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Synthetic drugs plague Duluth homeless shelter

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DULUTH — The growing use of synthetic drugs is threatening to shred the safety net offered to the city’s most vulnerable residents at a shelter in downtown Duluth, the nonprofit agency’s staff says.

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In the last year, staff members at the CHUM shelter have caught more than 100 people smoking, snorting or injecting synthetic drugs on shelter property, even though clients know such activities mean automatic expulsion for at least two weeks.

Shawn Carr, a support staffer at CHUM who oversees the shelter most nights, considers the growing use of synthetic drugs a stubborn obstacle.

"It pulls us away from our primary mission, which is helping people," he said. "These days, we have to spend so much of our time policing."

CHUM continues to enforce policies of zero-tolerance of drugs, and that hard line has strained relationships at times, according to Carr.

"Some people who I was very friendly with in the past now see me almost as the enemy," he said.

Carr said that during one particularly tough week recently, the shelter kicked out 16 people for using synthetic drugs on its premises.

Shelter resident Josh Mason, who moved to Duluth from Colorado, was surprised by the amount of synthetic drug use he encountered.

"I came to Duluth to get away from that stuff, but it seems like there are even more drugs and junkies here," he said. "People are coming in high all the time, getting in fights and trying to steal from one another. Folks need a safe place to stay, and they’re screwing it up for everyone."

CHUM provided shelter for 1,090 people in 2012, and on a typical night 50 to 60 people sleep there, according to Kim Randolph, stabilization services director.

In addition to snorting and smoking synthetic drugs — often marketed under such bogus labels as incense, bath salts or cleaners — Carr said staff also has found shelter residents mixing powdered synthetics with water and injecting them. As evidence, he pulled a fistful of recently confiscated syringes and an empty packet of Riptide "pipe cleaner" from his office drawer.

Randolph said staff members also have encountered used syringes in bedding.

Sometimes shelter residents share needles, and Randolph said three people in the past five weeks have required hospitalization because of nasty staph infections they developed.

The high from many of these synthetic products typically is not long-lasting, and Randolph said people tend to come down hard with intense cravings for more.

"From what I’ve seen, it’s incredibly addictive," she said.

"With drugs like crack, meth and marijuana, we never had problems quite like this," Randolph said, reflecting on the risky and blatant repeated use of synthetic drugs at the shelter by residents desperate to stay high.

Carr said shelter residents hooked on synthetics have been found attempting to smoke surreptitiously under the covers in their beds or in the bathroom at night.

Kory Knacke, who has been staying at the shelter for the last few weeks, said he has encountered people lighting up synthetics both in the sleeping area and in the restroom at CHUM. But he has remained mum, saying: "I don’t want to narc anybody out and have someone come after me."

Despite his inaction, Knacke said he doesn’t condone the synthetic drug use.

"People are coming here to try and make a better life, and that kind of stuff doesn’t help anyone," he said. "It’s not good for the people using it, or for the people who are not using it but still have to be around it."

Carr said that to maintain the safety of other residents, the shelter turns away anyone who appears at its doors apparently intoxicated — a regular daily occurrence.

Carr lays much of the blame on the Last Place on Earth, a head shop located a few blocks away from the shelter that provides a cheap and convenient supply of synthetic drugs to any willing buyer in the neighborhood.

The owner of the shop, Jim Carlson, was arrested earlier this month to face several federal charges related to the sale of synthetic drug products, resulting in a temporary closure of his business.

"It made a huge difference for us when that shop closed for a week," Carr said. "I think the only real answer to the problems we’re having with synthetic drugs is to take away the supply."

But Carlson, who says the products he sells are legal, has since been released on bond and has resumed business as he awaits his trial.

As for Carr’s contention that the Last Place on Earth is largely responsible for the chemical abuse at CHUM’s shelter, Carlson said: "If it wasn’t for our products, my customers would be using alcohol or crack or heroin."

Carlson said assigning blame is no simple matter.

"If someone is drunk on rum, do you blame it on Bacardi or on the business that sold that bottle? Or do you blame it on the person," he asked.

The fact that many of the shelter’s clients have substance-abuse issues should come as little surprise, said Carlson, questioning the wisdom of any organization that slavishly follows a set of rules that cause it to routinely deny shelter and aid to people in obvious need. Instead, he said more effort should be made to offer treatment.

"These are poor people with issues, and CHUM is supposed to be helping them, not turning them away simply because they bought a package of Bizzaro from my shop," he said. "These are the very people who need the most help, and they’re not there for them."

Randolph said CHUM can’t compel drug treatment but it does link people to resources if they’re willing to accept help.

In the meantime, she defended CHUM’s shelter policies.

"There needs to be consequences for certain types of behaviors if you want to maintain a safe environment for everyone," Randolph said.

The toll that continued synthetic drug use is taking on people concerns Randolph deeply.

"I call them zombies. They have gray circles under their eyes, and they’re mostly young people," she said. "Nobody knows what these synthetic drugs do to you over time, but I’ve heard it could cause some brain damage. Sometimes I worry that we’re creating a whole new group of people with disabilities that will haunt them for life."

Article by Peter Passi of Forum News Sevice.

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