Synthetic drug, school district policy bills pass the House

By T.W. Budig, ECM Capitol Reporter

A synthetic drug bill passed the House Wednesday, short days after a man who offered a synthetic drug at a party in Blaine a year ago resulting in the death of teen plead guilty in Anoka County District Court to murder.

Rep. Bob Barrett, R-Shafer, saw his synthetic drug legislation pass the House on a 103 to 11 vote.

“We have to stay one step ahead of the criminals,” said Barrett, speaking after passage.

Because synthetic drug designers often avoid criminal prosecution by slightly altering the chemical makeup of their products, this poses problems for law enforcement and lawmakers.

“We might be at it again next year if the criminals do things to try to skirt the law,” said Barrett.

Barrett’s legislation gives the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy speedier rule making authority in dealing with the changing chemical formulas used by synthetic drug designers.

It would also increase the penalties for selling syntheticcannabinoids — synthetic marijuana — from a gross misdemeanor to a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine.

Barrett said that syntheticcannabinoids can be many times more powerful than marijuana.

Some synthetic drug retailers take the view that lower-level fines for selling syntheticcannabinoids are a kind of business expense, Barrett said.

“That should be a felony,” he said.

“I want him (the sellers) to have the question, ‘Do I want to spend five years in prison,’” said Barrett.

Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, wondered whether the legislation actual carried a hefty corrections’ cost.

“This may be well intended, no doubt about it,” he said.

But changes in drunk driving laws have seen hundreds of people sent to prison — that cost money, Rukavina said.

Barrett indicated he hoped his bill would serve as a deterrent. But he agreed, speaking later, with Rukavina’s assertion that hope doesn’t always work well on the House floor.

“Will it (the legislation) end the sale of illegal drugs in the state — I hope it does,” said Barrett.

Realistically, like other drug laws, the legislation will help deter drug abuse, not end it, he  said.

“But I don’t want to stand around and watch a health crisis be ignored,” Barrett said.

The Senate has already passed similar legislation. But the Senate bill and Barrett’s are different — Barrett expects the differences to worked out in conference committee and the reworked bill be back on the House floor next week.

Another area lawmaker’s bill drew a closer votes on the House floor.

Rep. Kurt Bills, R-Rosemount, saw his bill requiring school boards to adopt policy prohibiting the use of school district resources by employees for political purposes pass on a 73 to 60 vote.

But not without debate.

“This bill violates the First Amendment,” said Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. No one wants teachers or other school employees to be misusing school district resources, she said.

But the bill “very clearly” attempts to control what’s being discussed in the teachers’ lounge, Hortman said.

Another attorney, Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, noted that required school board policy must not apply when an employee is disseminating “factual information.”

Who makes the call on what’s factual and what isn’t? she asked.

“I think you’re creating a lot of problems with this bill,” Liebling said.

Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, said she was glad the legislation had been “gutted” in education committee and that it no longer did much of anything.

It still sent a bad message, she said.

But Bills, who still teaches first period at Rosemount High School before leaving for the State Capitol, said anyone whose ever been in a teachers’ lounge isn’t worried about the legislation silencing teachers from offering opinions.

Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, said rather than opposing the legislation, some school district employees would embrace it.

“There are many school employees would appreciate having that policy,” she said.

House Education Finance Committee Chairman Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said there wasn’t a credible education group that opposed the bill.

Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, has been working on similar legislation in the Senate.