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Ashley Stillwell, now a 19-year-old freshman at Western Kentucky University, was feeling on top of the world during the summer of 2011. She had just graduated from Warren East High School and felt like ‘The Hulk:’ “Nothing could touch me,” she said.
She had never used drugs or alcohol before in her life, but on the night of Aug. 21, she made a decision that would alter her life forever: She took one hit of legal synthetic marijuana and was paralyzed for three hours.
Stillwell visited Carroll County High School on Friday, Jan. 27 to share her story with the student body and to explain to them the dangers of using synthetic drugs. She also spoke at the Carroll County Alternative Learning School, Carroll County Middle School and Cartmell Elementary.
On the night of Aug. 21, Stillwell’s best friend since grade school called and asked if she wanted to try 7H, which is synthetic marijuana. He said the drug was legal and it would show her what it was like to be high. Stillwell said she had always been good at saying ‘no’ to peer pressure and she had a gut feeling that something would go wrong, but she ignored it.
The pair went to a hookah bar across the street from WKU’s campus, and her friend went into the bar and bought a bag of 7H for $25. Stillwell said she did not see the package when he brought it back, which was labeled as potpourri and said it was “not meant for human consumption.”
Stillwell said it had no smell, and it looked like grass with bright colored pieces in it that matched the package. “This looked nothing like marijuana, not even close,” she said.
They went back to her friend’s apartment, and he took the first hit of the drug with a bong. Stillwell said she watched him for a few minutes and he was fine. There was another guy there that she did not know, and he also took a hit and was fine. She said she heard her mom’s voice in her head and that gut feeling get even stronger.
At 6:15 p.m. Stillwell took one hit of 7H and was paralyzed for three hours. She could not open her eyes or her mouth, and she had to remind herself to breathe.
However, she could hear everything. She said they took her pulse, poured water on her head and tried to flip the couch to wake her up. And then her best friend from grade school said words she would never forget: If she does not wake up in 30 minutes, they would throw her in the Barren River.
Stillwell eventually came to and was very lethargic. She could not keep her eyes open and was dizzy and unable to focus.
She checked her phone, and she had 14 missed calls from her parents. She called her dad back, and when he asked why she did not answer, she lied and said she had left her phone in the car. She did not tell him that she had almost died.
Her dad told her she needed to come home. After hanging up the phone, Stillwell realized that if she drove, she could kill herself or go to jail for killing someone else. So she called her parents back and said she needed to be picked up.
“My body was so weak and so tired,” Stillwell said. She said threw up on herself because she could not even bend over.
When she got home, every time she closed her eyes, her mom would have to get close to her face and shake her to get her to wake up. All she wanted to do was sleep and to be left alone.
Her mom and her mom’s best friend took her to the emergency room.
Stillwell’s best friend said the effects would only last one hour. At 11:15 p.m. she was still being affected by something the law says is OK, she said. Her mom requested she be drug tested, but her blood test could not detect anything. Doctors do not know how to treat you if tests do not detect anything is wrong, Stillwell said.
At 12:15 p.m. she was hooked to an IV and was still being affected by the drug until the medicine hit her system.
After sharing her story, Stillwell said she knows not everyone paid attention to her talk and that some are thinking this won’t happen to them, but she guaranteed that someone in the audience is taking synthetic marijuana right now. “If you tried it, you’re risking your life. Period,” she said. “Just because the law says it’s OK doesn’t mean it’s OK.”
Stillwell said she and her family worked hard to ban synthetic drugs in Warren County and she wants to see them banned statewide. She said taking a stand on this issue has led to her having fewer friends, but she said she would rather have no friends than friends who want to throw her in the river.
In an interview after the presentation, Amy Stillwell, her mother, said they worked with the city commission and fiscal court to ban a wide range of chemicals that are used in synthetic drugs from Warren County. The local drug task force took different bags of drugs and tested them. They found chemicals common in many of the drugs and worked to have them banned.
Amy said the task force found 14 stores in Bowling Green and Warren County that were selling the drugs containing those chemicals, and the first bust took place that week at the hookah bar where Ashley and her friend purchased the 7H.
On the state level, Rep. C.B. Embry Jr., R-Morgantown, filed a bill for the 2012 Kentucky Legislative Session that, if passed, would add synthetic drugs to the list of controlled substances that would be considered illegal in Kentucky, according to Kentucky House Republican Caucus website.
Under House Bill 198, KRS 218A.010 dealing with controlled substances would be amended to include “synthetic cannabinoids or piperazines.”
According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, synthetic cannabinoids are functionally similar to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) the active principle of cannabis or marijuana. According to the Centre website, synthetic cannabinoid began turning up in herbal smoking mixtures or so-called incense/room odorizers in late 2008. Legislation making possession of synthetic cannabinoids a Class B misdemeanor punishable by a term of up to 30 days in jail was passed and became law in June 2011.
According to the Caucus website, piperazines have recently been used in the manufacture of plastics, resins, pesticides, brake fluid and other industrial materials. According to the EMCDDA, piperazines have recently been used as illegal drugs on the rave scene, often called ‘party pills’ starting in New Zealand and Europe in the early part of the last decade before spreading to the United States.
Ashley said she has not been to Frankfort yet, but she wants to be there when it passes. Her main goal is to go national and get all of the synthetic drugs out of the United States. “I want it gone, everything.”
Her mom said, at first, Ashley was hesitant to share her experience with others, but she insisted. She first began speaking in September and has gone to about 20-25 different places, including schools, recovery centers and organizations.
Champions for a Drug Free Carroll County Assistant Coordinator Sheila Chowning first heard Stillwell speak at a substance seminar in Bowling Green. There were multiple speakers, but Stillwell stood out. “She was so powerful,” she said. “I knew she would be able to relate to our kids.”
Her trip to Carroll County is her first outside Warren County. “This is such a welcoming place. I’m blessed to be here,” Stillwell said.
The incident drew her to become a psychology major because she wants to learn how the synthetic drugs affect the brain. She said she is very lucky because the hit she took of 7H did not leave any long-term side effects. She wants to become a counselor for troubled teens and young adults.
Ashley and her mom created the Facebook page “The Face of 7H,” and she encouraged the students to “Like” the page and to feel free to message her if they have any questions or need someone to talk to. Her goal when she speaks is to get across to at least one person. She said she likes talking to the students afterward and is amazed that people will trust her with their stories, a complete stranger.
In closing her talk, Stillwell said, “Legal does not mean safe. At all. Make sure your friends are going to have your back when something bad happens.”
Chowning said she hopes the students learned to never try synthetic drugs or if they currently are doing so to stop. “Hopefully today at least opened a few eyes because, as she said, it’s like playing Russian roulette (when you use drugs).”