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Minnesota pushes back wave after wave of designer drugs

At the Anoka County Sheriff's Office,a picture of a drug in the "2 C -I" family was presented by Blaine police captain Kerry Fenner and Anoka County Sheriff Commander Paul Sommer.

Red Wing pharmacist Cody Wiberg sometimes feels like he's playing a life-and-death game of whack-a-mole.

As director of the state's pharmacy board, he is the little-known point man who determines which of the latest designer drugs being sold online and on the streets should be illegal in Minnesota.

"You can ban something," Wiberg said. "But people who have enough chemistry knowledge know if you tinker around with the molecules a little bit, three months later you can be selling something else that's now legal but is almost chemically indistinguishable with side effects that are the same or worse. And you can't prosecute them."

Within hours of 19-year-old Trevor Robinson's death from an apparent overdose of the drug 2C-E at a party this month in Blaine, Wiberg was busy in his University Avenue office drafting legislation to specifically add the hallucinogenic stimulant and its chemical cousins to the state's illegal drug roster. Robinson's death hit home for Wiberg, 51, who graduated from Blaine High School a generation ago.

"Beyond the Blaine connection, what really hit me is how devastating this must be for any parent to go through," said Wiberg, whose four children range from 19 to 29.

He is among many state health and law enforcement officials scrambling to stay ahead of the rapidly evolving synthetic drug curve.

Their latest worry? An Ecstasy-like stimulant being sold as "bath salts' under such names as Ivory Wave and Vanilla Sky. In the first three weeks of this year, U.S. poison control centers reported getting half as many calls about these products as they received in all of 2010.

"People are snorting, eating, injecting and smoking it," said Jay Jaffee, a drug abuse prevention coordinator with the state health department. "You can get anything you want on the Internet if you look hard enough and if you've got a credit card."

What actually gets delivered is an unknown, experts warn. A bromide atom replacing an iodine atom in a chemical string might give whatever shows up in the mail the power to damage the brain for good.

"There's no reason to think that what's online is somehow legitimate," said Carol Falkowski, a drug abuse strategist for the state Human Services Department. She likens trying to regulate Internet drug sales to keeping stolen items off eBay or sexual predators from using computers to stalk victims.

"There's the larger issue of blocking websites in a free society," she said. "And if the [Drug Enforcement Administration] shuts something down, then another one pops up the next day."

Many of the drugs come from Asia and elsewhere outside the country. And it's tricky to determine how widespread their use is because there can be a years-long lag before they become so prevalent that they show up in national drug abuse survey results.

Hooked on synthetics

Dr. Joseph Lee, medical director at Hazelden's Center for Youth and Families, said he's personally seen more than 100 kids who have used 2C-E-related substances. They tell him "the visual hallucinations and sensory experiences are what's rewarding and what gets them hooked.'

Their use is still rare, Lee said. "But synthetic chemicals have been causing more problems and visits to emergency rooms," he added.

Prescription drugs are still far and away the most common reason for a drug-related visit to an emergency room -- 1.3 million visits in 2009. However, the number of synthetic cannabinoid cases reported to U.S. poison centers jumped from 14 in 2009 to 2,893 in 2010.

About 10 percent of kids at the state's oldest high school catering to students recovering from abuse problems, the PEASE Academy in Dinkytown, mention 2C drugs in their histories, but not necessarily as their drug of choice, according to director Michael Durchslag.

Adam Pederson, prevention manager for the Know the Truth program, said that at least one student in 30 attending the 110 Minnesota schools that his program visited last year noted synthetic drugs on usage surveys.

"And it wasn't concentrated in one area but all through the metro area," he said.

The next crackdown

In Minnesota, Wiberg is perhaps both the most obscure and important soldier on the front line of this battle.

State law on illegal drugs mirrors federal DEA regulations. But the DEA needs oversight from the Food and Drug Administration when it bans substances. At the state level, the pharmacy board Wiberg directed for five years has broad powers to add and remove drugs from the state lists of banned substances.

"In some ways, the Board of Pharmacy has more power on the state level than the DEA on the federal level," Wiberg said. "But those people run around with badges and guns, and I don't do that."

A few years ago, an Olmsted County prosecutor called him, saying they had caught someone with 1,000 doses of the stimulant BZP near a high school, apparently ready to sell to kids. The drug was on a federal list of illegal drugs, but the state hadn't updated its books. Federal prosecutors hesitated to get involved because the case didn't meet certain thresholds, so Wiberg went to work to add BZP to the state list to help law enforcement pursue similar cases.

Wiberg drafted legislation that's currently working its way through the Legislature to crack down on synthetic cannabinoids, sold as K2, Spice, Blaze and other names. Wiberg and other experts bristle when people call it fake pot or synthetic marijuana, insisting it's a far different high than pot and can make users agitated, paranoid and cause high blood pressure and vomiting.

"We don't want kids thinking this is a quasi-legal high that can mellow them out," Jaffee said.

The bill has passed the state House and is awaiting action in the Senate. Wiberg started drafting it after a Fargo reporter called him about a North Dakota pharmacy board decision to crack down on cannabinoids, opening the door for buyers to cross the border and get it in Minnesota.

"It's not as easy as you might think," said Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom, who testified for the bill. "You can't just say 'synthetic marijuana,' you have to describe it in detail and it's much more complicated than people realize."

Wiberg included a list of 17 other chemical compounds whose sequences and molecule strings make them cousins. Just to be safe, he added language saying "including but not limited to" in hopes of winning this round of whack-a-mole.

Federal drug laws include so-called analog language to cover chemical strings and cousin compounds. Wiberg hopes the Legislature will pass a similar measure at the state level. Prosecutors say it's hard to charge people with selling and possessing drugs that are on the federal books but not banned by the state.

"The Board of Pharmacy is very little known but I'm very impressed with Mr. Wiberg," Backstrom said. "He has an important role assisting law enforcement in our ability to protect the community from these dangerous chemical substances, and what happened is Blaine is a classic example. It doesn't get any worse than that."