In Duluth, synthetic pot users get high and don't hide it

On a mild Tuesday morning this month, 21-year-olds Cody Anderson and his fiance?, Sara Slaviero, pushed their baby stroller and 20-month-old son, Kaiden, past the Last Place on Earth and stood in line with about a dozen others before the downtown...

Lighting up at Lake Place Park
Troy O'Hara (right) lights up a pipe filled with No Name synthetic marijuana in Lake Place Park on a recent October morning. O'Hara said he spends about $16 a day for the product. At left is TJ Thilmany. (Bob King /

On a mild Tuesday morning this month, 21-year-olds Cody Anderson and his fianceé, Sara Slaviero, pushed their baby stroller and 20-month-old son, Kaiden, past the Last Place on Earth and stood in line with about a dozen others before the downtown Duluth head shop opened.

They were waiting to buy synthetic marijuana.

The drug has been at the center of controversy in the city, the state and country as lawmakers and enforcement agencies look for ways to stop its use and as businesses continue to try to sell it.

Because she's several months pregnant, Slaviero said she'll smoke cigarettes but won't smoke the synthetic drug labeled as "incense" or "potpourri." After she went inside to buy it, she came out and walked with Anderson and two other friends, one pushing a 2-year-old in a stroller, about three blocks to Lake Place Park.

Anderson sat down, took out a knife and dug out burnt remnants of the synthetic drugs from the last time he used his glass pipe, pulled out a vial of what smelled like tobacco mixed with children's cough syrup, shoved the contents into his pipe, lit it and, as his son kicked his leg in his stroller just a few feet away, got high.


He passed it to his friend, 25-year-old Ashley Effinger, who took a few hits from the pipe and a few minutes later sat in a dazed state.

Anderson said he doesn't believe that his judgment is impaired when he's high.

"I feel that I'm not doing anything wrong," Anderson said. "My son is getting fresh air; if he needs his diaper changed, I can do that for him. If he needs something to eat or drink, I can get that for him. I just feel ... my mind feels mellow. I kind of feel like a ball of goo."

It is a scene that plays itself out hour after hour at the park, from early in the morning until evening when the Last Place closes. Customers buy the incense and walk the few blocks to smoke it at the scenic park, which is surrounded by trees and offers a breathtaking view of Lake Superior and Canal Park. Occasionally, a police officer or Clean and Safe Team Member will go through to try to break up the drug use. But mostly the users are left undisturbed and get high, even as Duluth police cameras are mounted on light poles only a few feet away.

When they're done, many users return to the store. If they don't have money to buy more drugs, they often panhandle, said Mark Kovach, who himself was panhandling outside the store one day recently.

It's either that, Kovach said, or be a vulture -- wait in the park and try to get hits off someone who has the drug.

"At least I get off my ass and panhandle," he said. "But this is getting tough. I've got to get a job."

'The craziest high'


Many of the people who buy synthetic drugs from the Last Place said they don't have jobs. Anderson said he's taking online classes through Lake Superior College to one day be an elementary school teacher. In the meantime, he's homeless, couch-hopping to find a place to sleep, "or I just walk the streets at night if I need to."

"I've had to do that many nights in a row," he said.

He said he's looking for work, but with a two-year-old theft conviction on his record, "a lot of people won't hire you for dumb reasons," he said.

His fianceé, Slaverio, said she's also studying at LSC in hopes of becoming an ultrasound technician. She has an apartment through the nonprofit agency that helps struggling teens and young adults, Life House, which she said doesn't allow Anderson to stay with her.

She said she gets money from her parents and government assistance; Anderson gets his money from government assistance and donating plasma.

"I'm helping out the community," he said, laughing.

Donating plasma can generate about $60 a week, said 34-year-old Troy O'Hara, money that he said he puts toward the synthetic drugs that he smokes "every day." Like many others, he said he's also used his EBT card -- government assistance money -- withdrawn money from an ATM, and used it to buy the drugs.

He estimates he buys at least one tube of the drugs a day at about $16 a pop.


O'Hara said he's tried numerous other drugs in the past -- marijuana, cocaine, heroin -- and he compared the high that comes from synthetics as weaker than the others. The effect of the synthetics varies depending on what he smokes.

Last Place's cheapest drug and one of its most popular, called No Name, "gives a stimulant feeling mixed with being stoned," O'Hara said. Another of the most popular drugs, Smokin' Camel -- which comes in a variety of flavors, some having the aroma of candy -- "is just like being stoned."

"You don't get the stimulant like you do with the No Name," O'Hara said.

Anderson said it's as close to real marijuana as anything he's tried.

"When my girlfriend and I fight, it helps me a lot," he said. "It helps calm me down. When I hit it, it brings my mind to a whole different area."

To 18-year-old Tayon Walker, being high on Smokin' Camel is like "I'm on a cloud," he said a few minutes after lighting up at Lake Place Park. "I'm smiling right now. I'm relaxed."

At home in his Central Hillside apartment, he said, he wakes up about 15 to 20 minutes before his 9-month-old daughter does and gets high.

"The first high of the day is the craziest high," he said.


Walker said he doesn't worry about the effect that his getting high has on his daughter.

"I don't have it around her. I do it outside," he said. "I don't do it around her. It's never hurt her, and it never will."

'Reality is bubbles'

Walker, who lives in Duluth and is from St. Cloud, said he's never had anything go wrong after using the drugs he's gotten at Last Place, but not everyone can say that.

The first time 17-year-old Taylor Janisch got high, she said, she had to go to the hospital for what she described as a severe panic attack after taking several hits of Smokin' Camel.

"I found myself at the front of the Holiday Center," she said. "Eventually, my boyfriend showed up and said, 'We should take you to the hospital.' "

Janisch said she's a Denfeld student who often skips school to hang out with her friends in front of the Last Place and Lake Place Park. She said she smoked synthetic drugs a few times at the beginning of the year but didn't become a habitual user until about a month ago, despite being taken to the hospital.

"Everything is bubbles. Reality is bubbles, and everything is moving around," she said of being on the drug.


Anderson said he's never had a problem with his synthetic of choice -- Smokin' Camel -- but he has had problems with No Name. He's seen people vomit, have seizures and get rushed to the hospital. He once got sick on No Name -- but only after smoking 39 grams of it in a 24-hour period for his 21st birthday.

Allen Wever said he's tried almost all forms of synthetic drugs sold from Last Place. He compared one of the drugs, called Red Bull, to acid, or LSD.

"It was like I was tripping out, getting chased by someone," he said, describing how he ran from one part of Lake Place Park to another, jumping over tables. "It was like I was making a movie."

Faster, cheaper

Most synthetic marijuana users said they'd rather buy real drugs -- but there are benefits, for lack of a better word, to buying the imitations from the Last Place or ordering them on the Internet.

It's safer than buying from a drug dealer, the users said, and cheaper and quicker to buy from the local store, where a gram costs about $5. Online it can cost $15 or more.

And after buying it at the Last Place, they can quickly get high among a group of friends.

"We don't get out of control," Janisch said. "We just laugh a lot."


Perhaps more importantly, the drugs have exploded in popularity because many of the users said they're on probation or work at jobs with drug testing and can't get caught with the real marijuana in their system.

There are drug tests to catch the synthetics, but they cost about three times as much as regular tests, said Dennis Cummings, the program director for Duluth Bethel, which specializes in work release for jail and prison inmates re-entering society. And a user has to be specially tested for the synthetics in his or her system.

Jen Wright, who oversees probation officers as a senior supervisor with Arrowhead Regional Corrections, said her agency is "seeing a dramatic increase in synthetic use."

"We are concerned with the potential medical and psychological effects of the synthetics," she said, "as well as how this drug is not just a gateway drug, but rather a drug whose addictive qualities and side-effects are on par with methamphetamines and cocaine."

None of the users interviewed at the Last Place on Earth were concerned about the effects the drugs are having on them.

"The marijuana dealers are going out of business," said Anderson, who took another hit from his glass pipe as his son played in a grassy field at Lake Place Park. "I know a lot of dealers that are using the synthetic stuff now."

When asked if he worries that the drug use will harm his son, Anderson doesn't hesitate with a response. He said he doesn't smoke inside with him, and he'll stop doing it in front of his son once he can comprehend what his father is doing.

"It's not harming me, my son or my fiancé in any way," he said. "I feel we should promote it. I feel that it's legal. I'm going to be the number-one supporter of it."

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