ordinance successfully in the past, and I don’t see why this wouldn’t work as well,” he said.
Gardner said there’s nothing particularly unusual about the idea of licensing and regulating the sale of synthetic drugs. She noted that the city regulates many other businesses, including food trucks, liquor stores and cigarette retailers.
“We also license people who keep chickens or bees. We’re basically talking about public safety here,” Gardner said.
But Carlson said if Gardner’s ordinances are passed they will send contradictory messages, making the use of synthetics essentially illegal, while also licensing the sale of the same products. Carlson contends that the products Last Place on Earth sells are completely legal, and the city would essentially be recognizing that with any license it issues.
“They’re not going to license a crack or a heroin dealer,” he said.
But Ramsay takes a different view.
“This is not about saying these products are legitimate or OK,” he said. “We’re trying to deal with the devastating consequences of living next door to what may be the largest synthetic drug retailer in the nation.”
Carlson, his son, girlfriend and a former shop employee face more than 50 federal criminal counts of distributing controlled substances, following repeated raids and undercover sting operations.
But Carlson maintains the products his shop has carried all contained formulations that were legal at the time.
“If they convict me, I’m looking at up to 400 years in jail. They’ve seized more than $1 million in cash and accounts. They’ve taken my phones, my computers and my guns. It just seems so un-American,” he said. “It reminds me of the old pornography wars.”