Herbal incense: Legal but dangerous

Illustration by Alex Slitz/Daily News

7H is an herbal incense product sold as “potpourri.” Many people looking for a cheap, legal alternative to marijuana are smoking 7H.

Two hits into an herbal incense packaged as 7H, and Amy, a University of Kentucky sophomore home for the summer here, loses complete awareness that she has a body.

Her eyes close and she sees static, like the kind of static on a television screen when the cable goes out. But this static hurts.

Amy wants the static to go away because the pain is unbearable. At one point she stops breathing because not inhaling clears the static somewhat and makes the pain go away.

Amy is having what some drug users call a “bad trip,” the kind of trip that in Amy’s case ended with an ambulance ride to the emergency room at The Medical Center.

Amy, whose name was changed for this story, agreed to speak anonymously to the Daily News to warn other young people about the dangers of smoking incense.

A clerk at Prince Hookah Lounge, where Amy bought the 7H, says it is one of his best sellers. The clerk points out to a buyer that the $25 product is “potpourri” and is not for human consumption. It sits behind a clear plastic display case along with other incense such as Crazy Monkey.

Prince Hookah Lounge owner Amar Shoraba said his customers were clamoring to get their hands on 7H. As a businessman, he wants to sell what consumers are looking to buy. But he points out that he would not sell 7H for any amount of money if a customer said he was buying the product to smoke it.

“Nobody can smoke that stuff,” Shoraba said. “It’s herbal incense. People are not supposed to smoke it.”

Much like with paint or glue, which are manufactured for specific purposes but sometimes used as inhalants by people looking for a high, many people looking for a cheap, legal alternative to pot are smoking 7H.

Amy, a pre-med student who tried marijuana on a visit to Amsterdam, where the substance is bought, sold and used legally, thought 7H would produce a similar feeling.

She was wrong.

“When my trip started, I closed my eyes, and then all of a sudden everything that had happened before, I had forgotten it all. I forgot that everything existed. I couldn’t remember who I was,” she said.

“It was like I was created in that moment and nothing else had ever happened before. I started seeing white dots like static. That’s all I saw. I wasn’t really aware that I had a body. I tried to look through the static. When I stopped focusing, it started feeling like a sharp pain.”

Amy started making sounds.

“When I made a note, the static would change like I dropped a pebble into a lake,” Amy said.

When Amy’s mother found her making the noise, it was screams. Then she noticed that Amy appeared to have stopped breathing. Amy’s mother called for an ambulance. Amy spent the next several hours in a hospital bed. Her feelings cycled from pain, to confusion to paranoia. She then spent the next several days feeling paranoid and unsure if the things around her were real. Nearly two weeks later, Amy still experiences some fear that if she closes her eyes, the static will return.

Amy is one of several patients to come through the emergency room at The Medical Center after smoking “incense.”

“We’ve had several cases lately, particularly younger individuals, under the influence of some sort of incense or bath salts,” said Dr. Bart Spurlin, director of the emergency department at the hospital. “They’re hallucinating, paranoid, acting erratically. As far as I know, there have not been any deaths at our facility due to it. But I have heard and read about other cases where there have been.”

Spurlin can’t say for certain that his recent emergency room patients were under the influence specifically of 7H unless someone tells him. And because no one knows what exactly is in the incense, it’s difficult to treat patients who react to it after smoking it.

“It’s frustrating on our behalf,” Spurlin said. “It’s not like treating someone under the influence of alcohol or narcotics. In this case, we don’t really know (what the substance is). We have to treat symptoms as they arise and monitor labs and vital signs.

“When we call Poison Control, they will tell us they don’t know either,” Spurlin said.

Mitch Plumlee III, a behavioral health specialist at Park Place Recovery Center, expressed similar concerns with 7H and other incense.

“One of the troubles with these drugs is they are having some strange effects, and we’re not always clear what specific chemicals are in them that are causing these effects. The chemicals vary from brand to brand and obviously, it’s not regulated.

“Nobody knows the long-term side effects because it hasn’t been around,” he said.

The packaging on 7H lists several ingredients that it does not contain - recently banned chemicals found in synthetic marijuana. The packaging refers to the product as “potpourri” and states that it is 100 percent legal in all 50 states. However, the packaging does not say what’s inside or where it is made.

That’s troubling to Bowling Green-Warren County Drug Task Force Director Tommy Loving, who said his agency isn’t sure if 7H is legal because they don’t know what’s in it.

“After receiving complaints about it and hearing of emergency room visits attributed to it, we have purchased the product and sent it to the state police lab for testing,” Loving said. “It’s not clear to us if it’s one of the new designer drugs made illegal by the past legislature.

“We need to be able to say what this product contains, and then once we know that, we would probably proceed one of two routes. One, if it is an illegal substance, then we can make an arrest for the sale of it. If it is not an illegal substance but creates the problems we’re hearing about, then we would work with the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy to have this declared as an illegal substance.”

For Amy, she thought legal meant safe.

“I knew that it was legal, so I figured it would be OK,” Amy said.

While Amy’s medical providers told her she was never near death, her blood pressure and potassium levels dropped after she smoked 7H in a tobacco pipe. For a period of time while she was still under the influence of the incense, she said she was wishing that she didn’t exist while at the same time believing that she was nothing but a thought without a body.

Amy said she will never smoke 7H again, and she has warned her friends about it.

“Just because these substances are legal doesn’t mean that they are safe or nontoxic,” Spurlin said. “I would recommend as a doctor that you not ingest or smoke any substance that is not specifically for human consumption.

“If anyone knows or discovers a friend or relative who has ingested any of these substances or is abusing them, they should seek medical help.”