Minnesota state legislators grappled Wednesday with how they might craft a new law to effectively fight the growing use of synthetic drugs.
Several House committees held a joint meeting, including a special panel set up to address the spread of synthetics. The issue made headlines in Minnesota in recent months with the federal prosecution of a Duluth head shop owner who sold such drugs; on Monday, Last Place on Earth owner Jim Carlson was convicted on 51 of 55 counts.
But medical and law enforcement officials said the problem is statewide, and can be found in both cities and rural areas. Dr. Marc Conterato, an emergency room doctor and ambulance crew supervisor at North Memorial Medical Center near Minneapolis, estimated his ER is treating one to two patients a week who've used bath salts easily purchased online to get high. At least one patient a week suffers bad effects from synthetic marijuana.
"We are seeing effects we have never seen before," Conterato said.
He said it's often impossible to know what mix of ingredients went into drugs ingested by users. He listed some common symptoms that bring them to emergency rooms: nausea, vomiting, seizures, convulsions, flashbacks involving paranoia and psychosis and cardiac arrest.
Several doctors and other officials at the hearing said synthetic marijuana is more like LSD and other hallucinogens than it is like traditional marijuana. Marketing the synthetic substance as akin to marijuana has been particularly misleading to younger users, said Kristin Engebretsen, a clinical toxicologist in the emergency room at St. Paul's Regents Hospital.
"We have had cases of 16-year-olds having heart attacks from synthetic marijuana," Engebretsen said. "And it's not right after smoking it. It's two weeks later. We do not understand what's going on, and we don't know how to treat it."
Synthetic drugs are hard to regulate, experts told the committee, thanks to ever-shifting sets of ingredients. Wade Setter, superintendent of Minnesota's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, recalled how state lawmakers passed earlier legislation several years ago meant to crack down on some common ingredients in synthetic drugs.
"The law took effect on Aug. 1 of that year," Setter said. "Within a few days, our lab identified eight or nine new substances that hadn't been covered."
Many such ingredients are sold online, making it more difficult for Minnesota law enforcement to monitor.
Rep. Dan Schoen, a Democrat from Cottage Grove who's also a police officer, said the Legislature should consider giving the state Board of Pharmacy emergency rulemaking powers that would let them quickly clamp down on sale of new ingredients in a timely manner. The Legislature could follow up as needed when it convenes, he said.
Lawmakers also planned to work on education and prevention programs to raise understanding of the dangers of synthetic drugs. The special committee on synthetic drugs has been charged with recommending law changes to the full Legislature when it convenes again next February.
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