It comes in innocuously labeled packages such as Space Lemon Line Incense, Syn Fire Incense, Rave On Premium Bath Salts and Benzo Fury, but law enforcement maintain the products are anything but harmless.
They’re marketed as incense and bath salts but are actually synthetic narcotics, drugs growing in popularity and that up until July were legal to possess and use in Minnesota.
Synthetic drugs have been a growing concern nationwide, as hospitals report a sharp spike in the number of users becoming ill, with some suffering seizures and hallucinations. At least two deaths in Minnesota in recent months have been linked to synthetic drugs.
“I believe in the last two or three years law enforcement has seen an increase in it,” said Brainerd Police Chief Corky McQuiston. “There’s a variety of ways people can obtain it and that’s the frustrating part. We’re seeing that it’s all too easy for people to get it.”
Authorities say products sold over the Internet and in head shops as “herbal incense” often contain chemicals that mimic the effects of marijuana, while powders marketed as “bath salts,” “plant food” and “research chemicals” frequently contain synthetic stimulants or hallucinogens.
Efforts to regulate the drugs are difficult as manufacturers tweak formulations to stay ahead of efforts to ban them. McQuiston said it’s a challenge to test the products because the compounds used are often altered.
“But it continues to be the same products people use for mood-altering effects,” McQuiston said. “It’s still a prohibited drug.”
In the highest profile case yet in the state, a Duluth head shop that sold synthetic marijuana and other designer drugs to the tune of about $16,000 on its busiest days was raided by police on Wednesday.
Brainerd Police, too, have started a campaign against synthetic drugs with the Aug. 17 seizure of an estimated $12,000 in synthetic drugs during the execution of a search warrant at Risky Business on Washington Street in downtown Brainerd.
On July 1, a new state law went into effect prohibiting the possession and sale of synthetic cannabinoids Police advised Risky Business’ owner to stop selling synthetic marijuana when the law went into effect. In late July police received an anonymous tip that Risky Business was still selling the illegal products and an undercover buy was conducted at the business.
According to the search warrant, an employee told police that during a recent shift he sold 80 units of synthetic marijuana at $20 per unit. He also told police that the owner, Ronald Beattie Jr., told him that synthetic drugs were still legal because of an injunction on the state ban.
The police reports have been forwarded to the Crow Wing County Attorney’s office for consideration of criminal charges.
McQuiston said the first test of the new state law will be in the court system.
“We understand that’s part of the system. In our minds it’s clear (that it’s illegal) but we understand other people will have different impressions on the law,” McQuiston said. “There’s a lot of people waiting to see what will be that test case, whether there will be a ruling in our favor or if not what will follow through appeals and the Legislature.
“We’re waiting but while the law exists we’re going to do our part and that’s enforcement.”
For McQuiston, the most important thing regarding synthetic drugs is community awareness. He wants parents — anybody — know what the synthetic drugs look like. The examples of synthetic marijuana McQuiston had were labeled as incense. Product information claimed it was natural, and literally claimed it didn’t contain a synthetic cannabinoids — the specific language found in the statute.
The package also listed the incense to only be sold to those 18 and older, and that it was not for human consumption. Synthetic marijuana, McQuiston said, is smoked like regular marijuana and bath salts are smoked in a pipe, like crack or methamphetamine. McQuiston also noted that the incense package was remarkably similar in quantity to how marijuana is sold.
“What I want is parents who come across these packages to know what it looks like, ask about it and be more suspicious,” McQuiston said. “It’s a difference between not giving such a package a second thought versus knowing what it is.”
(The Associated Press contributed to the story)
MATT ERICKSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5857.