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'Ground Zero' documents Duluth's synthetic drug drama

A forum on synthetic drugs Monday, June 24, 2013, at Clyde Iron Works in Duluth, Minn., opened with a movie, "Ground Zero," about synthetic drug issues and addiction. Jim Carlson, owner of Last Place on Earth, and his girlfriend, Lava Haugen,both at left, were among the attendees. The movie began with testmony from a former user named Felicia featured in the scene shown above. (AP Photo/The Duluth News-Tribune,Bob King )

Forum News Service

The latest chapter in Duluth’s synthetic drug saga is a 25-minute documentary that debuted Monday night at Clyde Iron Works.

The film, “Ground Zero: Duluth’s Battle Against Synthetic Drugs,” was shown at a forum organized by the Lake Superior Medical Society. It was another chance for the public to hear from those on the frontlines — police officers and medical professionals — about how the drugs have changed the people addicted to them and the places where they use them.

About 50 people attended, including Jim Carlson, owner of the downtown store that is considered “Ground Zero” for synthetics in the Northland. His two-year battle with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies was featured heavily in Jonathan Bothun’s film. Carlson was interviewed at length by the Superior filmmaker at his store.

Carlson said in the interview that the “bottom line” is that he is fighting for the legalization of marijuana. He says he thought he’d sell synthetics only until marijuana became legal.

When asked why he would sell drugs that he knows are doing damage to people’s health, Carlson said “there’s a strong demand” and compared synthetics to legal products like cigarettes and alcohol.

“I’m in the perimeter of the law,” he said, adding that he would be in jail if his drugs were illegal.

“What I sell is a legal product, and they know it.”

When asked what he thought of the film, Carlson said it was “well done” and he appreciated the chance to have his say recorded.

Bothun said before the film played that it was his intention to show the synthetic drug problem from all sides to better inform the public.

He found a now drug-free woman, called Felicia, who talked about her 14 years of drug and alcohol abuse that ended with a savage addiction to synthetics. She talked about doing whatever she could to get money to buy more, including stealing from her grandparents and pawning everything she owned.

Synthetics became her drug of choice because they were legal, cheap and “easy to get.”

Duluth police officers Nick Lepak and Rob Hurst are in the film and talk about how it’s not only a problem of people hanging out downtown and in parks and smoking but the crimes they commit to keep using.

Hurst said that while people should feel safe in Duluth from violent acts or robberies, there is concern about petty crime. Users populating parks and panhandling is a scar for the city as well, he said.

Both officers sat in on the panel after the film, which Lepak called “eloquent” in telling a “very sad story. “It is very sad to see what it’s done to our community.”

Doctors are also featured in the film discussing the increasing paranoia and hallucinations they are seeing along with other serious side effects from the drugs.

“I think it’s taxing the system,” Dr. Amery Robinson says in the film from his post at St. Luke’s hospital.

The panel also featured Rep. Erik Simonson, Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Jon Holets, Dr. Scott Wolff from St. Luke’s and moderator Dr. David Sproat.

Simonson said new laws that will permanently shut down sales of synthetic drugs are being studied and he will make a pitch at the next legislative session in February. Part of that legislation will include how to treat people with addictions to the drugs, he said.

“We’re deep in this and we’re going to be part of the solution,” Simonson said when asked by an audience member why Duluth seems to be in the center of the drug trade in Minnesota. He and the police officers said the problem is growing across the state.

Wolff said there need to be better strategies in tracking cases hospitals see. He said there aren’t codes for the symptoms doctors are seeing so there’s no way to discern exactly what drugs are doing to people’s health.

“This is an unfolding landscape,” Wolff said.

Wolff repeated some of the horror stories of drug users. There’s the man who blinded himself by gouging out one eye with his fingers and stabbed the other eye with a fork. There was the man found running naked with his hand in his rectum, where some synthetic drugs were also found.

“It does creep me out,” Carlson said after the forum. He said many of the cases being linked to synthetic drugs aren’t true, that people using illegal drugs like cocaine or heroin are telling police they are using synthetics to dodge felony drug charges.

Wolff said people in serious medical trouble often come clean about what they are using because they want doctors to fix what’s wrong.

Lepak said synthetics have become the drug of choice in Duluth.

“Regular marijuana has become scarce as far as our contacts,” he said.

Wolff said his position on marijuana is shifting. He said he’s never seen people react to natural marijuana with agitation, increased heart rates, profuse sweating and paranoia. But just like cigarettes and alcohol, if marijuana were made legal, more people would use it.

“We don’t need more people chemically dependent,” he said.

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