The pharm-party myth refuses to die!

Media criticism.
Jan. 21 2010 5:31 PM

Still More Pharm-Party Phoolishness

The meme lives!

Pills. Click image to expand.
Pills

I regret to inform you that this column has failed to eradicate the "pharm party" meme. Since June 2006, I've written five columns (June 15, 2006; June 19, 2006; March 25, 2008; March 26, 2008; and March 23, 2009) debunking pharm parties, and yet the press keeps on churning out stories that pretend the events are both real and ubiquitous.

If the pharm-party phenomenon has escaped your notice, you've not been reading your Wall Street Journal, USA Today, New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, or lesser journals very carefully. A pharm party—or "pharming party"—in the classic journalistic formulation describes an affair in which young people gather and dump the pills they've stolen from their parents' medicine cabinets into a big bowl and then scoop out and swallow random handfuls.

There are at least two basic problems with the pharm-party scenario reported in the press. To begin with, if you were a young drug fiend and stole potent drugs, why would you deposit them in a communal bowl if there was a good chance that when your turn came to draw a drug at random, you might get an antihistamine? And second, I've yet to read a story in which a journalist actually attends such a gathering, interviews a participant, or cites a police report alleging such behavior.

The closest any reporter has ever gotten to a random-drug swap meet was Time magazine's Carolyn Banta in a July 24, 2005, story. But the kids she observes aren't playing Russian roulette with pills and randomizing their drug intake. They're bartering Ritalin for painkillers and demanding to know whether the drug being traded is generic or nongeneric. In other words, they're doing what drug users and baseball-card collectors have always done—trading what they've got for something they value more. If America's youth wasn't swapping drugs, I'd be astonished.

Invariably the primary source for a pharm-party story is a police officer or a drug counselor who asserts that the soirées take place or have heard young drug-heads talking about them. Given such stringent evidentiary standards, it's a wonder that preschool teachers aren't claiming that unicorns are real, too.

In recent months the Akron Beacon Journal; Green Bay's WBAY-TV; the Irish Independent; the Associated Press; the Rock Hill, S.C., Herald; Fresno, Calif.'s KMJ-FM; the Quincy, Mass., Patriot Ledger; the Flint Journal; Virginia's Chesterfield Observer; Arizona's Kingman Daily Miner; Ohio's WBNS-TV; Utah's Tooele Transcript Bulletin; Minnesota's Winona Post; and other outlets have asserted as fact that kids are still play Russian roulette with bowls filled with drugs without actually presenting evidence for their claim. No police reports, no eyewitness claims by a reporter, no surveillance camera tape of the derring-do, and no testimony from a participant describing the wild rumpus.

Without a doubt, kids steal drugs. Kids trade drugs. Kids take drugs. But steal and take drugs at random from a bowl? I've found no proof that such events are common or have ever happened—the pharm-party myth can be traced back as far as 1966, when they were called "fruit salad parties." Feeding the myth are pharm-party TV episodes—CSI: NY (2005), Boston Legal(May 2006), Law & Order: Special Victims Unit(2007),and Saving Grace (2009).

Montana Miller, a professor in Bowling Green State University's department of popular culture, has been tracking the pharm-party meme for the last three years. She tells me she has yet to confirm even one such party. One sure marker of the existence of pharm parties, she says, would be mentions of them on Facebook.

"If this were really a popular trend, there would be numerous groups with many hundreds of members," says Miller. "This is not the case; I only found one group that seemed to pay tribute to the idea, and it appeared to be 1) not serious and 2) not active in terms of discussion or people joining it. It had 68 members, which is not a lot. Pretty much all the other Facebook groups that I know of are for pharmaceutical students or companies."

Miller says she's encouraged by the fact that Web searches of "pharm party" routinely yield links to sources that debunk them as "media-invented," and that not every drug prevention site is fanning the flames of pharm-party madness.

Any myth hearty enough to survive and thrive for 40-plus years in the media is probably unkillable. But a press critic can always hope, right?

******

I'm surprised that kids haven't staged Russia roulette-style pharm parties in imitation of the media's message. If you've attended a real pharm party or read verifiable reports of them, please forward details to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. For the finest in twittering, visit my Twitter feed. (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.)

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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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