Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled Dont bogart that jenkem!: 18 fictional drugs

1. Synthehol, Star Trek
While it isn't the only fictional drug in the sprawling Star Trek canon—the substance ketracel-white, for instance, winds up playing an important role in Deep Space Nine—synthehol is the franchise's best-known and most ubiquitous intoxicant. Devised as an non-inebriating, non-addictive, hangover-free way to catch a mild buzz in Ten Forward, synthehol is standard issue on Federation starships—although, as a displaced-in-time Scotty shows in The Next Generation episode "Relics," the ass-kicking crew of Captain Kirk's Enterprise would've been none-too-thrilled by this so-called advancement in bacchanalian pleasure.

2. Soma, Brave New World
In Aldous Huxley's prescient 1932 novel Brave New World, the writer envisioned a scary and accurate future—including a population dumbed down by designer drugs like soma, a psychedelic substance that helped enforce a weird kind of happy-go-lucky, hedonistic dystopia. Huxley had long been fascinated with Eastern culture, and he named the drug after an apocryphal Persian concoction that may or may not have incorporated alcohol, cannabis, and 'shrooms into one mind-expanding brew. But Huxley was far from a "just say no" type: His well-documented experiments with the mystic, enlightening properties of peyote, mescaline, and LSD showed that his beef was with authority and government regulation, not drugs themselves.

3. Blue Sunshine, Blue Sunshine
Sometimes the bad trips come on slowly, man. In this 1976 horror movie, future softcore pornographer Zalman King plays a man who watches one of his friends go crazy after a partygoer rips off his toupee. Why? Turns out he took a strain of LSD called "Blue Sunshine," a drug that causes its users to go bald and bonkers 10 years after ingestion. What's more, a man now running for Congress distributed back in the day, and wants to keep that secret safely in his past. There's a pretty sharp satirical point in there somewhere about the aging '60s generation and their difficult relationship with the drugs they consumed with abandon as kids, but writer-director Jeff Lieberman mostly focuses on King's attempts to fight a political conspiracy and clean-pated crazyoids. Occasionally in discos.


4. Jenkem, urban legend
In the mid-1990s, a few sensational news stories reported that street urchins in Lusaka, Zambia, were congregating around sewage ponds in order to gather fecal matter for fermentation, so they could huff the reportedly intoxicating gases. By late 2007, jenkem (as the disgusting mixture was called) was the new reefer madness in American high schools. The Collier County, Florida police put out a stern official bulletin about its dangers, and at least one newspaper in Alabama picked up on the reports and got "confirmation" from their local law-enforcement that local kids were getting high on poop juice. But upon closer examination, no one had actually witnessed anything other than students talking big on the playground and passing rumors; the official descriptions of jenkem's effects in the Collier County bulletin had been drawn from a prank Internet posting. If jenkem proves one thing, it's that relatively well-off American wastoids can find more pleasant ways to get their kicks than breathing in compost. If it proves two things, it's that our vigilant sheriffs are ready to believe the worst. "We've heard that this was something students were doing, and it sounds crazy, but don't think they're not doing it here," said Alabama narcotics investigator Neal Bradley. With such ironclad proof, expect the D.A.R.E. curriculum to include jenkem warnings next semester.

5. SPANK, Grand Theft Auto III
Of the many scourges plaguing Liberty City, the fictional setting for the immensely popular 2001 video game Grand Theft Auto III, SPANK could be the worst. The drug has seemingly permeated the city's residents, and it becomes a key plot point of Grand Theft Auto—from beating up a pusher who's getting prostitutes hooked on it to taking on the Colombian cartel that controls the stuff. In spite of all that, players learn little about SPANK over the course of the game. It's apparently sold in packets, and its effects—mania, paranoia, etc.—seem similar to PCP and meth. On one of the in-game radio stations, a SPANK enthusiast dials a call-in show to say that SPANK isn't bad for you—and that "they" are controlling us through toothpaste.

6. Gingold, DC Comics' The Elongated Man
Most drugs in superhero comics are addictive and destructive. (Even the Golden Age hero Hourman eventually got hooked on his own power pill, Miraclo.) Leave it to the basically benign super-sleuth The Elongated Man to get his stretching abilities from a mild nutritional supplement, enhanced by chemistry. Having discovered that carnival contortionists all drink a soda flavored with the hard-to-find Gingo fruit, free-spirited intellectual Ralph Dibny concocts his own extra-intense version of the drink, which interacts with his latent metahuman genes and gives him the power to, well, elongate. Alongside his jet-setting wife Sue, Dibny travels the world, swilling Gingold soda and solving crimes, usually by stretching his ear really far to overhear the crooks' plans. Then his wife gets raped and murdered—but that isn't the Gingold's fault.


7. U4EA, Beverly Hills 90210
The second season of Beverly Hills 90210 found Brandon Walsh (Jason Priestley) engaged in a tumultuous relationship with beautiful/troubled/wildly coiffed newcomer Emily Valentine (Christine Elise). Drawn to her rebellious streak, Brandon accompanies Emily to an underground dance club (cool!) where she doses his drink with a drug called U4EA. (Not cool!) A clear analog for Ecstasy, U4EA makes Brandon feel good for a while. (Cool!) Unfortunately he feels too good to drive, and he returns the next day to find his car stripped for parts, prompting him to end his relationship. Not cool. Remember: Fictional drugs make you lose your car and force you to break up with your awesome, druggie girlfriend.

8. Mutant Growth Hormone, various Marvel comics
If you're a mutant in the Marvel Comics universe, normal folks tend to hate you. Or they want to be you. Or both. Popularized in Brian Michael Bendis' retired-superhero-turns-bitter-P.I. book Alias and his run on Daredevil, MGH has plagued Marvel's mean streets in recent years, giving users a temporary, and unpredictable, blast of mutant powers. Usually nothing good comes of it, making the normal people hate mutants even more, while MGH addicts head off to chase another dangerous high.


9. Promicin, The 4400
In similar fashion, the later seasons of The 4400 largely center around a substance called promicin, a dose of which either gives users a random superpower, or instantly kills them. After 4400 people disappeared from around the world and reappeared in Seattle with various supernatural abilities, crazy scientist Jeffrey Combs found the previously unknown substance in their blood; he isolated it and created a glowing yellow injectable form, which he started taking obsessively, gradually gaining his own minor superpowers as a result. (All of which was a clear homage to the 1985 cult-hit H.P. Lovecraft adaptation Re-Animator, in which a character played by Combs created a similarly glowing yellow goop he called "the reagent," which turned corpses into shambling zombies, though Combs also frequently shot it up himself, it in place of coffee and No-Doz.) As The 4400 progressed and the abductees were increasingly treated as second-class citizens and threats to national security, some of the "4400s" began distributing injectable promicin freely on the street, so people could gain their own superpowers and join the 4400 movement. (Or die, and no longer be the 4400s' problem.) Oddly, the government's subsequent War On Promicin wasn't much more effective than its current War On Drugs.

10. Melange, Dune
Originally intended as a metaphor for fossil fuels, the drug melange—better known as "the spice"—is one of the building blocks of Frank Herbert's Dune books. The self-titled debut of the series introduces the strange genesis and effects of melange: Formed in a complex process out of excretions from the giant sandworms of the desert planet Arrakis—the only planet in the known universe where it can be made—spice has become humankind's most precious natural resource. Without its psychotropic, ESP-granting powers (not to mention the side effect of all-blue eyes and even total mutation), interplanetary travel is impossible. On a more immediate level, it's the main cultural currency of the desert-dwelling Fremen of Arrakis, and the substance that becomes pivotal in their search for a new messiah.

11. Substance D, A Scanner Darkly
In Richard Linklater's spiritually faithful adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel A Scanner Darkly, the very near future is a world much like our own—only America is out of its freakin' gourd on Substance D, a new drug distilled from a little blue flower that amps up hallucination and paranoia into an almost transcendental freakiness. The film and book both dive deep into the fevered minds of addicts, but it focuses just as much on the social, cultural, and even economic forces behind drug epidemics, and the wars fought against them. In one particularly enlightening interview from 1977, Dick recounted some of the real-life, post-hippie paranoia that was funneled into A Scanner Darkly:

12. Glint, Strangers With Candy
In the first episode of Strangers With Candy, Jerri Blank (Amy Sedaris) struggles to fit in as a 46-year-old freshman at Flatpoint High. To butter up the popular girls, she draws on her years as a junkie runaway and mixes up a batch of glint ("also known as glow, glimmer, or Satan's harelip") from nasty-looking household chemicals. Jerri's classmate Poppy rubs the sparkly green goop on her lips and experiences numbness, hallucinations, and superhuman energy. Believing she's a bee, Poppy kills herself trying to fly through a keyhole. Jerri takes advantage of the school's grieving to hold a "memorial party," at which glint-crazed guests kill her pet turtle, Shelly.


13. Banandine, urban legend
Forty years after the Berkeley Barb printed a satirical story about a supposed hallucinogenic called "bananadine" in a bid to get the authorities to ban bananas, the legend that smoking banana peels can blow your mind, man, is still going strong. The March 1967 story spread all over the country, causing communities to organize "smoke-outs" against the scourge, and hippies to chant paeans to the tropical fruit at be-ins. It received a further boost when William Powell included a recipe for purifying and using bananadine ("1. Obtain 15 lbs. of ripe yellow bananas…") in The Anarchist Cookbook. And that's how it keeps popping up in popular myth today, since the Cookbook is still in print (against the wishes of its author, who regards it as a youthful misadventure). New York University did a study on peel scrapings later in 1967 and concluded that there were no psychoactive substances to be found there—the high, they said, was psychological. That didn't stop the Dead Milkmen from recommending banana highs in 1988 ("Smokin' Banana Peels"). Who are you gonna believe? Eggheads, or the Milkmen? If you ask us, those scientists are on a bum trip, dude. Don't let them harsh your yellow mellow.

14. Nuke, RoboCop 2
Like a cross between Timothy Leary and Charles Manson, RoboCop 2's murderous, messianic Cain believes that his designer drug Nuke is the way to paradise, thus his plans to distribute it to the entire city. While some might quibble with Cain's ethics, there's no denying his marketing finesse: Nuke is cheap, highly potent, long-lasting, and incredibly easy to use, consisting of a small needle-tipped tube injected directly into the jugular. It also comes in several fun and colorful flavors, in names that resemble narcotic Otter Pops—Red Ramrod, Black Thunder, White Noise, Blue Velvet—each with their own distinctive highs, and all conveniently transported in a cassette-tape case. It's no wonder half of Old Detroit, even RoboCop's fellow officers, are hooked on the stuff. And considering OCP's plans to turn the city into a bland, corporate-controlled community, is Cain's vision really any more despicable?

15. Gleemonex, Kids In The Hall: Brain Candy
Billed as making you "feel like it's 72 degrees in your head all the time," Gleemonex is the controversial creation of Dr. Chris Cooper (Kevin McDonald), who has made it his lifelong mission to find a one-stop cure for depression. On the surface, it sounds like a dream: In Cooper's words, his pill "reaches into your brain 'chemically,' then it locates your happiest memory 'chemically,' then it locks onto that emotion and freezes it 'chemically,' and then it keeps your happy happy." But in spite of its initial (albeit enduring) euphoria and the way it seemingly changes lives for the better—Bruce McCullouch's "Grivo" ditches his dour grunge music for award-winning songs about pie; Scott Thompson's "Wally" finally comes out to his family—eventually Gleemonex users become little more than smiling shells, endlessly replaying their happiest memories while trapped in permanent comas. But no one ever said happiness came without a price.

16. Snow crash, Snow Crash
In Neal Stephenson's breakthrough novel Snow Crash, the titular substance is both a drug and a computer virus, as well as an ancient Sumerian curse of sorts—in fact, it's practically a floor wax and a candy mint too. The hero/protagonist Hiro Protagonist encounters snow crash early on in the book, as the hot new designer drug all his friends and associates are doing, in part because it has a unique ability to affect them both in meatspace and in the virtual world where most of them hang out. Then, as the computer-virus side kicks in, it starts destroying that virtual world. Don't do the Sumerian meta-acid, kids. It's a real bummer.


17. Mimezine, Wild Palms
Much like snow crash, mimezine is part drug, part trippy virtual-reality experience, and all evil plot by an ambitious church leader trying to take over people's minds. One might almost expect that the miniseries' creators had, um, read Stephenson's 1992 book before making their 1993 series. In Wild Palms' world (which also bears a dreamy similarity to that of David Lynch's Twin Peaks, which had just ended) the launch of a new holographic TV network coincides with the launch of a new designer drug, mimezine; users experience the TV holograms as solid and real, and can interact with them. Problem is, mimezine is addictive, and overuse causes users to hallucinate a giant cathedral, where they start to congregate. This all takes place in the wildly high-tech far-flung future of 2007. Now, in addition to flying cars, we can all bitch about being denied solid holograms and drugs that promote church-going.

18. Various disgusting substances, Naked Lunch
Vegetarians often point out that if the average human carnivore could see where their meats come from, they'd swear off. In theory, the same should go for the various drugs people use to deal with the grimness and griminess of life in the David Cronenberg adaptation of William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch. It's bad enough when an writer-exterminator played by Peter Weller starts ingesting his own "bug powder dust" and hallucinating that his typewriter is also a giant talking bug/anus. But then he moves on to "black meat," a narcotic made out of giant centipedes, and then to "mugwump jism," acquired by, well, sucking on mugwumps. Which do not look like something anyone should want to suck, no matter how profound the high. Supposedly, all this is how the Weller in the film, a Burroughs stand-in in several ways, came to write the book Naked Lunch. Given what a choppy, psychedelic mess the book is, that isn't too hard to believe.


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