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Crowd calls on Minnesota attorney general to help fight synthetic drug problem

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson makes comments during a public hearing on the sale and abuse of synthetic drugs Friday at the Sheraton Hotel in Duluth. Clint Austin | Forum News Service

By John Lundy

Forum News Service

DULUTH — Well over a hundred people packed a conference room at the Sheraton Hotel and spilled over into a second room Friday with a uniform message for state Attorney General Lori Swanson: Duluth desperately needs her help taking on synthetic drugs and the downtown business known for selling them.

"I’m fighting for my life down there," said Dean Baltes, whose business, ShelDon, is next door to the head shop Last Place On Earth. "We need some relief. A year from now doesn’t cut it."

Baltes was among more than two dozen people who testified during a four-hour hearing in front of Swanson, members of her staff, other state officials and a special legislative committee led by state Rep. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth.

The subject was what to do about what Swanson called "this terrible venom" of synthetic drugs in general and the Last Place On Earth in particular.

A spokesman for Swanson said 180 to 190 people attended the afternoon hearing.

Swanson told the crowd that the state understands the problem. She pointed to the Minnesota State Substance Abuse Strategy announced last September, the Violent Crime Coordinating Council appointed to fight drug crimes, and the power given the state Board of Pharmacy to quickly declare substances illegal. Simonson’s committee will recommend additional remedies for the Legislature to consider next year, she said. And she reminded the audience that store owner Jim Carlson, his girlfriend, his son and a former employee face trial in September on a 54-count federal indictment on controlled substance charges.

Although respectful, the Duluth crowd had little patience for what might be coming down the road.

"September is too far off for us," said Kristi Stokes, president of the Greater Downtown Council.

Among those who testified about the effects of the substances:

— Lynn Habhegger of Carlton said her son Corey was 24 when he suffered a heart attack, complete renal failure and extreme psychosis after ingesting bath salts in June 2011. The effects continued, she said, and earlier this week he was involuntarily committed to a mental health facility.

The bath salts he took cost $30, she said. "The cost of my son losing his sanity and his peace of mind? More than I can bear."

— Dr. Nick Van Deelen and two of his colleagues in the emergency room at St. Luke’s hospital said they are seeing patients suffering the effects of synthetics on an almost daily basis, and their behavior is responsible for a 20 percent increase in calls for security in the ER between 2010 and 2013.

He chronicled a case of one schizophrenic patient under the influence of alcohol and bath salts who removed one of his eyes with a fork and stabbed his remaining eye four times. Another patient, a young man who became agitated while using synthetic marijuana, "proceeded to dig out several of his own teeth with his fingers," Van Deelen said.

— Duluth Deputy Police Chief Mike Tusken said police are projecting 5,000 calls this year — out of 86,000 total — in the single block around Last Place On Earth. He talked about the store’s patrons urinating, defecating and vomiting in public, and the fact that two nearby businesses recently closed.

"We have one blighted property that is really affecting the quality of life of our city," Tusken said.

— Carla Powers, director of the Duluth Public Library, reported "unprecedented" behavior problems in the library and said staff have had to call police because of people smoking synthetic marijuana in restrooms and other facilities. The library has had to lock its downstairs restrooms, she said.

— Baltes said he loses $5,000 worth of business a week because customers are unwilling to go through the crowds outside the head shop to enter his store. He said he put $125,000 into his building, but that it recently was appraised for $50,000 less than he paid for it eight years ago. Many of his 33 employees get police escorts to their cars across the street or walk in groups because they’re frightened by Carlson’s customers, he said, and one recently quit.

— City communications officer Daniel Fanning noted that just two days earlier a fight at Last Place On Earth spilled out onto the street and it took seven police officers to restore order. "This has become almost a daily occurrence," Fanning said. "It’s clear this is a public nuisance."

Fanning also complained that Swanson hadn’t consulted with the city about the time for the hearing and said both Mayor Don Ness and Police Chief Gordon Ramsay would have liked to attend but had unavoidable commitments.

Swanson later said it would be "hard to schedule it to meet everybody’s schedule," but noted that officials from eight state agencies and seven legislators attended, along with police officers from as far away as Moorhead.

When contacted later, Carlson said he tried to attend the hearing but was turned away because both rooms were full when he arrived. Carlson was unapologetic when asked about the comments at the hearing. He said some of his customers misuse the substances they buy from him, but other people misuse alcohol or overeat or become addicted to gambling.

He contended that the products he sells are legal and said authorities have been harassing his business.

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