originally published March 26, 2014
If there is one constant in human nature – and I hope there’s more than one, or I’ll never again be able to employ this opening – it’s that people love to get high. Some get their highs from adrenaline, others from religious fulfillment, and still others simply from exhuming the joyous moments from the depths of every waking moment. For the rest of us, we have other options.
I’m not one to judge another person’s form of escapism, unless that escapism somehow infringes upon my life. If your intake of bath salts instills a desire to consume my flesh as though it were made from Doritos, we have a problem. If your eleventh Jaeger-bomb has convinced you that you’re just fine to drive home despite the fact that your keys feel “fuzzy” in your fingertips, that ain’t right. But if you can get high while posing a danger only to yourself, simply because you feel the need for a swizzled splash of tweaked consciousness, I say go for it.
Even if that splash comes from a polyethylene bag of human poop.
Hey, we’ve all been there. Well, maybe not there, but we’ve all… actually no, most of us have never been anywhere near there. I might have to rethink my lack of judginess on this one. If jenkem is your thing, you really might need to re-evaluate your life.
I’m just going to lay this out there. Jenkem is an inhalant drug, created solely from the stench of fermented human waste. I don’t know the backstory of the first person to have discovered this – though I would certainly tune in for the TV movie based on his or her journey – but for a period in the mid 1990’s, jenkem was all the rage among street children in Zambia. You see, parents? Take away your kids’ Playstations and they’ll have nothing to do but run around in the street and huff doody.
The human waste is scraped from pipes or scooped up from the fringes of the sewer ponds into old cans or containers. The mere fact that these pipes and sewer ponds are so easily accessible to passers-by already bumps Zambia way down near the bottom of my travel bucket-list, alongside North Korea, any place currently at war, and Regina, Saskatchewan.
Anyway, the poo collector is careful to leave a little room at the top for the methane gas to build, then the container is covered with a polyethylene plastic bag and left to stew for a week. Like a fine wine, you want that poo to be just so.
The effects of jenkem are apparently quite potent – and they had better be, given the sacrifice in dignity required to consume it. The user inhales the fumes, then spends about an hour doing what experts refer to as “tripping balls”. One user claims it’s more potent than cannabis. In a 1999 report, another user claimed, “With glue, I just hear voices in my head. But with jenkem, I see visions. I see my mother who is dead and I forget about the problems in my life.”
I get that – people living in the hellish streets of Zambia, where the three-headed hydra of AIDS, dysentery and malaria is lounging around every corner, deserve a way to forget about the problems in their lives. But the buzz these kids are chasing is a stepping stone to hypoxia, wherein a lack of oxygen flow can induce euphoria and/or death. Call me an elitist, but I prefer an intoxicant that doesn’t feature death as one of its most frequent side-effects.
As soon as reports began filtering in from Africa about jenkem’s potent effects and inexpensive… umm, harvesting methods, it was only a matter of time before fears hit American schools. Surely the drug that ranks #3 in popularity among street children in Lusaka, Zambia (after marijuana and glue) must be somewhere near the cutting edge of local culture eventually, right? A 2007 bulletin issued by the sheriff’s department of Collier County, Florida said hell yes.
Their insider tip came from an online forum, and was quickly dismissed as untrue. That didn’t stop further reports from bubbling up through the fetid guk of ugly gossip: KIMT in Mason City, Iowa reported jenkem use, as did WIFR-TV in Rockford, Illinois. A spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Agency asserted in a Washington Post piece that yes, people in America have tried the stuff, but they fell short of calling it a new trend in schools. They’d have difficulty enforcing the use of jenkem anyway, since technically speaking, feces and urine are not drugs.
Warnings popped up all over the media. Just because there’s no factual documentation to support the drug’s existence on this continent doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all be extremely afraid. WSBT-TV in South Bend, Indiana warned parents to sniff their children’s breath at night. Affiliates in Jacksonville, Florida began referring to the stuff as ‘butt hash’ (which I think is brilliant). In 2009, Bettendorf, Iowa actually changed their law regarding illegal inhalants to include organic substances – just to make sure jenkem stayed illegal.
That’s 2-3 years of false reports – which the notable urban myth page Snopes.com was on top of from the very beginning – and no substantiated evidence of people huffing poo-stank, and still there was concern that this would become a thing. Are parents that unaware how inexpensively a kid can procure a hit of ecstasy or a fifth of moonshine? What’s next? Worrying that kids are going to take what we give them for lunch and find a way to get high off it?
Well, of course there’s bananadine. In 1967 the Berkeley Barb, an underground newspaper well-known to Bay Area hippies published an article that claimed the aforementioned substance could be extracted from household bananas to procure a delightful buzz. The article was meant to be satire, to pose the question as to the validity of our well-entrenched illegal substances by positing a what-if scenario: what if something as innocent as a banana could get people high? Should bananas then be illegal?
William Powell slipped a recipe for extracting bananadine into The Anarchist’s Cookbook in 1970, which led researchers at New York University to dig through the pulp of the issue and conclude that no, there’s nothing in a banana peel that can get you high. It’s the good ol’ placebo effect, the same thing that will twizzle your innards if you roll some oregano into a spice joint. Or breathe deep the days-old noisomeness of someone’s fermented deuce.
But just to be safe, let’s not try that last one, okay? Even if the cool kids tell you it’s some seriously potent shit.