With Duluth head shop closed, synthetics grow scarce

Jim Carlson told people over and over again that he wasn't the problem. Shut down his store, Last Place on Earth, and synthetic drugs still will stream through Duluth, he said.

Last Place on Earth
The Last Place on Earth building stands silent recently, still draped in a "Free Jim Carlson" banner. The building is among Carlson's assets sought by the federal government after his conviction on multiple charges related to the sale of synthetic drugs. (Bob King /

Jim Carlson told people over and over again that he wasn't the problem. Shut down his store, Last Place on Earth, and synthetic drugs still will stream through Duluth, he said.

"Now they're on every corner, and the cops know it," Carlson told the News Tribune in August, just a month after his store was closed for what many hope is forever. "They've made it worse because now it's everywhere."

Only it isn't.

That's what police were saying nearly three months after Carlson's shop was closed.

Soon after his Oct. 7 conviction, police were confident they had a firm handle on the synthetic drug problem.


"Do we see a difference?" Duluth Deputy Police Chief Mike Tusken asked rhetorically a week after the conviction. "Absolutely."

The head of the department's east community policing area, Lt. Eric Rish, said the "availability and price" offered at the store made synthetic use explode in the city. Now that those factors are gone, use is down, he said.

Synthetic use is still out there, Rish said, but the events of the past few months have cut into their impact. Public awareness of the health dangers of synthetics also has helped, he said.

In the area around the store where police were focused on tracking crimes, calls about drunken people actually spiked as synthetics calls were down. But Tusken said calls about drunks are much easier to deal with. Disturbances related to synthetics use are "more pronounced and disturbing," he said.

Across the spectrum

St. Louis County Jail administrators have told Duluth police that behaviors in the jail are dramatically different, "not as agitated," Tusken said.

Much like what hospitals in Duluth are doing, police are tracking encounters with synthetics users. In responding to calls, police try to sift information from people on whether or not they are on synthetics, Tusken said.

Calls for service involving synthetics in the 105 days before Last Place was closed totaled 495 across the city, from April to July 19. In the same number of days after closure, to Oct. 31, the number of calls was 160, a drop of more than 65 percent. Chris Delp, an emergency room doctor at St. Luke's hospital, reports a "huge decrease" in the number of screaming, agitated and psychotic patients coming into the emergency room almost from the day Last Place on Earth was closed.


Tusken said he cringed when watching pedestrians cross over Superior Street twice to avoid the "gauntlet" in front of Last Place.

"You don't see that anymore," he said. "We really had to baby-sit that block."

On Oct. 16, Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay posted on his Facebook page more evidence of the changes since the store was closed.

"For about the last 20 months I had received a weekly report on all synthetic drug-related police calls with details," Ramsay wrote. "For the first time since I have been receiving them, it is less than one full page. Prior to mid-July it was often 15-20 pages long."

But the work isn't done. Just last week, Ramsay said heroin and prescription drug abuse continue to rise in the city.

Off the street

Deb Holman, a street outreach worker for CHUM, knows as much about Duluth street life as police on the beat.

She agreed with the assessment that synthetics use is down dramatically.


"We're not having the same problems at CHUM," she said of the emergency shelter in downtown Duluth.

There are problems with people on synthetics "once in a while," she said, compared to a "daily basis" while Last Place was open.

"It's a lot different. People I work with have quit doing it."

People are still using other drugs, she said, but it can be difficult to know which ones. She suspects that methamphetamine use has shot up.

But she came to know behaviors of people using synthetics. Never shy of approaching people on the street, she became skittish around certain behaviors.

"It made me back up from people," she said, adding that synthetics users are "unpredictable. You don't know what's coming next."

She said many people started using on the assumption that plant materials sprayed with chemicals was a cheaper and less detectable alternative to marijuana use.

"They don't realize it's just some rotten chemicals," she said.


She's glad to see many people have quit using synthetics, calling them "the lucky ones" if they didn't suffer permanent damage.

She said a lot more work has to be done to inform people about the health risks associated with the drugs.

"We need to reach kids in school," she said.

Mike, a 20-something recovering addict, said he used to hang around the city like a "zombie" when he was abusing synthetics.

Mike, who has been clean for 10 months and asked that his last name be withheld, said that while he's struggled with addiction all his life, synthetics brought him to a new level of dysfunction. Eventually he was sleeping in skywalks downtown.

"Nothing has done stuff to me like synthetics," he said. "It was like crack. I'd do anything, give anything to get it."

He started using when a friend introduced him to the substances three years ago, about the same time that sales at Carlson's shop began to rise. When he quit using, he said it was difficult to stay clean because so many people around him were using.

"Getting off was pretty rocky," he said. "I'm still apologizing to people."


Moving sales?

Synthetics still can be purchased elsewhere in the Northland, most notably at two shops in Virginia. But after a run at those places that began shortly after Last Place closed, sales have ebbed, Tusken said.

Charles Baribeau, a city council member in Virginia, said there was a "definite influx" of customers after Last Place closed. The Virginia City Council created an ordinance that went into force in late October. It bans the sale and possession of synthetics. The council also passed a public nuisance law that will deal with the behavior associated with the drugs, such as panhandling.

Public outcry and the looming laws have cut into the business at the two shops in the city, Baribeau said.

"Our police department will really start hammering on them," he said.

Several Iron Range cities have passed ordinances similar to those in Duluth that regulate or ban synthetics sales outright, even cities that don't have shops that sell them within city limits.

After the store in Duluth was closed, police observed regular customers discussing pooling money to drive to the Range for synthetics. Some people went as far as buying some synthetics in bulk and tried reselling them out of a house. Duluth police quickly shut that operation down.

Baribeau said police in Virginia witnessed such large buys.


"It was obvious," he said. "They knew they were distributing. But that traffic has been cut down."


More people think downtown is safer without synthetics customers lingering about, Rish said.

Kristi Stokes, president of the Greater Downtown Council, said the mood is optimistic on East Superior Street.

"A weight has been taken off," she said. "Now we can focus on the positives."

Her group recently released a survey of employees along with business and property owners downtown. It showed that out of 157 respondents in mid-September, 38 percent felt downtown was safer while 21 percent thought it was less safe. Forty percent thought safety was unchanged.

Many of the comments attached to surveys show that lingering problems still exist in other parts of downtown. They cited loitering and panhandling at the transit center near the Holiday Inn, along First Street and at the Minnesota Power Plaza on Lake Avenue and Superior Street.

Many complained that parking remains a problem, an indicator that crime associated with synthetics sales has taken a back seat on the minds of people downtown.

Tusken admits it's been nice for the department to "catch its breath" while the store has been closed and Carlson has gone through the court system. But the "constant work" remains to rid the city of the synthetics problem, he said.

"We'll watch synthetic-related activity closely," he said. "The last thing we're going to do is fall asleep at the wheel."

Getting help

Duluth police wouldn't wish the effort they made to shut down Last Place on any force. Tusken said the department has been worn down not only by patrolling East Superior Street, but by working with state and federal agencies on the Carlson criminal cases.

"I don't know what you'd do in a smaller city," Tusken said.

He said many people have been watching the Duluth struggle for tips on how they might deal with synthetics.

"Everyone looked at us and said, 'We're glad that's not us,' " he said. "It's more, 'Let's watch what happens in Duluth.' "

Rish and Tusken said they hope state and federal lawmakers find ways to regulate synthetics that are less arduous for police.

"Build a law that's prosecutable," Rish said.

Too often, police have to discern one molecule in the chemicals sprayed on the leafy matter that people buy and sell. That's the science that played a large part of Carlson's federal trial and went right over the jury members' heads, one juror told the News Tribune after the verdict came down.

That juror said the verdict hinged on mislabeling products, not on whether the drugs were legal or not.

Tusken shrugged his shoulders and jokingly talked about the "good old days of coke" and other traditional illicit drugs, meaning the time when officers could test drugs at the scene of a bust and determine what it was.

"Synthetics? You can't test that on the street," he said.

Scrutiny on the Range

Duluth officials have since been helping other communities deal with synthetics.

Duluth City Attorney Gunnar Johnson met with the Virginia City Council as it worked to craft its synthetics ordinance.

Owners of head shops in Virginia refused to talk on the record for this story.

In Aurora, the owners of Dick's Head Shop said they are feeling the fallout from the Last Place case.

Rene Padget said she's been targeted as a synthetics seller since the Duluth shop closed in July.

"We do not and have not sold synthetics," she said.

She described a product labeled as an air freshener that sat mostly unnoticed for months on a shelf. She said people came looking for it after a television news crew from Duluth purchased the product shortly after Carlson's shop closed, trying to determine how sales had shifted to the Iron Range.

"I never sold what (Carlson) sold," Padget said. "There was no misuse of our products until the media came."

The mayor of Aurora and the St. Louis County Sheriff's Office said there is no definitive proof that Dick's has sold illegal products.

Mayor Mary Hess said that despite that, the city doesn't want even the appearance of sales.

The city unanimously passed a new ordinance outlawing what it calls "drug paraphernalia" in an effort to "deter the use of controlled substances" in Aurora. It's modeled after laws in Moorhead and other cities in Minnesota.

While head shop owners have decried the laws, saying the laws target them to drive them out of business, courts have upheld the ordinances.

"You own a smoke shop, they go after you," Padget said.

She said the uptick in customers at her store is the result of the new cigarette tax in Minnesota. More people are purchasing tobacco in bulk and rolling their own cigarettes to avoid paying up to $8 a pack.

"Traffic in Aurora has increased," said Jon Skelton, the supervising deputy in the Virginia sheriff's office. He lives in Aurora.

Skelton said he can't say if Dick's has sold synthetics, but the department has been "watching them close."

Mayor Hess said the new ordinance "doesn't ban drugs, but we're still working on things. It's awful stuff."

Padget had deputies come in to do an inventory of her store before the paraphernalia ordinance goes into effect Nov. 12. Banned products include glass pipes, hookahs, roach clips and bongs.

Padget said she's had a hard time getting the sheriff's office to act on complaints that her shop has been vandalized and that she's gotten threats.

"It's a witch hunt," she said.

All-area effort

The Aurora case is just another example of people trying to avoid the spotlight drawn by Carlson and Duluth.

Baribeau, a pharmacist, said the simple truth is that synthetic drugs are destroying people's lives.

"We were seeing one run a day to Duluth," he said of hospitalizations for users.

If anyone wants to ask, the police department is willing to offer its story, Tusken said.

Superior officials have done so. Douglas County and Superior have passed laws making consumption of synthetics illegal and requiring licenses to sell them.

Duluth used everything in the playbook to get Carlson prosecuted, Tusken said.

"We really didn't have a Plan B," he said of the thought of Carlson walking free from federal and state courts. "We put all the chips into the middle of the table."

The pressure was on, he said, from across the community to have something done about the shop. Police said it would take time and now that patience has paid off, Tusken said.

"Jim was brazen," he said. "Saying it was all legal and lucrative. Now people see a consequence."

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