Jenkem: Grosser than a poodle in the microwave

Just chocolate milk: Delicious chocolate milk. (image courtesy of goatopolis on
What’s that? You aren’t up on “jenkem” yet? It’s only the next big thing in chemical abuse, my friends. What exactly is it? Oh, we’ll get to that.

A little background first – “jenkem,” as far as one can tell, originated in Zambia, where it was used as a substitute for other inhalant drugs, like gasoline or glue (“Genkem” is an African glue brand, and “Jenkem” is thought to have derived from that as a generalized term for inhalants). Jenkem seems to have first surfaced in the mid-nineties, with several periodicals at the time reporting its abuse among street children in Lusaka, Zambia.

But, again, what is it? Well… uh… basically, jenkem is the collected gas of fermented human excrement and urine.

The gas supposedly acts as a powerful hallucinogen. The exact active components of jenkem aren’t known because, surprise surprise, no organization has yet put much research into the psychoactive effects of poop gas. It is likely, however, that the inhaled methane and hydrogen sulfide gas may play a role in jenkem’s physiological effects.

As you might already have guessed, a drug like jenkem is a symptom of utter poverty and social desperation. That jenkem caught on in a place like Lusaka, where AIDS and poverty have created tens of thousands of street children, is, sadly, perhaps not entirely surprising. It does not seem very probable, however, that a drug like jenkem would find much of a foothold in the United States, which is why its appearance in the news of the last couple weeks has been particularly interesting.

Last week, multiple local news crews across the country, um, got wind of a leaked sheriff’s bulletin from Collier County, Florida, warning of the use of jenkem among American teens. Stations began running stories warning parents of this “dirty new drug,” and urging them, in at least one story, to “wait up for them (their children) at night and not let their kids go to bed until they have seen them and smelled their breath.” A spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Agency even made the statement that “there are people in America trying [Jenkem].”

This storm of reaction is remarkable in that, despite the news stories and the DEA warning, no one has actually seen any direct evidence of the use of jenkem in America.

The original Collier County bulletin, it turns out, was based on one Florida teenager’s “trip report” posted on a website, with pictures of himself doing jenkem and a description of its effects. The kid, however, recently admitted that it was a hoax, and that the “jenkem” pictured was made using “flour, water, beer, and Nutella.” Probably not delicious, but not jenkem either.

Organizations like the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, as well as websites that specialize in documenting psychedelic experiences, admit that it’s possible that a few individuals in the U.S. may have experimented with something like jenkem, but are extremely skeptical of the claim that it has become anything more than that. The Partnership for a Drug Free America stated that they had not even heard of jenkem.

Pretty much everything about jenkem reeks of an urban legend.

Hallucinogenic drugs can be extremely dangerous, it’s never a good idea to get sewage close to your mouth, and while hydrogen sulfide (sewer gas) can be tolerated at low levels, higher concentrations (like, say, from huffing it) can be deadly poisonous. So, as bizarre as something like jenkem sounds, one shouldn’t forget how dangerous it is.

Even so, it seems like this reaction to the supposed appearance of jenkem in the U.S. had less to do with the actual danger of the substance than it did with the media’s love of scare stories, and a strange sort of “moral panic” over a vaguely perceived drug threat.

Fermented sewage. Weird. has a pretty good article on the whole thing here.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Linzi Thomas's picture
Linzi Thomas says:

I work in SA with the children living in marginalization - we shot a documentary with our ex street youth and the kids currently living on the streets. They told us that the only glue they do not touch is Henkel. I started researching - to find out that Henkel is the only tolurine free glue and the kids will not get a high if they touch it, just a headache. I have been down the road of getting the police in to prosecute the sellers, this is no solution.
The solution, in my mind, is to lobby the glue companies that are producing glue that has tolurine, which gives the HIGH.
Linzi Thomas

posted on Tue, 11/13/2007 - 6:33am
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

That was something that came up several times when I was looking into this - that because these inhalants aren't technically drugs (especially one like jenkem, which isn't even something that's manufactured) it's very difficult to regulate them in any way.

In Zambia some people are trying to get jenkem classified as a narcotic, so that kids using it can be "diverted" into juvenile detention centers. I don't know if that's a great solution, although (again) considering that there's no way to control the production of jenkem, maybe it's a start.

I didn't know that about tolurine. That's something.

posted on Tue, 11/13/2007 - 11:51am

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