A bad trip: Herbal potpourri 7H can deliver disastrous results;
If Joshua Walkup wants to say the Pledge of Allegiance, he will have to put his hand under his armpit. That’s where his heart sits, barely beneath the surface.When Walkup, 26, lifts his shirt, his heartbeat is visible through his skin.Joshua Walkup of Richardsville poses Sept. 15 for a portrait at the Daily News. Walkup had recently been released from the hospital after spending almost a month recovering from injuries he suffered Aug. 10 in a car accident.The patchwork of scars all over Walkup’s torso looks like a railroad map to nowhere. But the scars tell the story of a man who journeyed to hell and is making his way back to redemption.Walkup is another casualty of 7H, a product that is marketed and sold as herbal potpourri in hookah lounges and convenience markets. However, many people such as Walkup are smoking the product as a cheap, legal alternative to marijuana, but with disastrous results.Users have reported hallucinations, paranoia, anxiety, extreme chest pain, nausea, vomiting and other side effects that linger in some cases for many days. They land in emergency rooms, where doctors treat their symptoms but are at a loss to do much else, because no one really knows what chemicals users have ingested. One package marked 7H may not contain the same chemicals as another package that looks identical.Walkup quit using methamphetamine about three years ago. He exchanged meth use for a daily dose of “Mad Dog 20/20” and an occasional marijuana joint. But when he couldn’t get his hands on marijuana, he’d cruise into Bowling Green from his home in Richardsville to score a $25 package of 7H at the local hookah lounge.One man’s hit alters another man’s lifeWalkup smoked his last hand-rolled 7H cigarette on Aug. 10 with a man he had recently befriended. While Walkup had never experienced the 7H “bad trips” other users describe, his new friend took a hit and came out swinging.Walkup quickly realized his friend was experiencing a vastly different reaction to 7H. He talked his friend out of the driver’s seat and took the wheel as the two men headed north on Ky. 185 at about 10:45 a.m. Aug. 10.The story of what happened next varies. Walkup says his friend fell into his lap and jerked the steering wheel of the truck he was driving, causing the vehicle to flip. The official version contained in a Kentucky State Police accident report says Walkup became distracted by his friend, who was attempting to climb out of the passenger window while the truck was moving. Walkup was attempting to pull the man into the truck and lost control of the vehicle, according to state police records.Either way, the end result is indisputable.Walkup was thrown from the vehicle. His body slid several feet across a metal guardrail, which “filleted him like an old catfish,” Walkup said. At the scene, he opened his eyes just long enough to see that he was lying in a pool of blood. His internal organs were fully exposed, and his intestines partially spilled out onto the pavement.Walkup was taken by a medical helicopter to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, where his family was given a grim prognosis for his survival. He underwent 13 surgeries in 15 days. His formerly strong frame dropped from 210 pounds to 150. His newly formed scar tissue now outweighs his muscle mass, and he uses a cane to stabilize him as he walks, slumped over.He is missing half of one lung and performs breathing exercises to strengthen the other lung that was punctured in the wreck. His heart isn’t located in the same spot where it once was. A stint runs from his kidneys to his bladder to help him urinate. In all likelihood, his doctors have told him that he will not be able to do the manual labor that he once enjoyed for at least another two years, if even then.But Walkup is still alive, and for that he is grateful.He has a newfound faith in God. The divine wasn’t something he believed in before the wreck. He has also sworn off drugs.A new beginning“I can’t believe I’m still here,” he said as he watched an old video clip of Johnny Cash performing the song “Ring of Fire.”“I love Johnny Cash,” he said. He also lives stripping tobacco, hauling junk for some extra cash and working construction jobs.He was a working man.For now he has to settle for music about the working man from the comfort of his couch.“I never did picture myself disabled,” Walkup said. “Now here I am, I can’t even turn up on my side to snuggle up next to my wife.”“It’s not worth it,” Walkup said about 7H. “It may not hurt you now, but it will hurt you in the long run.”Legal does not mean safeThe Kentucky State Police Crime Lab recently analyzed a package of 7H that the Bowling Green-Warren County Drug Task Force sent for testing, task force Director Tommy Loving said. The material contained 1-(5-fluoropentyl)-3-(naphthalen-1-oyl)indole, also called AM-2201. This particular chemical combination is sold legally here.These chemicals are not meant for human consumption and will over time cause organ failure and mental retardation, Western Kentucky University biochemist Dr. Rajalingam Dakshinamurthy said.It’s the immediate effects that are gaining the attention of frightened parents, drug investigators and medical care providers.Western Kentucky University freshman Ashley Stillwell, 18, thought that legal meant safe when she decided to try 7H for the first time Aug. 21 with a group of people that she once considered her friends.“We had this little red bong,” Stillwell said. “I inhaled it. Probably five minutes later my head starts spinning. My body feels heavy like I can’t move. The only thing I can remember thinking is, ‘Don’t forget to breathe.’ ”Stillwell checked out. She was not unconscious, but she was trapped like a prisoner inside her own body. She could hear everything being said but was unable to move or respond. She remembers her “friends” talking back and forth about what to do with her if she dies. They discussed throwing her into Barren River. Had her friends acted on that thought, Stillwell, in the condition she was in, would have drowned.Eventually that night, Stillwell regained some sense of consciousness, realized she needed help and called her parents to come get her. Hours after that first and only hit of 7H, Stillwell was receiving emergency treatment at The Medical Center, where she was given fluids and medication to help her stop vomiting.Users warn othersStillwell runs with a new set of friends now, friends who would not think of discarding her into the water like an empty soda can, and she wants to tell anyone who will listen to her to stay away from herbal incense.“If I can keep people from trying it, that’s what I want to do,” she said. “I know people are going to hate me because people are selling it as pot.”Stillwell’s mother, Amy Stillwell, has written local, state and federal elected officials in an attempt to get 7H banned.Van Ingram, director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, has fielded calls from parents such as Amy Stillwell from all over the state. The stories are all the same.“I haven’t heard any good stories,” Ingram said. “They’ve all been related to sicknesses. Usually it ends up a lot of fear on the part of the young person as well as the parent. They don’t realize something sold as incense ... will effect them the way that it does.”The Office of Drug Control Policy is in the process of gathering information about herbal incense products to make a presentation to the 2012 session of the Kentucky General Assembly in an attempt to ban the products in Kentucky.But in the meantime, people such as Walkup and Stillwell are trying to tell their stories to convince others not to try 7H.Amy Stillwell has created a Facebook page called “The Face of 7H” to try to educate people about the dangers involved in using the herbal incense as a drug.By DEBORAH HIGHLAND
The Daily News, Bowling Green
How to help
If you would like to get involved in the fight against herbal incense being sold legally in Kentucky or you would like Ashley Stillwell to speak to your school or church group, contact Stillwell at Ban7HNOW@hotmail.com or leave her a message on “The Face of 7H” Facebook page.