Debunking "pharm parties" for the third time.

Media criticism.
March 25 2008 6:03 PM

Down on the Pharm, Again

Debunking "pharm parties" for the third time.

Pills
Pharm parties: myth or reality?

Do pharm parties exist?

Back in 2006, I concluded "no" after investigating a smattering of press stories about teenagers raiding their parents' medicine cabinets for pharmaceuticals, gathering to share their booty in a big bowl, and swallowing the pills at random like "trail mix." My two pieces ran on June 15 and June 19 of that year.

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My efforts to discredit pharm parties failed horribly, as everybody from the Wall Street Journalto the New York Timesto the Washington Postto the Birmingham News to ABC News to the Sacramento Bee to the Los Angeles Timesto Marie Osmond on Larry King Live has continued to report as if the medicinal revelries not only exist but are common.

Now, I don't dispute that young people take drugs, or harvest them from medicine cabinets, or even swap whatever pills they score with friends. They did in the 1960s when I was a kid, and I have no reason to believe that they'll ever stop. I even agree that certain kinds of pharmaceuticals are used more frequently today than yesteryear. And I'm prepared to believe that somebody, someplace, sometime had a pharm party without first hearing about the phenomenon from the press or a TV show.

But what I found preposterous in 2006 and still find preposterous today is the notion that having gotten their hands on drugs, today's users would randomize both their drugs and their dosages. Today's Journal reports that kids "mix the drugs up in a big bowl and eat them like candy" and attributes the detail to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The Journal isn't alone in pharm-party reportage. "Teenagers scoop everything they can find out of a medicine cabinet, pile it all on the table and then just start swallowing stuff," a California medical worker tells the Sacramento Bee. Kids swallow the pills "indiscriminately," writes the Birmingham News. Noted drug authority Marie Osmond told Larry King that kids—not her kid in rehab, mind you—dump the drugs "in a bowl and they just take them until they pass out."

Yet pharm parties fail to pass my stink test. As dumb as kids may be, they know how to read the labels from the vials they boost from their parents' medicine cabinets. If the drug labels don't provide sufficient information, the thieving little bastards can always consult the Web for effect and potency data. So upon arriving at a hypothetical pharm party, how many young pill-poppers are going to throw their fistfuls of pilfered OxyContin in the bowl on the chance that a random scoop will yield several over-the-counter antihistamine tablets?

I'm not saying that it's never happened, but I doubt it. It's as big a long shot as persuading cookout guests to pluck their beers blindfolded from an ice chest containing Milwaukee's Best, Budweiser, Stella Artois, Stone IPA, and Mirror Pond Pale Ale. If few adults will play Russian roulette with beer, how many kids will do the same with stolen drugs?

Rusty Payne, the DEA press officer who assisted the Journal reporter in her story, cites reports from state and local law enforcement to insist the parties exist.

Yet pharm parties barely register on the DEA's Web site. The only mention I could find was a 2007 report referencing "North Carolina news sources." In a July 2007 congressional hearing (PDF), the DEA's Joseph T. Rannazzisi gave this testimony:

What these kids are doing, basically, are acquiring drugs from either their medicine cabinets, their doctors or friends—their doctors—their relatives or their friends. And they're taking the drugs and they're coming to these parties where they throw the drugs into a bowl and then they systematically take the drugs out and take them.

They really don't know what they're taking. It could be a benzodiazepine. It could be a narcotic. It could be anything. And they just take them.

And so they don't know what they're ingesting, and this is a form of—just a form of adolescent partying now.

When Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-Va., asked, "It's becoming a widespread concern?" Rannazzisi responded weakly, "We've had several reports throughout the country, yes." [Emphasis added.]

I polled three reputable scholars on the topic of pharm parties. Berkeley scientist David Presti responded, "I am only familiar with this term through various references in the media." Mark A.R. Kleiman, drug-policy expert at UCLA, e-mailed, "New one on me, but that doesn't convey much information one way or the other." Richard Rawson, associate director of UCLA Integrated Substance Abuse Programs and professor-in-residence at the UCLA Department of Psychiatry, had this to say:

I have heard rumors of pharm parties for about three years and have seen reports on the Web. However, I have never spoken with an actual kid who has ever actually attended one of these events. I have no doubt that kids are using/abusing prescription drugs and this is concerning, but about these parties, they make a good story.

******

Phun Pharm-Party Phact: The first Nexis hit for pharm parties is a reader's comment in the Aug. 9, 2005, Louisville Courier-Journal. The earliest mention I located ran in the March 8, 2002, Chambersburg, Pa., Public Opinion. Here's what it said:

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 Pharma, makers of OxyContin] said. The pills could be Viagra, antibiotics, blood pressure medication or anything else.

The last time I visited this subject I asked readers to send e-mail if they had ever attended a soiree under the pharm-party rubric. Nobody had. I renew the request: Send e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: Here's a hand-built RSS feed that will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word pharm in the subject head of an e-mail message and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

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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