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Lawyers split on sentence for Last Place On Earth owner Jim Carlson

Jim Carlson

The federal government this week referred to Last Place on Earth owner Jim Carlson as “arguably the most vocal proponent of synthetic drugs in the United States,” and asked that he serve a minimum of 20 years in prison.

Carlson’s defense attorney, meanwhile, argued that the government is treating Carlson “as if he were Pablo Escobar running a clandestine international drug operation” and said the former head shop owner deserves probation, or no more than three years of imprisonment.

There are striking differences in the sentencing memorandums submitted to the court Thursday, two weeks before Carlson and his girlfriend, Lava Haugen, will be sentenced on federal drug crimes. U.S. District Judge David Doty must pore through the hundreds of pages of arguments and exhibits submitted to the court before he sentences Carlson and Haugen on Aug. 14 in Minneapolis.

The documents reveal that the parties are far apart on issues ranging from trial evidence, to case law, to federal sentencing guidelines. The sentencing hearing is expected to be contentious, with several witnesses taking the stand to testify before Doty determines the punishment for Carlson and Haugen.

The two defendants, along with Carlson’s son, Joseph Gellerman, were convicted by a Minneapolis jury on Oct. 7 after a three-week trial. Carlson was convicted on 51 charges related to the sale of synthetic drugs, product labeling violations and money laundering at the downtown Duluth store, which has been shuttered since July 2013. Haugen was convicted on four counts and Gellerman on two. The 10-month delay in sentencing is largely due to the relatively slim case law in synthetic drug cases, attorneys have said.

The pre-sentence investigation conducted by a federal probation officer puts Carlson’s offense level at 46, which has a guideline sentence of life imprisonment, the U.S. Attorney’s Office noted in its memorandum.

Probation officials calculated the offense level using federal drug equivalency tables to convert the quantities of synthetic drug products sold at Carlson’s store to more traditional substances. Additional points were added to the score for firearm possession, maintaining a drug premises and being the leader and organizer of criminal activity.

“Carlson showed a complete disregard for the health of his customers, the safety of his community, and the laws prohibiting his drug sales,” lead prosecutor Surya Saxena wrote. “He profited off of addiction. He has always been remorseless, and he casts blame on everyone but himself for his current predicament.”

The government noted that Carlson does not have any prior criminal history, but said there are no other synthetic drug cases where a single defendant has been linked to so many emergency room visits and police calls. The government asked that Carlson be sentenced to a minimum of 20 years, noting that the term is in line with a handful of other synthetic drug cases that have been tried in federal court.

“Carlson’s lawfulness for the majority of his life is undercut by the duration and scope of his drug-trafficking in this case,” Saxena wrote. “Carlson had repeated opportunities to cease, slow, or otherwise mitigate his dangerous synthetic drug trade. He would not relent, however, no matter how bad the consequences got.”

Carlson’s attorney, Randall Tigue, fired back at the government in his memorandum, noting U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s support for reductions in prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

“Clearly, this is a case of a nonviolent offender with no prior criminal history, who acted in direct reliance upon repeated assurances from his government that his conduct was lawful,” Tigue wrote. “This is precisely the type of defendant which Attorney General Holder has repeatedly said does not belong in a federal prison for an extended period of time, if at all.”

Tigue, echoing arguments made during the trial, said Carlson made every effort to keep his store’s supply stocked with only legal products. Further, he said, numerous statements from the Drug Enforcement Administration and Minnesota politicians gave Carlson every right to believe that his products were legal.

“(Carlson) was a legitimate businessman, operating openly, charging taxes on his products and paying the taxes to government authorities, in the complete belief that his actions were lawful,” Tigue wrote.

It appears that Haugen’s sentencing also will be contentious, with attorneys debating the role she played in the store’s operation.

The government argued that Haugen had a “significant role” in distributing illegal drugs. She ordered and received the drugs, and then weighed, packaged and labeled them, the memorandum stated. She also worked the counter and took on management duties.

Haugen “turned a blind eye” to the store’s operation and deserves no less than 10 years in prison, the government said.

“Haugen maintained her substantial role in LPOE’s synthetic drug operation though she knew it was dangerous,” Saxena wrote. “Haugen profited greatly as a result of her criminal conduct, and through her relationship with Carlson, the leader of this synthetic drug conspiracy.”

Defense attorneys John Markham and Richard Holmstrom wrote that Haugen regretted her involvement with the Last Place on Earth, where they said her work was limited mostly to bookkeeping and occasional clerking.

The attorneys said Haugen has numerous health issues, including multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia, and should not be put in prison, or should at least be placed in a medical facility.

“Nothing good will come by warehousing this woman, who will never again be in a position to associate with someone who is selling these analogue drugs, the definition of which is debated by highly educated chemists and is obviously beyond

Ms. Haugen’s capacity to comprehend, much less will she sell scheduled controlled substances, the latter being something she has never done,” they wrote.

Defense attorneys have said repeatedly that they will take the case to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after sentencing.