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Appeals court upholds ruling on Duluth head shop

The Last Place on Earth in Duluth was forced to close last summer. (File / News Tribune)

The Minnesota Court of Appeals issued a ruling Monday upholding Judge Shaun Floerke’s decision to order an infamous Duluth head shop called Last Place on Earth to close its doors last summer. He shut it down after deeming the shop’s sale of synthetic drugs a public nuisance.

“For Duluth, this could signal the end of four years of litigation,” said Nathan LaCoursiere, a member of the City Attorney’s office.

He noted that once the case is resolved, it will put to rest a complicated legal battle that involved eight civil and criminal lawsuits.

Jim Carlson, the proprietor of Last Place on Earth, could still ask the Minnesota Supreme Court to review the case. But his attorney, Randall Tigue, said he has not yet had an opportunity to discuss the decision with his client. Carlson has 30 days to file an appeal.

Tigue called the decision “bizarre,” saying, “They dismissed as moot what they said they were going to decide in this case.”

“There are plenty of grounds to appeal,” Tigue said.

But Carlson also is in the midst of dealing with a slew of federal drug charges.

In October, Carlson,  57, was convicted by a jury on 51 counts of selling synthetic drugs. He awaits an Aug. 14 sentencing hearing and the prospect of 20 to 40 years of imprisonment. His defense team already has announced its intention to appeal the conviction to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Tigue said sentencing memos in that case are due Thursday.

LaCoursiere said in the months since the shop has closed, local emergency room visits, stemming from synthetic drug use, have plummeted, and a formerly distressed portion of Duluth’s downtown has rebounded.

“One year later, the mood is electric compared to what it was before,” he said.

LaCoursiere said Duluth broke new ground in prosecuting Last Place on Earth using the state’s public nuisance statute.

“One of the things I’m most proud of with this decision is that the next time another city or county has to address synthetic drug sales or any other public nuisance, they will now have some strong case law to draw upon. They will not have to relearn some of the hard lessons we learned,” he said.

LaCoursiere said Duluth and other cities have struggled to regulate the sale of synthetic drugs.

“It’s not often that a city finds itself on the front end of an emerging public health threat that state or federal regulators have not already controlled. It forced Duluth to explore new ways to address a situation that was hurting many people every day,” he said.

Last Place on Earth regularly sold synthetic drug products to more than 1,000 people per day, according to LaCoursiere.

Efforts to regulate the sale of synthetic drugs were hobbled by continued chemical modifications of the products that kept manufacturers and retailers a step ahead of enforcement.

“By the time the ink was dry on a product ban, it was obsolete,” LaCoursiere said.

LaCoursiere said he’s optimistic that new powers the Minnesota Legislature granted to the state Board of Pharmacy should give authorities more opportunity to effectively regulate future sales of synthetic drugs in spite of ongoing tweaks.

He also said Carlson’s incarceration should help chill would-be sellers of synthetic drugs.

“I think Mr. Carlson’s conviction sent a very strong message nationwide that the continued retail sale of these products carries with it the potential for some very stiff consequences,” LaCoursiere said.

But closing down shops that sell synthetic drugs won’t put an end to their use.

“There’s still a problem with people buying these products online or through street dealers,” LaCoursiere said.

That’s why LaCoursiere stresses the importance of educating people about the dangers of synthetic drugs.

“Parents, educators and young people need to understand that we’re not talking about fake marijuana here. These synthetic drugs are very different and dangerous, and people really have no idea what they’re ingesting,” he said.

“These drugs are more akin to LSD and methamphetamine, and people really don’t know how it will affect them physically and mentally,” LaCoursiere warned.