Are "pharm parties" real or a media invention?

Media criticism.
June 19 2006 7:13 PM

Phar-Fetched "Pharm Parties"

Real or a media invention?

Do "pharm parties" exist?

If this is your introduction to the subject of pharm parties—those alleged social gatherings where teenagers gather to swap psychoactive pharmaceuticals—I suggest you first read the column I wrote last week criticizing a Page One, June 13, report in USA Today about the phenomenon.

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In it, USA Today claims that drug-abuse counselors "across the USA" say they're "beginning to hear about similar pill-popping parties, which are part of a rapidly developing underground culture that surrounds the rising abuse of prescription drugs by teens and young adults."

My column looked askance at the story, noting that the reporter hadn't witnessed a pharm party firsthand, nor had she interviewed a pharm party attendee, nor had she interviewed a police officer who had broken up one. Without a doubt, some teenagers do drugs. Without a doubt, some do drugs together. I'm certain that some of today's teenagers—like those from my generation (the 1960s)—even share drugs, including their own prescription pharmaceuticals or other licit drugs they've diverted from legal channels.

But pharm parties, where, "Bowls and baggies of random pills often … called 'trail mix,' " are dispensed, as USA Today reports? My BS detector started growling the minute I spotted the piece.

At the further prodding of a reader whose BS detector was also activated, I tracked the origin of the phrase "pharm party," aka "pharming parties." The earliest mention I found on Nexis and Factiva was from the March 8, 2002, Chambersburg, Pa., Public Opinion. The reporter writes:

With prescription drug abuse, the scene could be much different. In some communities, kids have "pharming" parties. They go to their parents' or grandparents' medicine cabinets and take whatever drugs are there. At the parties, they throw the pills in a bowl and take a handful, [Pamela] Bennett [a flack for Purdue Parma, makers of OxyContin] said. The pills could be Viagra, antibiotics, blood pressure medication or anything else.

Again, the story quotes no teenage pharm partiers, interviews no witnesses to pharm parties, and cites no cop reports, etc. Next: A March 7, 2003, newsletter from the federal Center for Substance Abuse Prevention asserts that, "Students in big cities are 'pharming' these days—'pharming' being new lexicon for grabbing 'a handful' of prescription drugs and ingesting some of them or all of them." Note that the newsletter makes no mention of "parties," names no big city in which students actually engage in pharming, runs no interview with young pharmers.

A May 23, 2005, South Florida Sun-Sentinel op-ed, written by a local official from a substance abuse group, uses the phrase—"We hear stories about 'pharming' parties, where kids grab pills from a bag full of different prescription drugs, and they have become popular at clubs, schools and homes." But she offers nothing beyond anecdotes.

Pharming doesn't break into the wider public conscience until the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, or CASA, at Columbia University releases a July 7, 2005, press release. Written by its chairman, Joseph A. Califano Jr. (Carter's secretary of HHS), it announces a 214-page report, Under the Counter: The Diversion and Abuse of Controlled Prescription Drugs in the U.S. Califano writes of " 'pharming' parties where teens bring drugs from home and trade or share for purposes of getting high." Califano's sentence is repeated in the report's introduction.

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