By: Don Davis

GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. – Minnesota police and prosecutors have a new way to fight the newest drug craze, but say they still need to catch up.

Synthetic drugs, in many cases designed to get around existing laws, are soaring in popularity even as use of traditional drugs such as heroin is waning.

“In law enforcement, we may be a little behind the curve,” Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner Mona Dohman said during a Thursday discussion about synthetic drugs, also known as designer drugs, sponsored by U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota.

Police chiefs on the panel said their officers can go into a situation and not understand that synthetic drugs are being used. They said more training is needed.

Not only do police need to learn about the new drugs, but Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said that authorities must do a better job educating young people about their dangers.

Dohman said the drugs are marketed to youths: “It is sort of sexy packaging. It is enticing.”

The drugs are engineered to provide highs like marijuana and other illegal drugs.

In Moorhead, five shops sold the drugs legally until a new state law kicked in on July 1, with one making $1 million a year on the product, Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger said. Since the new law began, he added, undercover agents bought the now-illegal drugs from two shops.

Even if Moorhead, or any community, can dry up the local supply, the drugs also are available on the Internet, often from other countries.

“It’s like bailing water out of your basement with a bucket,” said Ebinger, whose community has had plenty of experience at bailing water.

“It is a moving target,” added Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, indicating that the makeup of synthetic drugs often changes, as do their symptoms.

The only way to slow down the expansion of synthetic drugs, Backstrom said, is to communicate the message that they are dangerous in the way youths learn about them: via online social media networks.

The new Minnesota law was written with the intention of fighting many kinds of synthetic drugs including those not yet invented.

Federal rules and laws change much slower than drug makers update their products. Klobuchar sponsored a bill that she hopes will pass later this year or early next year, making more of the synthetic drugs illegal, but she said she still is looking at ways to stay ahead of drug makers.

Even if that happens, Backstrom warned that prosecutors and police need time to catch up. Minnesota laboratories can test substances for synthetic drugs, but blood and urine from suspects must be sent out of state for expensive and slow tests.

“We are going to need more funding for our labs,” the Dakota County attorney said.

U.S. Drug Control Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske, informally known as the federal drug czar, told the group that Minnesota is a leader in fighting the new drugs. But it still is a growing problem, as a 2007 study showed when it revealed more weekend night drivers had drugs in their system than alcohol.

Kerlikowske said that Minnesota is like the rest of the country in that synthetic drug problems can occur in a variety of geographically and demographically diverse areas. It is not just an urban problem, he and Klobuchar said.

Backstrom recently filed the state’s first impaired driving case based on synthetic drug use, but his sprawling southern Twin Cities county has no other such cases pending.

Ebinger warned that Minnesota could be an island, with stricter North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin laws on the issue.