PLAQUEMINE — When Tonja Myles was a drug dealer, she didn’t care about the quality of the product.
She never thought whether it made a user sick — or put him 6 feet under.
“I didn’t care about what I gave you,” Myles told hundreds of students in the Plaquemine High School gym. “I was about the money you gave back.”
It’s the same today with the dealers and convenience stores selling synthetic marijuana — often called mojo. They don’t know if the chemical-laced product causes seizures, hallucinations or other reactions, said Myles, who has since turned her life around.
“Mojo is jacked up,” Myles said. “It’s no good.”
As an outreach coordinator for the Capital Area Human Services District, Myles is campaigning against the drug, which is created by dosing a smokable organic material, like incense or grass clippings, with a chemical created to mimic the effects of marijuana.
Half-rap show, half-earnest speeches, the rally at Plaquemine High was the fourth of seven in the Baton Rouge area.
“I told you last year that prescription drugs would be the devastation of our people,” Iberville Parish Sheriff Brett Stassi said. “I have to adjust that. Synthetic marijuana and synthetic drugs will be.”
Synthetic cannabis was the third most popular illicit substance among high school students in a 2012 survey, according to the Center for Substance Abuse Research.
Hundreds of users have visited Baton Rouge-area hospitals this year complaining of racing heartbeats, extreme anxiety, vomiting, seizures and other effects.
Some students see it as a harmless substitute for smoking pot, Stassi said, but the drug is “created by people who are poisoning our parish, poisoning our people.”
More than 100 different chemical synthetic marijuana combinations have surfaced, experts told The Advocate in May. Their effects vary wildly.
“This is not made by Proctor & Gamble … this is being made in some store outside this country,” Stassi said.
Using her inspiring story to quiet a sometimes fidgety crowd of teens, Myles told the students of her own teen years when she became involved in drugs and then prostitution, how she “hated the skin I was in.” Later, after leaving that life behind, she was a guest of President George W. Bush at the State of the Union address.
“I believe you can still crunk it up without being drunk,” Myles said. “You don’t have to be high to have a good time.”
The staff at Capital Area Health Services commissioned local rapper Ivan Toldson, who performs as Love-N-Pain, to write a song and create a video for the rallies.
He responded with “No More Mojo,” which tells the story of a teen who tries the drug for the first time with fatal consequences.
The drug itself, personified with a voodoo-inspired, green-faced man in the video, touts the drug’s power.
“I’m in your soul,” he raps. “When you take a puff, that’s when I take control.”
Toldson performed with the video, then implored the students to take the drugs seriously. All addicts believe they wouldn’t get addicted, he said.
“Nothing I’m telling you is new,” Toldson said. “You are not exempt.”
He told the teens that he understood their complex lives.
“Some people say young people don’t stress,” he said. “Young people do get stressed.”
Then Toldson handed off the mic to Myles, who listed the Capital Area Human Services’ website and her Twitter account where the crowd could learn more.
She went a step further. Projected onto the screen was her cellphone number.
“I want your texts,” she told them.
The crowd was silent.
Before she gave the floor to Toldson for another song, Myles asked the crowd to repeat after her.
“I choose not to use!” she said, with hundreds of students echoing. “I choose not to use! I choose not to use!”
Toldson performed another song called “Winner,” climbing the bleachers to rap with the students, then passed out a few CDs as the rally ended.
As the students streamed out and returned to class, Myles’ phone began buzzing. Within 10 minutes, she had 30 new text messages.
Since the rally started two weeks before, she guessed she’d received about 350.
Some want someone to talk with her, she said, others want to help an addicted family member.
“I give them encouragement,” she said, “or I direct them to someone who can help.”