Owner: New law won't stop fake-pot sales at Duluth store

Although a new state law designed to crack down on sales of synthetic marijuana will take effect Aug. 1, Jim Carlson, owner of the Duluth head shop Last Place on Earth, expects it will have little effect on his sales of those products.

Last Place on Earth
Customers gather on the sidewalk in front of the Last Place on Earth in Duluth on Sunday morning. Many are waiting to buy synthetic marijuana from the store. A new state law goes into effect Aug. 1 that will make the sale of synthetic drugs illegal. (Clint Austin /

Although a new state law designed to crack down on sales of synthetic marijuana will take effect Aug. 1, Jim Carlson, owner of the Duluth head shop Last Place on Earth, expects it will have little effect on his sales of those products.

The new law adds 20 chemicals to a list of prohibited substances, but Carlson said: "When one gets banned, they'll switch to a new one."

In addition to expanding the number of products classified as illegal, the new state regulations will increase the penalty for selling certain compounds designed to mimic the effects of controlled substances. People selling such products today can be charged with a gross misdemeanor, but as of Aug. 1, a salesperson could be prosecuted as a felon and sentenced to five years of imprisonment.

Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, wrote the bill, which is about to become state law, and said it was crafted only after consultation with law enforcement officials, prosecutors and the state pharmacy board. The soon-to-be-implemented law is now considered a national model, Reinert said. And the new law will allow the state pharmacy board to add new compounds to its list of banned products on an ongoing basis, subject to approval by the Minnesota Legislature.

But Carlson explained that the profits are too high for a multi-billion-dollar industry to simply go away.


"I think the chemists are just going to keep coming up with new stuff," he said.

Reinert said he's not surprised that Carlson intends to stay the course as long as possible, given the profits he has garnered from sales of synthetic marijuana.

"He's been a terrible neighbor to folks who have been in that part of our downtown for a long time, and that's because of his total disregard for the good of the community as well as the health of the people he's selling to," Reinert said.

Duluth Mayor Don Ness contends the clientele drawn to the Last Place on Earth, 120 E. Superior St., and the increased use of synthetic drugs in nearby public places has tarnished the image of Duluth's Old Downtown. He noted that a 2012 community-wide survey indicated that only 24 percent of residents said they felt safe after dark downtown -- as compared with 33 percent in 2011.

"We lost a bunch of the progress we'd made downtown since 2010," Ness said. "I think that's mostly because of the Last Place on Earth, and that's clearly an issue we've been dedicating a lot of resources to."

Carlson says his clientele includes cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, as well as others dealing with conditions including Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, arthritis and Crohn's disease. He said discontinuing local sales of synthetic marijuana would deny relief to people who use the product to help deal with those medical issues.

Heidi Swan, who was waiting outside Last Place on Earth when it opened Sunday, said she uses synthetic marijuana to cope with an eating disorder.

"I'm very worried the new laws could shut them down. This is the only store where I can come and get what I need," she said.


New federal law

In September of last year, the city executed a raid on the head shop, seizing synthetic drug products, more than $83,000 in cash and 28 guns. But no charges have yet been filed against Carlson, who says that by and large the items confiscated have nothing to do with illegal drugs.

Carlson said many of the products seized last year were legal for sale at the time but will be made illegal by the new Aug. 1 law, and he intends to seek compensation if he is no longer able to sell the merchandise.

"You can't just seize something, then sit on it and wait for it to become illegal," he said of the changing legal landscape.

Earlier this year, State District Court Judge Shaun Floerke denied Carlson's legal motion that the evidence police seized while executing their search warrant be returned. Police said they were continuing to investigate the items taken from the store.

Carlson said he is less concerned about the impact of the pending Aug. 1 state law than a federal law set to take effect Oct. 1. He said his attorney, Randall Tigue, has advised him to discontinue sales of synthetic marijuana as of October, even as he prepares to challenge the broadly worded federal law.

As for the dangers of synthetic marijuana, Carlson contends they're largely overblown.

"I'm a firm believer it's not as harmful as a lot of people portray it to be," he said.


Nevertheless, if Carlson had his druthers, he'd be out of the synthetic marijuana business for good.

"I'd much rather sell natural, organic marijuana than this stuff," he said, noting sadly that the nation seems unprepared to legalize pot any time soon.

Carlson said he's not ready to back down yet. But Reinert said the head shop can expect to face pressure from state, federal and local officials alike as the new laws take effect.

"He should realize how many forces are at play," Reinert said of Carlson. "The world is not going to change on Aug. 1, but Mr. Carlson should recognize that in the current environment, it's not only a buyer-beware world but a seller-beware world."

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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