The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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State, national news

October 7, 2013

Guilty verdict in Minnesota synthetics case

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A Minnesota head shop owner was convicted Monday of almost all counts against him in a closely watched federal case involving the sale of synthetic drugs.

Jim Carlson, who defiantly operated the Last Place on Earth shop in Duluth through multiple federal raids, was convicted on 51 of 55 counts. The complex indictment included multiple charges of receiving and selling misbranded drugs.

Carlson's girlfriend, Lava Haugen, was convicted on all four counts she faced. His son, Joseph Gellerman, was convicted on two of four counts.

Prosecutors contended the defendants knew they were selling recreational drugs that people would use to get high. Carlson never denied selling the products, but the defense argued that he did nothing illegal.

Carlson's attorney, Randall Tigue, said he was disappointed by the verdicts and would seek a new trial.

U.S. District Judge David Doty didn't set a sentencing date. The various counts carry maximum potential sentences ranging from three years to 20 years.

The trial was seen as one of the first major tests in federal court of how effectively authorities can combat synthetic drugs, commonly labeled as "incense," ''spice" or "bath salts," which occupy a legal gray area that's difficult for authorities to regulate due to their constantly changing formulas.

Carlson, 56, was charged under several federal laws including one against "analogue" drugs, defined as substances with similar chemical structures and effects to controlled substances already on the government's official list. Makers of synthetic drugs constantly tweak their molecules to try to stay ahead of the law.

Last Place on Earth did a brisk business in synthetic marijuana and other substances before authorities shut it down in July after a long battle that included several raids and seizures of drugs, cash and guns. In public statements before trial, Carlson acknowledged making millions of dollars, selling $16,000 worth on an average day.

Duluth officials tried to rein in Carlson's business multiple times before finally using a novel ordinance requiring a license for selling synthetic drugs.

Rag-tag customers would line up before the store opened — even in cold or rainy weather, and sometimes with kids in tow. Nearby businesses complained the head shop scared their customers away. At one point, a judge ordered Carlson to pay for stationing two police officers outside.

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