New legislation passed by Congress will make it easier for authorities to crack down on the sale and distribution of "analogue" drugs and close a legal loophole once used by the Last Place on Earth.
Analogue drugs are versions of synthetic drugs that have had a component changed, but still provide a high, and are considered a controlled substance only if they are labeled for human consumption. In addition to making it easier to prosecute the sale and distribution of analogue drugs, the legislation closes the loophole allowing drug dealers to skirt the law by labeling the drugs as not for human consumption, Sen. Amy Klobuchar said at a Duluth press conference on Monday.
"They put some label on it, saying 'Oh, this isn't for getting high; this is just for this.' Then when they do a bust and they prosecute them, they come and say 'What do you mean? Look at this cool label we put on. It says not intended for human consumption.' They use that as their defense," Klobuchar said.
St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin explained that former Duluth head shop Last Place on Earth labeled analogue drugs as "watch cleaner." Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken said that analogue drugs are "of course" intended for human consumption despite their labels, and the legislation is an "invaluable tool" in the community.
"They are terribly, terribly detrimental to the people in our community. This bill is going to help us have the ability to hold the folks that are dealing these analogue and synthetic opioids accountable," Tusken said.
The Synthetic Abuse and Labeling of Toxic Substances Act, which Klobuchar introduced with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is headed to President Donald Trump's desk for his signature as part of a package of legislation passed by Congress last week to address the opioid crisis.
Federal law was changed following the closure of Last Place on Earth to make it easier to bring a case against an establishment like that, but it wasn't enough, Klobuchar said. Since those changes were made, drug distributors have started changing the compositions of their drugs to stay under the radar, and the opioid called fentanyl and its analogue called carfentanil have come onto the market, she said.
"Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic drug that's up to 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. Think about that: Literally a grain of salt size can kill someone," Klobuchar said.
Giving Klobuchar a picture of his daughter, Cotton resident Patrick Hey thanked Klobuchar during Monday's press conference for her work on the opioid epidemic that's "stealing our youth." Hey's daughter, Micaila Hey, a 2014 Esko High School graduate, died by suicide in January by overdosing on pure fentanyl. Patrick Hey said his daughter took her own life because she was "begging for help" with her addiction and couldn't find it quickly enough. Since her death, he has become an advocate for making drug addiction treatment and mental health services more widely available. Addressing the opioid crisis is a marathon and they're only a few miles in, Hey said during the press conference.
Reading a list of young people who have died of drug overdoses in Minnesota, Hey said, "These are just a few of our children who have fallen victim to the scourge of humanity. Let's take the tragic loss and use that pain to help others who are still living."
Klobuchar said Hey's story makes the opioid crisis real to people.
"This isn't just about statistics on a page. It's not just people you've never met. It is people right in your own community," Klobuchar said.
There were 172 deaths due to synthetic opioids in Minnesota last year and 90 percent of those were from fentanyl, she said. She explained that it wasn't surprising because people turn to illegal drugs when it becomes harder for to legally obtain prescription opioids. She pointed out that law enforcement's work on the issue can be seen in cases such as the seven people charged in July in connection to a Twin Ports fentanyl ring as a result of a yearlong Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crimes Task Force investigation.
"The region has been disparately affected by the opioid epidemic. We've had the No. 1 or No. 2 opioid-related death rate in the state for the past six years. But this epidemic is changing. This is the new phase and the new phase is with synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and carfentanil. We're seeing an increase of that in this region," said Duluth police Lt. Jeff Kazel, commander of the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crimes Task Force.
Enforcement needs to happen in conjunction with education to prevent addiction and treatment for addiction, Tusken said. Duluth police officers thought they'd only be saving one or two lives when they began to carry the opioid overdose antidote Narcan, but they've now saved more than 50 people, Tusken said.
"It is not a problem that we can arrest our way out of. It can't be just done by law enforcement," Tusken said.