In the Los Feliz neighborhood, youths who ingest the toxic plant to get high have been sickened.
One day last week officer Al Polehonki took his police cruiser out for a garden tour of Los Feliz.
He was looking for a toxic plant called angel's trumpet, a plant common in Southern California that is known for its large, flared flowers that Polehonki described as looking "like lilies with long necks."
Each time he spotted the plant in front of a house, he got out, knocked on the door and asked whoever answered: Do you know that kids pick these flowers and chew them to get high?
At least twice this year paramedics have been called to nearby Marshall High School to treat students who became ill after ingesting angel's trumpet, school officials say. Polehonki, who is familiar with those cases, said the students suffered nausea, delirium and difficulty breathing. He said he has heard of two other cases in which neighborhood youths became seriously ill after eating the plant.
They do it, said 14-year-old Marshall High freshman Earl Harris, "because it makes them feel relaxed and calm."
Harris said he has heard fellow students talk about eating angel's trumpet and how it makes them feel, although he said he's never eaten the plant himself.
Angel's trumpet is a relative of jimson weed, a smaller plant that grows wild and that has long been a subject of teenage lore.
David Nichols, a pharmacologist at Purdue University and an expert in psychoactive drugs, said angel's trumpet, like jimson weed, "does produce hallucinations, but at toxic levels."
"It is not something to play around with," Nichols said. "Drugs like LSD or marijuana will never kill you, but angel's trumpet can."
Officials with the Los Angeles Unified School District say they have not heard of students using angel's trumpet at other schools.
"This is not an epidemic," said Earl Perkins, the district's assistant superintendent for school operations. Other school officials said that substances such as marijuana and household chemicals that students inhale are more common.
But unlike those substances, angel's trumpet is ubiquitous -- and free. That's what worries Polehonki.
On his recent tour, Polehonki said, he found one such plant at a house on Lyric Avenue, one block from Marshall High. "Just about every flower within reaching distance was missing," he said.
The officer alerted the homeowner, who agreed to chop it down.
Polehonki has warned other residents, "If you've got the plant, keep an eye on it."
Harris, who was hanging out with friends after school Thursday, listening to rap music on an amplified iPod, said he first heard talk about angel's trumpet, or "angel," two months ago.
"I've been seeing these plants my whole life," he said, "and I never knew they did that."
By Kate Linthicum
February 19, 2010