The pharm-party meme refuses to die.

Media criticism.
March 23 2009 5:46 PM

The Pharm-Party Meme

It refuses to die.

Pills.
Pills

Although I've written four pieces since 2006 debunking the existence of "pharm parties," the press continues to assert that they're everywhere.

If you're arriving late to the dispute, a pharm (or "pharming") party is a drug bacchanalia in which teenagers meet up to dump the pills they've pilfered from their parents' medicine cabinets into a collective bowl. Next, they dig into the heap, gulping the drugs at random. (See my June 15, 2006; June 19, 2006; March 25, 2008; and March 26, 2008, columns for more.)

Although the pharm-party premise is ridiculous—no kid will toss a Vicodin into the bowl on the chance that he'll get a Tylenol in return—such august outlets as the Wall Street Journal and ABC News have given credence to them. Other publications have bestowed a tamer definition on pharm parties, describing them as barter sessions in which drug enthusiasts gather to swap pills.

None of my earlier pieces maintained that young people don't take pharmaceuticals for kicks. Nor have I ever asserted that today's kids don't trade pills. As long as there have been illicit drugs, young people have shared and traded them. It's my position—until I see proof running the other direction—that it's an urban myth that young people across the country are playing Russian roulette with stolen pills, a myth that can be traced back to the late 1960s, when the drug-bowl bashes were written up by a credulous press as "fruit salad parties."

To the best of my knowledge, only one reporter—Time magazine's Carolyn Banta—has written from inside a contemporary pharm party. In a July 24, 2005, piece, she hung with the kids who had gathered at a suburban New Jersey home to swap pharmaceuticals. There was no communal bowl, but Banta said that "two or three" of the 15 young people in attendance spontaneously described the event as a "pharming party" without any prompting. Where did the kids get the term? "My assumption is that they probably heard it from a popular culture reference," Banta told me.

Indeed, the meme has become so pervasive that Hollywood has latched onto it, producing pharm-party episodes of CSI: NY(2005), Boston Legal(May 2006), Law & Order: Special Victims Unit  (2007),and Saving Grace (2009). Yet except for Banta's piece, none of the scores of pharm-party articles I've read over the last three years puts the phrase in the mouth of an attendee. It's always a law-enforcement officer or drug counselor or teacher or journalist peddling a wobbly pharm-party anecdote.

In recent months the Petoskey News-Review, the Las Vegas Sun, the Herald Bulletin(Anderson, Ind.), the Rapid City Journal(S.D.), the Oklahoman, the Salisbury Post(N.C.), the Long Island Press, the Caspar Journal, the Times & Transcript(New Brunswick, Canada), the Columbian(Vancouver, Wash.), the Reading Eagle (which also calls the drug mix a "fruit salad"), the Paducah Sun, the Salt Lake Tribune, the Charlotte Observer, and other newspapers have given publicity to pharm parties without visiting one.

The Oklahoman gets the closest to real drug action with its piece about a bust of a "pharm party." About 25 teenagers with an "assortment of muscle relaxers, tranquilizers and the painkillers morphine and OxyContin" were trading and taking the drugs. As the kids weren't making random withdrawals from a big bowl, was this a pharm party or just a well-supplied drug party? The Rapid City Journal comes in second with a story about a Sturgis, S.D., mother who got five years in prison for hosting a pharm party, but it wasn't an illicit potluck, so central to the pharm-party myth. Mom merely gave her 17-year-old son alcohol, cough medicine, and oxycodone, which he then shared with his friends.

Obviously, parents should worry about their kids taking drugs, but those worries should be proportional to their children's behavior and evidence, and not press hysteria and TV melodrama. As the highly regarded Monitoring the Future survey (PDF) shows, illicit drug use is down among high-schoolers.

The worst thing about the pharm-party meme is the way that newspapers have placed into wide circulation the idea that a rare-to-nonexistent practice is actually quite common. Every time a newspaper lectures its readers about the pharm-party menace, it presents a deadly challenge to that kid out there who is looking to test himself against something dangerous. If and when pharm parties really start happening, I'll know whom to blame.

******

I read all e-mails and respond to most. That said, don't think you're special because you've lost a friend or a family member to drugs. Many of us have. Send e-mail—especially sightings of pharm-party coverage—to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Hither, I Twitter. Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type meme 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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