Despite a new state law banning designer drugs, customers can still walk into some tobacco shops in Minnesota and buy them.
Worried about the dangers they pose, Minnesota in July joined a growing number of states outlawing fake pot, designer "bath salts" and other synthetic drugs. But several shops that sold the drugs before are accused of continuing to do so.
Police across the state have stepped up undercover checks at the shops, leading to criminal charges against owners.
"This stuff is nastier - in my book - than a lot of drugs out on the streets that we've had for a while," said Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger. Since the state law went into effect, his department has investigated two shops for selling illegal drugs.
"We're not focusing on users; we're trying to stop the distribution of it," he said.
Fighting the growing use of synthetic drugs is an uphill battle, authorities say. Federal laws need to be updated banning the drugs as they are created, they say, because state laws or those from neighboring states can't stop online sales. And despite past efforts, drug makers are simply changing the formulas and adding new ones to the market every day - and saying they're legal.
"There are a lot of gray areas of what's illegal and legal," said Special Agent Will Taylor, spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Chicago field division. "The main message is people need to be smart about what they put in their body."
In Minnesota, synthetic drugs this year were linked to a mass overdose and death of Trevor Robinson, 19, of Coon Rapids, who took the designer drug 2C-E. Synthetic drugs also led to emergency room visits for many others - and criminal charges for some.
Minnesota's new synthetic drug law bans the use and sale of substances found in designer drugs with innocent names such as bath salts and plant food, as well as hallucinogenic drugs and fake pot.
The law seems to have slowed emergency calls about bath salts and 2C drugs, but not fake pot, said Chris Lintner, a pharmacist at the Minnesota Poison Control System. That could mean people are more familiar with the drugs or less likely to report incidents because the substances are now illegal.
Still, the 295 calls for help so far this year in Minnesota far outnumber last year's 52, he said.
Synthetic drugs, known as "Ivory Wave," "Vanilla Sky" and "K2," have been known to cause anxiety attacks, dangerously elevated heart rates, vomiting and other symptoms, according to the DEA. People on the drugs have reportedly experienced severe psychotic episodes, which has led to violent outbursts and self-inflicted wounds.
"These are dangerous substances," said Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom, whose office is prosecuting a felony case involving synthetic bath salts.
"We need to do everything we can as government and law enforcement to put a stop to the distribution and sale of these dangerous substances."
Blocks from the Minnesota State Capitol, the store Maharaja's has attracted customers for 33 years. As recently as this month, a blue foil packet called "Lunar Eclipse," with a white, powdery substance inside, could be bought from behind the counter.
Store owner Kawaljit Bhatia said it's a type of potpourri.
According to a test conducted by MedTox Laboratories of St. Paul, the substance is a form of the hallucinogenic tryptamine. Known as 5-MeO-DALT, its chemical makeup is similar to the drug 5-Meo-DiPT, which is illegal according to state and federal laws, said Cody Wiberg, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy.
In Minnesota, if a drug's structure is similar to one banned in state law or regulations, that drug also is illegal, Wiberg said. That means 5-MeO-DALT could be considered an illegal drug.
Information about the company Armageddon, makers of Lunar Eclipse, is limited. Company officials could not be found to comment on the product.
Tryptamines aren't a popular synthetic drug. But last year a 26-year-old British man was killed while reportedly under the influence of the same drug after he walked into a truck on a highway, according to news reports.
Bhatia said Tuesday that Maharaja's no longer sells Lunar Eclipse.
Bhatia had no idea the product could be deemed illegal, he said. After all, the package states: "Legal in all 50 states."
But when the Pioneer Press presented him with the test results for Lunar Eclipse, Bhatia said he plans to have more control over controversial products and have them tested before selling them.
"We will only sell things that my employees know are legal," said Bhatia, whose store is among the city's oldest retailers. "I'm not going to jeopardize any of that. I'm not going to go to jail."
The Pioneer Press visited 10 smoke shops in the seven-county metro area this month. And while Maharaja's was the only shop that sold the paper a designer drug, police say users of the drugs are telling investigators they're buying the drugs in stores. But the substances are usually tucked behind the counters - not on the shelves - almost exclusively for regulars.
Law enforcement officers from Winona to Washington County say they have stepped up their compliance checks at the shops.
ONE CASE IN MOORHEAD
Hundreds of miles north of the Twin Cities, two undercover officers on July 12 went into the Mellow Mood tobacco store in Moorhead and bought a 1-gram baggy of "Raw Earth Herbal Smoke Blend," stated a Clay County criminal complaint.
The clerk told the officers it was "legal." But he added that some users say it "tends to be too much for people" and recommended "taking it slow," authorities reported.
A forensic analysis by the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension later found an illegal, synthetic cannabinoid - fake pot - in the substance, the complaint stated.
The store owner, Andrew Leikas, 29, of Portland, Ore., was charged with a misdemeanor in the possession of a synthetic cannabinoid and a gross misdemeanor in the sale of the drug.
Mellow Mood began selling Raw Earth Herbal in June after its distributor TTCG told them it was free of any illegal substances, said Leikas' attorney, Blair Nelson. The Florida distributor even provided lab reports to back it up.
Reports dated June 16 by Research Triangle Park Laboratories of Raleigh, N.C., found no illegal substances in Raw Earth Herbal. The lab's website states the company is registered with the federal DEA and North Carolina as an analytical laboratory for all controlled substances.
An official with the North Carolina lab declined to comment on the report because it's part of a criminal probe.
Details about TTCG, the distributor, are sparse, and no company officials could be found for comment.
Investigators say it is not uncommon for the drug makers and distributors to be off the grid. Many are in China, India and elsewhere overseas. But no one really knows, the DEA's Taylor said, noting even their websites change regularly to avoid leaving a trace.
And anyone can buy the chemicals in bulk and make their own, Taylor said. One theory is that makers are mixing chemicals in their basements and garages locally, spraying the chemicals on leafy materials and selling the product in professional-looking packets online or in stores.
But a basement isn't a laboratory, he cautions. Package scould have differing chemical concentrations.
Leikas said he has owned smoke shops in Minnesota for 10 years, and he has always followed the law. The allegations against him are destroying that reputation, he said.
"We've been allowed to expand into these small communities because of our squeaky-clean reputation," Leikas said. "And even though I will be proven innocent of these charges, the damage is already done, and it may impact my future expansion."
The prosecution must prove Leikas knew his store was selling an illegal drug to get a conviction, said Assistant Clay County Attorney Matthew Greenley.
WEREWOLF ON USER'S HEELS
The new state law appears to have cut usage, said Winona Police Chief Paul Bostrack. Before the law, his officers were responding to up to three calls a shift dealing with people on designer drugs. One woman said a werewolf was chasing her, and in another case, a man fired a gun on a street because he thought people were tampering with his car.
Since the law went into effect July 1, Winona police have gotten fewer calls like that. And prosecutors have charged two people with possession of synthetic drugs under the new law.
Bostrack said the decrease could be because people are less willing to admit they're using a drug whose use would result in criminal charges. And some may be less willing to experiment with the drugs now that they're more widely considered dangerous.
But St. Paul police Sgt. Troy Greene, who works in the narcotics unit, said officers are beginning to see more cases related to designer drugs. The department's crime lab - which works with dozens of law enforcement agencies - has analyzed 20 cases for synthetic marijuana and 2C psychedelic drugs since the law became effective, said John Keating, police spokesman.
The biggest hurdle for departments is educating officers about the law and what to look for, Greene said.
When people are found with illegal designer drugs, officers try to find out where they got it, said Sgt. Dan Bianconi of the Dakota County sheriff's office drug task unit.
Did the carrier buy the substance online or from a local store?
And even if something is packaged like an illegal synthetic, that doesn't mean it is, Bianconi said. Investigators recently purchased a "suspicious" product from a south metro shop, but a lab test determined it was legal.
CLOSING LOOPHOLES NATIONWIDE
Minnesota's synthetic drug law has its limits. Drug distributors are free to sell designer drugs - as long as they're not federally banned - via the Internet or from states without laws against them, Taylor said.
At least 18 states, including Minnesota, have passed laws targeting synthetic drugs. But those laws vary. Some include only fake pot, while others may ban the so-called bath salts or psychedelics. They usually include the most commonly used substances.
But new federal legislation aims at closing those loopholes.
At least five bills began making their way through Congress this year would add several more widely used synthetic drugs to the U.S. Controlled Substances Act.
"One of the critical issues is how we best suit our laws so that they are as sophisticated as the drug dealers that are breaking them," said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota DFLer who was once the Hennepin County attorney.
Klobuchar is sponsoring a bill to ban 2C hallucinogen drugs, as well as supporting legislation to outlaw synthetic marijuana and substances used in bath salts.
Earlier this year, the DEA began regulating five synthetic marijuana forms, known as cannabinoids, under an emergency ruling. But legislation is required to make the one-year bans stick.
Banning these substances will make it easier to outlaw similar synthetic drugs - so drug makers can't simply tweak their formulas to make them legal.
There are more than 100 versions of synthetic marijuana and other designer stimulants, according to the DEA.
Prosecutors can use the Federal Analog Act to prove on a case-by-case basis that a newer substance is illegal because it is made to mimic one already banned.
But using the federal act isn't easy, particularly when the DEA's main focus is still on street drugs such as cocaine and heroin, Taylor said. A drug needs to pass specific criteria to be an analog, and prosecutors need to prove those similarities in court.
Klobuchar said maybe the analog act needs to be reviewed next.
Analog cases rarely are charged in U.S. courts, Taylor said. But locally, county and city prosecutors are more inclined to take on those cases, said Wiberg, of the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy. That's what makes Minnesota's new law, which includes an analog provision, so important.
This year, the state pharmacy board hopes to make investigating and prosecuting synthetic drug crimes easier by having the board's list of regulated drugs mirror state law and visa versa, Wiberg said. That means the drug 5-MeO-DALT - found at Maharaja's - which is not listed in the synthetic drug law, could be easier for police to investigate.
After all, Wiberg said, that drug should be considered illegal.