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Lawmakers eye nine ways to reduce synthetic drugs

Lynn Habhegger of Carlton tells a state House committee Wednesday about her son, who suffered a heart attack and experienced other health problems after ingesting bath salts in June 2011. Don Davis | Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — Minnesota legislators are ready to take another stab at curtailing the use of synthetic drugs.

A House committee established to look at the problem issued nine recommendations Wednesday for the Legislature to consider when it begins its annual session Feb. 25. They range from giving the state Pharmacy Board more control over the ever-changing synthetic drug situation to ordering more education about the danger of products such as bath salts and synthetic marijuana.

“It will take a family, it will take a village, a state and country,” Lynn M. Habhegger of Carlton told the committee about what is needed to fix the problem. “It will take you and me.”

Habhegger’s son, Corey Kellis, now 27, took bath salts at least three times nearly three years ago. With tears in her eyes, she told committee members he had a heart attack and other health issues and now is committed to a mental health facility.

Kellis always will be “a burden” on society, she said, and his care will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Lt. Brad Penas of the Moorhead Police Department said the committee’s recommendation will help his community, even though it is handing synthetic drugs better than most.

“Any support we can get will be beneficial to us in the future,” Penas said.

Committee Chairman Erik Simonson, D-Duluth, went through the nine steps the committee proposes the Legislature pass, saying they should help law enforcement officers and prosecutors slow the use of synthetic drugs:

•Expand the definition of drugs, giving the Pharmacy Board specific authority to deal with synthetic drugs.

• Allow the board to order businesses to stop selling synthetic drugs.

• Give the board permanent authority to deal with the compounds instead of the temporary authority it now works under.

• Let the board decide what synthetic drugs should be banned, without requiring specific legislative approval for each one; lawmakers, however, could overturn any board decision.

• Create a pilot project that trains prosecutors on how to best prosecute synthetic drug cases.

• Fund the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension work in testing synthetic drugs.

• Improve the state’s effort to teach Minnesotans about dangers of the drugs.

• Require appropriate legislative committees to review drug abuse programs annually.

• Work with federal officials to encourage more nationwide efforts against synthetic drugs.

Simonson said he did not expect to ask for much money to fund the changes this year, but that would likely be an issue in 2015.

The chairman said the laws his committee proposes would slow down synthetic drug use. However, he said, many users may just turn to the Internet to buy products.

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson and Simonson said the Internet is tough to regulate. Swanson said increasing public awareness should reduce Internet purchases.

Swanson said synthetic drugs, often made in other countries, are dangerous and their chemical compositions vary from day to day.

“You never know what you are taking,” she said.

Retail shops around the state, many in areas outside the Twin Cities, legally have sold products called bath salts, K2, spice and other words that do not give an indication of their danger, Swanson said. Laws since 2011 have made some of the products illegal, but minor chemical changes allow them to reappear on shelves.

Simonson said he just had obtained a report by the University of Minnesota Duluth that indicated one hospital trauma center, which he did not identify, treated 75 patients who used synthetic drugs in a year. Costs for the facility to help the patients ran $425,000.

A quarter of the patients arrived at the hospital via ambulance, with 44 percent coming with police. Twenty-three percent of the patients stayed at least four days in the intensive care unit.

One of the problems is people see synthetic drugs sold in the open around their communities.

“When people can buy it in a store, people think it is safe,” said Rep. Dan Schoen, D-St. Paul Park.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.