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.

But is Califano citing CASA research about pharming parties? No, he's talking out of his hat.

"When Mr. Califano speaks of them in his quotes and statements, he is just referring to popular culture and today's trends," CASA spokesman Lauren R. Duran writes via e-mail.

In a follow-up mail she writes:

CASA does not have quantitative data on the subject of pharming parties, however we know that the trend exists based on focus groups we have conducted with teens and young adults for various CASA reports where we talk with them about prescription drugs at parties and this is the basis of Mr. Califano's quote.

Califano's comments about pharming parties received uncritical mention in the Washington Post, whose story was rerun by the Toronto Star, the New York Sun, and the State College, Pa., Centre Daily Times, among others. Knight Riddernewspapers, UPI, and the Washington Times also gave it nonskeptical treatment.

Time magazine cited the report in an Aug. 1, 2005, story. This one differs from the previous stories in that it describes actual drug trading among teens in a New Jersey basement—specifically, Ritalin for a painkiller. The reporter writes:

This isn't an ordinary party—it's a pharming party, a get-together arranged while parents are out so the kids can barter for their favorite prescription drugs. Pharming parties—or just "pharming" (from pharmaceuticals)—represent a growing trend among teenage drug abusers.

Note that the kids don't call it a pharming party, the writer does. And also note that Time claims that the parties "represent a growing trend among teenage drug abusers." Evidence of the trend, reports Time, comes in the fact that "about 2.3 million kids ages 12 to 17 took legal medications illegally in 2003, the latest year for which figures are available."

The source of Time's data? The CASA report. But if you consult page 46 of CASA's report where the data are presented, you learn something significant about the 2.3 million teens who admitted to having taken legal drugs illegally. "Not all teens and young adults who abuse prescription drugs do so to get high," CASA states. "Some abuse these drugs to relieve stress, relax or to improve their academic performance." Does that sound like a party—pharm or otherwise—to you?

The story gets its next major press bump from the Sun-Sentinel in a widely reprinted April 23, 2006, article. Reporter Liz Doup cites the 2.3 million figure from CASA. She also watches teenagers swap pharmaceuticals—Vicodin, OxyContin, Xanax—at a warehouse party where liquor flows. In an e-mail interview, she acknowledges that none of the drug-using teenagers she interviewed used the phrase "pharm party" or "pharming parties."

"Those using the term 'pharming parties' were people involved in drug education and treatment," Doup explains.

On the entertainment front, two network TV dramas exploited pharm party plot lines— CSI: NYin November 2005 and Boston Legalin May 2006—perhaps increasing the phrase's profile.

Even so, MySpace—the online mecca for teenage networking and socializing—is pretty quiet about pharming parties. MySpace contributors are known for 1) their youth and 2) for their willingness to post almost anything. A targeted search of MySpace using Ice Rocket reveals just 16 mentions of "pharm party," and none for "pharming party." A Technorati search grabs 15 mentions of "pharm party" and just seven mentions of "pharming party." If pharm parties are a trend, they're the best-hidden and least-talked about one in the country.

It goes without saying that pharm parties may be very real and very everywhere. It's a big country. But it looks to me like pharm party is just a new label the drug-abuse industrial complex has adopted to describe the decades-old tradition of pill parties.

For those who thought USA Today milked the pharm dry, CASA delivered a new bale of cow-fattening hay today (June 19): a new white paper titled "You've Got Drugs!" Prescription Drug Pushers on the Internet: 2006 Update.It comes with a press release by Califano in which he states with more certainty than evidence that:

The trend of teen "pharming parties" will continue to increase as long as these drugs are so easy to obtain.

******

Thanks to professor Montana Miller of Bowling Green University for prodding me and suggesting a headline for this piece. If you've attended a "pharm party" and called it that before you read a news story about it or saw mention of it on TV, send e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. EarthLink folks: Turn off your spam filters if you want me to write back.)

Addendum, June 20, 2006: I failed to reach the author of Time'spharming party story, Carolyn Banta, before deadline. In an interview today she says that "two or three" of the 15 or so attendees at the party described in her story spontaneously referred to the event as a "pharming party," without any prompting from her. "My assumption is that they probably heard it from a popular culture reference," Banta says. Banta also says that her interest in the subject was sparked by the CASA report of July 2005.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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