A new report from the Minnesota Department of Human Services should raise a red flag for parents, teachers, law enforcement personnel and anyone who has an interest in the health and well-being of young people.

While noting that abuse of heroin and other opiates — including prescription painkillers — has increased significantly in Minnesota during the past decade, the study also discovered an alarming trend in the use of synthetic marijuana and other chemicals that are manufactured specifically to exploit loopholes in state and federal law.

Sold online (thus avoiding state laws) and in specialty shops as "bath salts" and "research chemicals," these potent concoctions can be highly toxic —  sometimes fatal — but the users often believe that because these substances didn't come from a "pusher" or a drug dealer, they are legal and safe.

Unfortunately, that's not the case, as an increasing number of people are finding out the hard way. The Hennepin Regional Poison Center recorded 149 incidents involving "THC homologs" last year, compared to just 28 in 2010.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York are leading the fight for much-needed federal legislation to address this problem. Together, they have introduced bills that target the sale of bath salts, synthetic marijuana and synthetic hallucinogens, which often are imported from China and Thailand.

"It's a nationwide problem," Klobuchar told us Tuesday. "In December, the National Institutes of Health found that one in nine U.S. high school seniors admitted using synthetic marijuana, and in 2011, poison control centers received more than 13,000 calls about synthetic drugs. In 2010, they got just 3,200. So that just shows how quickly this is escalating."

Synthetic drugs are an enforcement nightmare, because it takes time to pass and implement new laws, but chemical compounds can be modified very quickly to dodge them. And even in what appears to be an open-and-shut case against a seller of synthetic drugs, prosecutors often need skilled chemists to make their case — and such chemists and the resources to pay them aren't always available, especially in lightly-populated, rural areas of northern Minnesota.

To lessen the burden of proof, and to make it easier for law enforcement to classify new synthetic drugs under existing laws, Klobuchar says she also plans to introduce a new, more restrictive "analog" drug bill. The principle is fairly simple: If a substance is chemically similar to a controlled substance and has a similar effect on the user, then the new compound will be subject to existing laws and penalties. An analog drug law already exists, but Klobuchar said it is unwieldy and difficult for prosecutors to enforce.

Klobuchar, who is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, told us that there is plenty of support in the Senate for tighter federal restrictions on synthetic drugs, but floor action is being delayed by Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has put a hold on the three bills. "We're trying to persuade him to lift the hold," Klobuchar said. "It's not about synthetic drugs, but about his views on drug sentences in general."

We hope this important legislation can get through the Senate, and that the House and Senate then agree quickly on a bill to send to President Obama. These loopholes need to be closed.

Just ask the family of Trevor Robinson, a 19-year-old from Blaine who last year was among 11 people, all between the ages of 16-21, who overdosed on a designer drug called 2C-E. The synthetic hallucinogen had been purchased online, but Robinson died and the other 10 users were hospitalized.

Timothy Richard Lemere, the 21-year-old who gave the drug to Robinson, faces third-degree murder charges, with a trial scheduled to begin in April. Given that he didn't force Robinson to take a substance that may have been obtained legally (it's a gray area in the law right now), this will be an interesting case to watch.

Meanwhile, parents are advised to keep an eye out for unusual, minimally-labeled packaging and wrappers that bear names like "Bliss," "Tranquility" or "Europa." Teenagers who use these substances are gambling with their health and their lives.