High interest: Is jenkem hokum?

While I was researching a previous blog on “cremainlining” (i.e., people who allegedly snort the ashes of dead people), I came across a number of press stories (all from the end of 2007) that American teenagers were allegedly using ‘jenkem’ and that it was becoming an epidemic in terms of its usage. Since the 2007 reports surfaced in the US, many further press reports and stories have questioned whether there is any evidence of jenkem use at all.

For those who have no idea what I am talking about, jenkum is a street drug (allegedly an auditory and visual hallucinatory inhalant) that is made from fermented human faeces and urine and according to users is more potent than cannabis and (according to news reports) gives “a powerful high” and has dissociation properties. The effects are alleged to last for about an hour, and it is sometimes known by the name ‘butthash’. Emma Guest describes jenkem as:

“Fermented human sewage, scraped from pipes and stored in plastic bags for a week or so, until it gives off numbing, intoxicating fumes” (from her 2003 book Children of AIDS: Africa’s Orphan Crisis)

Reports of its use first surfaced during the 1990s when news stories (including one by the BBC) started appearing about its use by Zambian children and teenagers living in Lusaka because it cost next to nothing to make. The correspondent who covered the story for the BBC (Ishbel Matheson) witnessed the practice first-hand:

At the Lusaka sewage ponds, two teenage boys plunge their hands into the dark brown sludge, gathering up fistfuls and stuffing it into small plastic bottles. They tap the bottles on the ground, taking care to leave enough room for methane to form at the top. A sour smell rises in the hot sun, but the boys seem oblivious to the stench and the foul nature of their task. They are manufacturing ‘Jenkem’, a disgusting, noxious mixture made from fermented sewage. It is cheap, potent and very popular among the thousands of street-children in Lusaka. When they cannot afford glue or are too scared to steal petrol, these youngsters turn to Jenkem as a way of getting high… Nobody knows exactly where the idea for making Jenkem came from, but it has been used by street-children in Lusaka for at least two years. Nason Banda of the Drug Enforcement Agency is not proud when he says that it is unique to Zambia. He shudders when he sees the boys at the sewage ponds, scavenging for faecal matter to make Jenkem”.

Jenkem derives its name from an African brand of glue named ‘Genkum’ which became the generic name for all types of glue used by African teenage glue sniffers. According to an interview conducted by Jamie Pietras in Salon magazine, Fumito Ichinose (an American expert on anesthesia was quoted as saying that “the inhalation of gases like those produced from jenkem could result in hypoxia, a lack of oxygen flow to the body that could be alternately euphoric and physically dangerous”. Pietras also reported that:

“Psychedelic researchers are unconvinced that huffing fecal fumes ever caught on in the U.S. ‘It is potentially believable to me that a handful of extremely experimental people have tried this, but it is also quite easy for me to believe that no one in the U.S. has actually produced and inhaled sewage gas of their own,’ says Earth Erowid, co-creator of Erowid.com, a repository of documented narcotic experiences, in an e-mail. The communications director for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, Jag Davies, is equally skeptical. Davies says no one at MAPS, which supports research into the medical use of hallucinogens, has heard of jenkem use and certainly not jenkem research in the United States”.

An article on jenkum in Wikipedia reported that:

In 2002, Project Concern International Zambia and Fountain of Hope released a report entitled ‘Rapid Assessment of Street Children In Lusaka’ where jenkem is listed as the third most popular drug among Lusaka’s street children, following Dagga (cannabis) and “glue and Dagga” but ahead of ‘Ballan’ (uncured tobacco) and petrol”.

It wasn’t until September 2007 that alleged use of jenkem by American adolescents first emerged following a bulletin about jenkem use issued by Corporal Disarro at Collier County’s Sheriff’s Department in Florida. The bulletin was instigated following an email to Disarro from a concerned parent regarding “a new drug called Jenkem”. The parent told Disarro that her child had learned about Jenkem through various conversations with several students at Palmetto Ridge High school. Disarro then researched the existence of the drug including a report on the TOTSE website.

However, the bulletin distributed across many US states was based on information from the dubious TOTSE website, and later admitted as a hoax by the person who posted the original article. (The TOTSE – Temple of the Screaming Electron – website was based in San Francisco and published on controversial and/or unusual subjects). However, the story spread and was reported by many major US news outlets including the Washington Post newspaper and the Fox News television channel. The story eventually spread to other countries including national television coverage in Australia.

From all my own reading on the topic it would appear that some American teenagers have tried jenkem (most likely as a result of hearing about it on the news) and even video recorded the experience. There are certainly videos on YouTube of jenkem being made and used. However, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence for widespread jenkem use except perhaps in Lusaka where the story originated.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK 

Further reading

Guest, E. (2003). Children of AIDS: Africa’s Orphan Crisis. London: Pluto Press.

Matheson, I. (1999). Children high on sewage. BBC News, July 30. Located at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/406067.stm

Mikkelson, B. & Mikkelson, D. (2011). Jenkum. Snopes.com, July 28. Located at: http://www.snopes.com/crime/warnings/jenkem.asp

Morgan, S. (2007). Drug Scare: Kids in Florida are Getting High by Sniffing Feces. Stop The Drug War, November 5. Located at: http://stopthedrugwar.org/speakeasy/2007/nov/05/drug_scare_kids_florida_are_gett

Pietras, J. (2007). Smoke this! Salon, November 9. Located at: http://www.salon.com/2007/11/09/jenkem/

Wikipedia (2012). Jenkem. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jenkem

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. In 2013, he was given the Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 800 research papers, five books, over 150 book chapters, and over 1500 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 3500 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on July 26, 2012, in Addiction, Adolescence, Culture Bound Syndromes, Drug use, Popular Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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