Are kids in Florida inhaling the fumes of their own feces to get high?
Police in Naples, Fla., are on the lookout for users of "jenkem," a homemade drug created by allowing human urine and feces to ferment in a bottle with a balloon covering the opening. Users inhale the released methane gas from the balloon to get a "euphoric high similar to ingesting cocaine, but with strong hallucinations of times past," according to a Collier County Sheriff's Office bulletin.
The downside: "Subjects who used the jenkem disliked the taste of sewage in their mouth and the fact that the taste continued for several days."
Sounds too gross to be true, right? Well, maybe.
Jenkem is real. If you're down and out and looking for kicks in Lusaka, Zambia, the BBC reported in 1995 that street children gather at the city's sewage ponds to brew the drug.
But according to the police in Florida, who first issued the bulletin at the end of September, and officials at the Drug Enforcement Agency in Washington, no reports of the foulmouthed inhalant have been confirmed in the United States.
"We have had no confirmed cases," said Jamie Mosbach, a spokesperson for the sheriff's office. "It came through an anonymous tip after someone saw something on the Internet and heard something about it from their child at a local high school. We just thought we'd inform our deputies in case they saw something."
What about jenkem use in other parts of the country? "We haven't seen it yet," said Garrison Courtney, a spokesman for the DEA.
"It is in Africa, we know that… We've heard rumors and speculation about it here, but part of looking for trends is listening first for speculation. It is something we want to keep on top of. The same sort of thing happened when we first heard of kids huffing freon or whippets [nitrous oxide, often found in whipped cream canisters]," he said.
Mosbach summed up the challenge police often face when tipped off to something they've never heard of: "We don't know if it's real or a hoax."
Police have to follow up on any lead, whether they believe it to be a hoax or not, said Eugene O'Donnell, a professor of law and police science at John Jay College in New York.
"A lot of stuff law enforcement hears is farfetched. Anyone who has been a cop can tell stories of hearing ridiculous things that turn out to be true. Police departments are public service agencies and you have to take people at their word and face value," he said. "If someone comes to me on the street and says I got robbed, I have to believe them. I don't know if it is a prank or an exaggeration or if that person is just high."
Cops must constantly sift through real reports and rumors based on urban legends.
Cpl. Jefferson Davenport at the Pennsylvania State Police Academy found himself at the center of an urban legend last spring.
A viral e-mail with Davenport's name attached circulated across the Internet warning drivers that flashing their high beams at cars driving without their lights on at night would find themselves on the wrong end of a dangerous street gang initiation.
"It's good that people are actually checking with us to see if the rumor is true," Pennsylvania State Police public information officer Linette Quinn told ABC News.
She said her department had been inundated with calls of people reporting they had seen cars driving at night with their lights off.
"Most urban legends have some small basis in fact," said Richard Newtson, a professor of sociology at Columbus State University.
The fact that jenkem is used in Africa, coupled with the speed with which the Internet can distribute both real and rumored information, may have led that first tipster to call the cops in Florida.
"Because of the nature of police work, e-mails that at first blush may seem ridiculous, have to be taken seriously and that creates room for cops to be hoaxed," O'Donnell said.
"E-mail and the Internet allow for something isolated that took place across the globe to worry people here at home," he added.