Post-Bulletin, Oct. 22
A victory in synthetic drug battle, but war isn't over
The conviction earlier this month of a head shop owner in Duluth is a victory in the fight against synthetic drugs, but it's a battle that's far from over.
The trial of Jim Carlson, the operator of the Last Place on Earth shop, was one of the first tests in federal court of how effectively authorities can combat synthetic drugs, usually sold under innocuous names such as "bath salts," ''spice" or "incense," that occupy a legally ambiguous area because many of their ingredients are permitted substances.
Many of the drugs are sold online, making it difficult for state law enforcement officials to monitor. Because producers constantly make slight variations in chemical formulations to come up with new drugs that aren't covered by laws, the so-called "designer" drugs can defy regulation.
Synthetic drugs resulted in nearly 23,000 emergency room visits nationwide in 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Health officials lament there is a perception that synthetic drugs are relatively harmless, when nothing could be further from the truth.
Carlson, 56, was charged under several federal laws against receiving and selling misbranded drugs. Carlson didn't deny selling the products, but his defense argued he did nothing illegal.
Earlier this year, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced the legislation making it easier to prosecute the new synthetic drugs that are "analogues," defined as substances with similar chemical structures and effects to controlled substances already on the government's official list. The fight against synthetic drugs is one of Klobuchar's signature issues. In 2011, she authored a bill that outlawed synthetic substances such as 2C-E, which led to the overdose death of a Blaine teenager and sent 10 others to the hospital. President Barack Obama signed that bill into law in 2012.
"Synthetic drugs endanger the lives of teenagers and families every day," Klobuchar said last week. "That's why I fought to make drugs like 2C-E and bath salts illegal and why I'm continuing to work to make it easier for law enforcement to crack down on new synthetic drugs that come on the market."
The fight is being carried at the state level, too. Two days after Carlson's conviction, the House Select Committee on Controlled Substances and Synthetic Drugs convened to address the problem.
Rep. Erik Simonson, a DFLer from Duluth, and Rep. Dan Schoen, a DFLer from Cottage Grove, have excellent proposals. Simonson, who chairs the committee, proposes a "look-alike law" that would regulate analogues. Schoen, a Cottage Grove police officer, wants to see an education program similar to the widely publicized "Faces of Meth" program. Schoen also favors giving the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy expanded authority to classify analogues as illegal.
The case against Carlson, who was convicted on 51 of 55 federal counts, isn't over. His attorney is seeking a new trial. Meanwhile, prosecutors are seeking about $6.5 million that Carlson made on the sale of synthetic marijuana and other substances. Federal agents seized about $3 million in cash, vehicles and merchandise during a July 2012 raid on the shop and now are seeking other assets, including Carlson's building.
We're not naive enough to think new laws will eliminate the trade in and demand for synthetic drugs — but we do hope Carlson's conviction will give potential dealers a reason to think twice.
The Journal of New Ulm, Oct. 20
Time for Congress to agree on real budget
The nation has barely avoided a fiscal crisis, but unless Congress is willing to do some old-fashioned budgeting, we are headed that way again.
It has been three or four years since Congress last passed a budget. Without making a real decision on how much to spend and how to pay for it, the government is forced to operate on the basis of continuing resolutions, which say the government can keep spending as much as it has been spending for another period. Each time that period expires, we are set up for another crisis, another opportunity for someone to try to hold the process to gain some concessions.
We have until Dec. 13 for a group of Congressional negotiators to come up with a budget. We don't know how, in a few weeks, they will solve a puzzle that has baffled them for four years.
But it is time for them to try, to talk, to try some give and take, and actually pass a real budget for this country.
The Free Press of Mankato, Oct. 20
The Minnesota Security Hospital needs upgrading and that's a statewide concern
There will be the normal thrusting of tin cups to the state Legislature this coming year as lawmakers consider which projects will get state bonding.
It's usually a crowded field when considering lobbyists outnumber legislators six to one. But one project that should be high on the list doesn't have an army of door knockers.
The Minnesota Security Hospital (MSH) in St. Peter is requesting $56.3 million both for better security and to help patients recover more quickly.
According to the request filed with the state, the design of the hospital presents problems. "The existing layout of the patient units provides poor sightlines for unit staff to monitor patient activity in these pod areas. If patient behavior requires intervention by staff to protect a patient from self-injury, or to protect other patients in the living pod from harm/injury, this poor unit configuration often results in patient and/or staff injury as staff attempt to relocate the patient from the living pod up or down these narrow stairs."
In fact, such injuries to patients and staff have been well documented. In 2012, security hospital staff endured 93 injuries and 434 assaults. Records from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration show high numbers of injuries going back several years. Patients also have been injured in varying degrees because of poor designs.
It also would help separate the entire security hospital program from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP). "Both programs currently have individuals which are housed on the lower campus who have reached the point in their treatment where they have earned the privilege of campus liberty (the ability to move about campus with limited control)," the proposal states.
"While MSH patients are considered vulnerable adults, MSOP clients are not. Allowing individuals from both programs to circulate on the lower campus is not good policy and presents safety risks. The Department believes it is time to make a concerted effort to separate the two populations. Moving MSH programs to new facilities on the upper campus will address this issue and physically separate these very different populations in the future. "
Above all, the appeal is to help the patients leave. Right now the average length of stay is eight years and reducing that time is a major goal.
Achieving that goal means two, 20-bed housing units for the sickest patients, to help both them and other patients recover more quickly. The request also includes money to add social, recreational and vocational amenities.
Then there's the need for the Minnesota Sex Offender Program which is facing an ever-increasing population. It is the only place in the nation where offenders live in secure and group home-type facilities on the same campus.
The Department of Human Services is seeking $7.4 million to add about 60 beds to the program.
The proposal states that MSOP "will be out of beds by the spring of 2015. The type of space that MSOP needs at St. Peter (the location which MSOP uses for individuals that are in the later stages of treatment), is much different than the space that it uses for the early stages if treatment at Moose Lake. The buildings that MSH will vacate on the lower campus once new facilities are developed on upper campus for MSH programs, will, after basic remodeling and/or infrastructure upgrades, readily meet MSOP's later stage treatment program requirements.
"Smaller living units promote a much more therapeutic environment for those individuals that are working hard to reach the reintegration phase of their treatment program. In addition, since all of MSOP's St. Peter programs currently operate on the lower campus, it makes sense to plan/direct future MSOP expansion at St. Peter to the lower campus."
The issues in St. Peter are not local in nature. This is a statewide concern and one in which the lawmakers are the caretakers.