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Minnesota House votes to outlaw synthetic marijuana

ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota House overwhelmingly voted Thursday to put a stop to "a new phenomenon" that law enforcement officials call dangerous.

Synthetic marijuana is sold as incense, but acts much like plant marijuana when used, and Rep. John Kriesel was successful to declare the substance illegal on a 124-4 vote.

"This bill will undoubtedly make our communities safer," the Cottage Grove Republican said.

Representatives inserted into Kriesel's bill a provision that allows law enforcement officers to charge synthetic marijuana users with operating under the influence.

Synthetic marijuana is available at convenience stores, head shops and other small stores, usually next to signs declaring "not for human consumption." It goes by various names, including K2 and Red Dog.

The now-legal drug can be used in many ways, including smoked, in liquid form or baked into brownies.

Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, told his colleagues that synthetic marijuana can be a big business. A small shop in his community, for instance, does a $1 million business, he said.

Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, was concerned about the cost of making possessing synthetic marijuana a misdemeanor and selling it a gross misdemeanor. He said it will cost to make more arrests and process them through the courts.

However, state agencies told lawmakers it would not cost more money, which Kriesel said surprised him.

The bill establishes up to a $3,000 fine and up to a year in jail for selling synthetic marijuana and up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine for possessing it.

A similar Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, has yet to be heard in a committee.

"This is an issue I have championed over the past year, working closely with Stacy Huberty, a Hastings mother who nearly lost her son to a synthetic marijuana overdose," Sieben said. "Synthetic marijuana represents a very serious public safety issue in our communities, one that is putting the lives of our teenagers at risk."

Kriesel began debate on the bill saying, "A new phenomenon is sweeping the nation and our state."

It was the first bill Kriesel passed since taking office last month.

His sons, ages 8 and 9, watched the House proceedings on television at home, he said. With him in the House chamber was the man who saved his life after an Iraqi roadside bomb explosion badly injured him in 2006.

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.