Cameron Evans, 23, has regularly smoked spice for most of the last five years. Like many others, he calls it “mojo” or “‘jo,” and until recently it was a big part of his life.
Evans said he started smoking spice when he tried to enter the workforce and had to pass required drug tests. Ironically, Evans said those tests — whether for a job or court ordered — are the reason most people he knows turned to the drug police are now calling “the single greatest threat to the health and safety of the Mobile area.”
“Basically, everybody in the community [Maysville] was smoking mojo,” he said. “We’d been hearing cases of people going to the hospital, but we were making up any excuse to keep smoking. We’d say, ‘Maybe that was a bad batch. Maybe this, maybe that.’”
To put his use in perspective, Evans described what happened in 2014 when a “bad batch” of spice was blamed for a handful of drug-related deaths in the area. When he and his friends got the news, Evans said they went actively looking for the “death pack.”
“We were thinking, ‘If he died off it, must have been something good,’” he said.
Use of the synthetic narcotic that used to be known generically as “synthetic marijuana” has compounded into a public health crisis over the last two years.
Now law enforcement officials warn spice is nothing like marijuana, and can even mimic the effects of methamphetamine and cause hallucinations in a state referred to as excited delirium.
According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, state hospitals saw at least 932 patients who had ingested or smoked spice between March and May of this year. Of those, 196 patients were hospitalized and five died from the manmade compound.
“It seems like South Alabama, certainly Mobile County, has seen the most problems with spice, but it’s a regional issue too,” Mobile Police Chief James Barber said. “But because of the problems we saw last spring, we’ve been very attentive to it.”
Locally, hospitals have reported an average of nine patients per day being treated for spice overdose or exposure, though recent operations and community outreach have put a dent in those numbers.
Barber said spice doesn’t discriminate, suggesting the Mobile Police Department (MPD) has responded to spice calls for users of all races, ages and income levels. However, the local statistics do paint a picture of one demographic being hit especially hard.
“Right now, 75 percent of the users we see are male, and the majority of those are 25- to 35-year-old black males,” Barber said. “We were trying to isolate it. That’s why our recent operations have focused on areas like Prichard, where we identified some of the local manufacturers of spice.”
Recently, the MPD conducted 14 search warrants associated with the outbreak that led to 12 arrests, pounds of the unpackaged and packaged product, and even large quantities of the precursor chemicals used to give spice its psychoactive effects.But as police double their efforts to combat the deadly drug, they’re also getting assistance from several predominantly black Port City communities that are feeling its effects first hand.
Today, Evans admits he was naive about the initial dangers of spice, but it took the death of someone he grew up with to show him something that “hit too close to home.”
That was only a little more than month ago, but Evans has since organized a small but growing grassroots effort encouraging users to leave spice alone.
Through word of mouth and social media, Evans has partnered with friends and relatives in a series of videos that have gotten favorable play on Facebook and other platforms. One video, called “Don’t Bring Mojo to Mobile,” features Evans and others from Maysville essentially threatening anyone they “catch selling jo in Mobile.”
According to Evans, that video has been shared 350 times and been seen by more than 63,000 viewers. He’s also been contacted by people from Texas, New York, Mississippi, Michigan and Louisiana about the video.
Like many social campaigns, Evans’ efforts are accompanied by a hashtag — one featuring an expletive not suitable for reprint, but also one leaving no room for interpretation as to how these young men feel about mojo now.
“We got guys riding around on bikes up and down the street with signs,” he said. “Some guys in one of the videos even sold mojo not long ago. When a dealer can turn around and say [to a supplier], ‘I’m not buying it from you, don’t bring it down here no more,’ that goes a long way.”
In fact, Evans approximately a dozen dealers he used to patronize have either left the Maysville area or stopped selling to join his cause. As he puts it, “They rocking with the movement.”
That movement isn’t isolated, though. Another group that started in the RV Taylor housing projects has organized a Facebook group called “Nomomojo 1.0” that currently boasts more than 600 members.
The group organized its first rally to end the use of spice last Saturday, and has future rallies planned in conjunction with local and regional leaders in the black community.
According to Barber, there has even recently been a report of former drug dealers “running off” an individual selling spice in the Campground neighborhood — an area Mobile police have focused on intensely over the past six months.
“There’s nothing wrong with them trying to tell someone to leave their neighborhood, and really, there’s nothing wrong them using a reasonable amount of physical force if the person is doing something illegal. But, you just don’t go out there and beat somebody up,” Barber said. “Anything we can do to get awareness out is helpful.”
Though the response from these communities wasn’t planned, it has lined up with a recent move the MPD has made toward more community-based tactics.
According to Barber, command personnel are now regularly engaging with community leaders in an effort to clean up historically high-crime areas.
Despite the difference these police tactics have yielded in places like the Campground, Evans said he still thinks some people are more prone to receiving the message about spice if it comes from someone they recognize, especially if that person has a history with the drug.
“Everybody used to see us walking down the street to buy ‘jo. The kids here know,” he said. “They know that mojo was our life. So if we’re willing to throw it away like that, it’s got to be something devastating about it.”