On many mornings, it looks like it’s the hottest business in downtown Duluth.
Dozens of customers line up in front of the Last Place on Earth head shop on Superior Street to buy designer drugs, including herbal incense — sold as a legal alternative to marijuana — with names such as No Name, Armageddon and DOA, and bath salts called Insurrection and Lunar Eclipse.
Some of the fidgety customers look like they’re waiting to get into a soup kitchen. Others look like your next-door neighbor.
The products they are seeking to buy are comprised of a class of chemicals perceived as legally mimicking cocaine, LSD and methamphetamine. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is attempting to ban or control the synthetic stimulants because some users have reported impaired perception, reduced motor control, disorientation, extreme paranoia and violent episodes.
Last Place on Earth owner Jim Carlson expects to do $6 million in business this year on the sale of incense, bath salts and legal stimulants. He makes no excuses for what he sells.
He said he once weighed 380 pounds because of a sugar and doughnut habit. That hankering was his choice, he says. He believes a person has a right to choose what they want to indulge in for enjoyment.
On Thursday, 45 people waited for Carlson to open his store at 120 E. Superior St. The businessman said sometimes 75 customers are waiting when he swings open the front door.
What Carlson sees as a gold mine, others see as a public health and safety minefield. Police and medical personnel are seeing an increase in designer drug-related health and crime problems, and Superior Street business owners fear that their customers will be intimidated by the designer drug clientele and the associated loitering and littering. A Duluth mother says herbal incense almost cost her son his life.
A black and white Duluth police squad car was stationed in front of Last Place on Earth when it opened Thursday. Police say they were being proactive based on complaints they’ve received from other businesses about the head shop and its customers. Carlson thinks he and his customers are being harassed by police. He and his Twin Cities attorney, Randall Tigue, brought that complaint to the Duluth City Council last Monday.
Tigue said Duluth police Chief Gordon Ramsay has asked him to provide a list of specific complaints that Last Place on Earth has against police.
Carlson, whose business will celebrate its 30th anniversary in downtown Duluth in March, has tried some of his own medicine. He said he didn’t like designer drugs and doesn’t use them.
“It’s not for me, but the bottom line is everybody likes different stuff,” he said. He has a drink of alcohol once or twice a week.
“I’ve got a brother that died at 40 years old from alcohol,” Carlson said. “I think it’s the worst drug on the planet. A guy gets in his car after drinking, plows into a mother and her two kids and kills them.”
Lynn Kubiak thinks herbal incense is just as dangerous as alcohol or any other drug to her 21-year-old son, Andrew, of Hermantown. Andrew crashed and totaled his Jeep on Labor Day weekend and his mother blames the accident on his use of synthetic marijuana.
“Police had his receipt from the Last Place on Earth,” she said. “The accident happened at 5:15 p.m. that day. He wrecked his Jeep and he easily could have been killed. I’m amazed that this (herbal incense) is legal.”
The mother said her son was cited for a traffic violation in the accident. According to court records, Andrew Kubiak has had three underage alcohol consumption citations. The police report of the accident wasn’t available Friday, and no charges have yet been filed against him.
Lynn Kubiak said she’s known her son has used the synthetic marijuana for six to nine months. She said he lacks motivation to do anything other than to find a way to get his next bag of the drug.
“I’ve seen his behavior change big time,” she said. “He was the best kid. He was so thoughtful, so respectful to me. We never fought. It just seems like in the past year he’s gotten real belligerent, real defiant. He doesn’t see things clearly. He’s totally addicted and very jumpy and very crabby when he hasn’t had the drug.”
The mother provided an example of how addicted her son is. She said that the day after he totaled the Jeep he rode his bike from Hermantown to Last Place on Earth to resupply.
“I don’t know what to do right now because it’s legal,” she said. “He can just go down there and get it. I get that thrown in my face by him all the time. That’s his strongest argument — it’s legal.”
She said her son drove his point home by reminding her that police gave her back his synthetic drugs after the accident.
Andrew Kubiak was reached by phone Friday and said there was nothing he wanted to say.
His mother said she’s willing to talk about it because she wants people to know about the problem.
“When I tell my friends about this a lot of them haven’t even heard about it,” Lynn Kubiak said. “I’m going to stick by my son. I want him to get through this. I’m doing this because I love him. I want my son around. I hope this helps somebody help their son or daughter and makes parents aware of what’s going on.”
Dean Baltes, owner of Shel/Don Design & Imaging next door to Last Place on Earth, thinks police are doing a good job of trying to protect everyone’s rights.
“Police are trying to enforce the laws and trying to be sensitive to the fact that there is ambiguity whether or not this stuff is legal or not legal because it’s hard to analyze,” Baltes said. “They are trying to enforce the laws to protect my rights and other business rights.”
Baltes said he has seen customers at Last Place on Earth block his business’s entry way, park without plugging meters, double park, crush out cigarettes on the sidewalk, and simply lack respect for the neighborhood.
“It’s a problem and it’s creating a financial hardship and a financial concern for me,” he said. “My walk-in trade is dropping because they don’t want to walk the gauntlet of these individuals.”
Penny Perry, owner of Perry Framing and Stained Glass, 216 E. Superior St., credits Duluth police and the downtown Clean and Safe team for cleaning up the neighborhood, but she fears those gains are starting to be lost because of what she terms “a whole class of addiction that is very prevalent right now,” and she said it’s trickling into her business district. She said she sees certain vulnerability in those people and in the people they interact with.
“If you walk on the sidewalk in the middle of 40 or 50 people making comments, I think that is intimidating to most people,” she said. “There are pretty high numbers of panhandlers, and that had been really cleaned up. The concerns are that we don’t want to see things get out of hand, and there is also a concern for people doing a lot of harm to themselves. … Police are really reaching out. We’re just trying a whole community approach to a problem that’s not only happening here, but in a lot of places.”
Duluth police Sgt. Andy Mickus, a member of the Lake Superior Drug and Gang Task Force, said police have responded to at least 20 calls in the past several months in which police reports indicate that bath salts were involved in some way.
“They have now determined that the societal impact is big enough that they are banning it with their emergency powers, and I think that is fantastic,” Mickus said. “It’s about time. I’m surprised it took as long as it did.”
According to a U.S. Department of Justice National Drug Intelligence Center report issued in July, there were no bath salt-related calls reported to U.S. Poison Control Centers in 2009. In 2010 there were 302 and from Jan. 1 through May 31 of this year there were 2,237 bath salt-related calls reported to U.S. Poison Control Centers.
Mickus said there’s unpredictability to some of those under the influence of designer drugs.
“My personal experience is that it looks like a really bad trip on meth to me,” he said. “People hallucinate and have very erratic behavior. Paranoia. Very uncontrolled. They sometimes have violence toward themselves and toward others. Just very, very odd.”
He said most of the police reports come in as disturbances or medical calls.
Dr. Steven Hansen, an emergency medicine physician at St. Luke’s hospital, said there has been a marked increase in emergency room admissions involving the use of designer drugs. He said he’s seeing between two and 10 a week.
“People snort it, or mostly inject it, it seems, in the arm, or whatever vein they can access depending on whatever their drug history is,” Hansen said. “The last one I saw was somebody who had been using it and brought in by police. They had two (officers) to restrain him. He had high blood pressure, high pulse, screaming, really struggling with police that required him to be sedated and admitted to the hospital.”
Hansen said a higher dosage of the designer drugs can result in seizures and death. “If they are so agitated and physically active they can have muscle breakdown leading to kidney failure,” he said. “There have also been lots of reports of people being so psychotic and hallucinating that they cut themselves with knives.”
On Sept. 7, the DEA announced it planned to temporarily control three other synthetic stimulants to “protect the public from the imminent hazard posed by these dangerous chemicals.” The DEA said that within 30 days of that date it plans to control those chemicals for at least
12 months with the possibility of a six-month suspension. The final order will designate those chemicals as Schedule 1 substances, the most restrictive category, which is reserved for unsafe, highly abused substances with no currently accepted medical use in the U.S.
Last March, the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency announced an emergency ban on the five synthetic cannabinoids. Carlson’s view on that ban as told to Minnesota Public Radio and the Duluth News Tribune was included in a summary of California Senate Bill 420 in July. The bill included penalties for the sale of synthetic cannabinoids. Carlson was quoted in the bill summary as saying he would just stock brands that use still-legal substances. He said that with about 210 similar chemicals available, the manufacturers will try to keep one step ahead of the government.
Barbara Carreno, a federal Drug Enforcement Agency spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., is quoted in the California bill summary saying: “Unfortunately, he (Carlson) is correct. There are many of these substances and we chose five common ones because we don’t have the resources to study all of them.”
By Mark Stodghill
Duluth News Tribune
September 18, 2011