By Derrick Knutson—
For law enforcement and prosecutors, keeping up with new drugs hitting the streets can be tough.
Recently, synthetic drugs designed to simulate the effects of marijuana were difficult to police because no state law existed governing their production or distribution.
However, about a year ago legislation drafted by State Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL – Newport, outlawed the manufacturing or sale of synthetic drugs.
New legislation introduced three weeks ago by Rep. Bob Barrett, R-Schafer, seeks to take that ban one step further.
Barrett said the current law doesn’t have specific language regarding variations of synthetic drugs, and penalties aren’t tough enough for those who sell them.
Barrett said he and other legislators in support of further regulating the sale of synthetic drugs have been working closely with the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy to identify which chemical compounds are currently being used in new drugs so those compounds can be added to the list of the ones already banned under Minnesota law.
Currently, the highest penalty the courts can impose on someone selling synthetic drugs is a gross misdemeanor.
Barrett said he’d like to see that penalty raised to a felony because of how dangerous the drugs can be.
As an example, he mentioned a March 2011 party in Blaine where one man died and 10 other partygoers were hospitalized after snorting a synthetic drug known as 2C-E.
Other synthetic drugs that are rolled and smoked – known by brand names such as “K2” or “Spice” – have been known to rapidly increase the heart rate of the user, which has lead to recorded cases of heart attacks.
“Some people might call these drugs ‘synthetic marijuana, but they’re 10 to 100 times more powerful,” Barrett said. “They do some really harmful things to the brain, and we still really don’t know the long-term effects.”
Barrett said he expects his legislation to have bipartisan support and hopefully go into effect after this legislative session.
“I would be shocked if there wasn’t bipartisan support for this bill,” he said. “Representatives from both sides commented in favor of the bill.”
Enforcement an issue
Chisago County Attorney Janet Reiter said her office has seen cases that involve synthetic drugs, but prosecuting such offenses can prove difficult.
Reiter said some synthetic drugs don’t show up on toxicology tests performed by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
“When we’re prosecuting these cases, it’s essential that we’re able to identify the substance we’re dealing with,” she said.
Barrett echoed Reiter’s assertion in a recent legislative update.
“Currently, county attorneys are reluctant to try cases because they do not feel that current language is strong enough to get a conviction,” he wrote. “We need to allow our local law enforcement and county attorneys the authority to protect our citizens from the sale and use of these harmful drugs.”
In some cases, Reiter said local law enforcement has not been trained to recognize synthetic drugs or their effects on users. Subsequently, instances were people use or sell the substances sometimes don’t get prosecuted.
Chisago County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Keith Hoppe said recognizing synthetic drugs is not covered in routine training for deputies, but the county does partner with Pine and Isanti counties to address drug use, sales and trafficking via the East Central Drug and Violent Offender Taskforce.
The task force, consisting of investigators from each of the three member counties, focuses on apprehending violent drug offenders and keeping up with the area’s ever-evolving drug scene.
Taskforce Cmdr. Justin Wood said the taskforce is currently investigating cases involving synthetic drugs. He couldn’t comment about the specifics of those cases because of their pending statuses, but said law enforcement is diligently working to keep up with the sale of new drugs.
“The names of the drugs change all the time,” he said. “There’s hundreds of names and they try to label them as incense or some other non-narcotic.”
He mentioned taskforce members are trained to recognize the effects of synthetic drugs, but they can’t field test for them like they can for more common drugs like marijuana.
“We have to send those to the BCA,” he said. “It’s kind of a time-consuming process.”
Even though the taskforce stays abreast of the drug scene in the tri-county area, Wood said it’s difficult to pin down sellers, producers and users.
“The biggest challenge is just trying to stay ahead of the curve, he said. “We’re always trying to catch up to the coattails of the drug world.”