The San Francisco Chronicle takes the honor for the worst "pharm party" story ever.

The San Francisco Chronicle takes the honor for the worst "pharm party" story ever.

The San Francisco Chronicle takes the honor for the worst "pharm party" story ever.

Media criticism.
March 17 2010 6:29 PM

The Worst "Pharm Party" Story Ever

The San Francisco Chronicle takes the honor.

San Francisco Chronicle.

One would think that the collective wisdom of the thousands of drug fiends inhabiting the San Francisco Bay Area would somehow inform the reporters and editors who produce the region's dominant daily, the San Francisco Chronicle, about the true nature of drug use.

But one would be wrong, for last Sunday, March 14, the Chronicle replenished the pernicious urban myth that teenagers and other young folks are routinely participating in pharm (or "pharma") parties with a Page One story titled "Pill Parties Give Teens Entry Into Addiction" (online the title is " 'Pharma Parties' a Troubling Trend Among Youths").

If you've read one of my six previous columns (June 15, 2006; June 19, 2006; March 25, 2008; March 26, 2008; March 23, 2009; Jan. 21, 2010) on the pharm-party myth, you may skip the lecture. But if not, it is your civic duty to sit tight and read on.

A pharm party, as such newspapers as the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune(via the Akron Beacon-Journal), and the Boston Globe have reported, and such episodic TV shows as CSI: NY, Boston Legal, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,and Saving Grace have pretended, are drug bacchanalias attended by young people bringing pharmaceutical drugs they've bought or stolen. They toss these meds into a bowl and then—get this—swallow them randomly, sometimes by the handful like trail mix! (In some versions of the myth, the bowls of random drugs are called "trail mix.")

To my knowledge, no journalist has ever witnessed such random consumption of drugs by young people in a party setting, yet the story continues to get major play as if these affairs are common. (Time magazine's Carolyn Banta observed suburban New Jersey kids trading for a July 24, 2005, story about "pharming parties." But Banta's kids didn't play Russian roulette with their drugs, and she presents them as savvy druggies trading for value. "Is this generic, or is it the good stuff?" one asks another.)

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The Chronicle story automatically deserves its distinction as the worst pharm-party story ever published because it arrives so late with so little to add to the hysteria. But there are a half-dozen sounder reasons it deserves the prize.

1) It defines "pharma parties" as get-togethers where kids share drugs stolen from their parents' medicine cabinets, "a known phenomenon for only a few years, experts say." This, as anyone who grew up in the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s, or the 2000s knows, is false. Kids have long stolen and taken their parents' drugs.

2) It describes the most extreme pharma party as the kind where kids toss a variety of pills "blindly" into bowls and then consume them at random. Yet the reporter does not witness such a soirée nor does he interview an attendee. He attributes the existence of the extreme pharma parties to a therapist, but the only familiarity the therapist has with the parties is that he is said to have "dealt" with them.

3) It enlists into the story a youngish "addict," the  24-year-old Peter, to demonstrate that pharma parties are real, but listen carefully to what Peter says:

Those parties where kids all just dump the drugs into a bowl and take handfuls just to see what happens—just the idea of that scares me to death.

I mean, I was addicted so badly I went to heroin and crack, and even I wouldn't put my hand in a bowl and just take whatever.

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Note that Peter never claims to have actually attended a pharm party. He merely expresses horror at taking drugs randomly. Smart young feller, that Peter!

4) The piece concedes that there are "no statistics" documenting how many kids attend drug-swapping parties, but then it reports the anecdotal findings of doctors at rehabilitation centers who say that 5 percent to 10 percent of their young patients have attended pharma parties. Who is surprised that 5 percent to 10 percent of Bay Area kids in rehab have partied and swapped?

5) According to the Chronicle, "Pharma parties, where kids get together to share drugs pilfered from their parents' pill bottles, have been a known phenomenon for only a few years, experts say. But the phenomenon is getting worse." [Emphasis added.]

But the pharm-party myth has been with us a long time. Thanks to a tip by Slate contributor Nancy Nall Derringer back in 2008, I was able to trace its origins back to the 1960s and early 1970s, when the press called the random-drugs-in-a-bowl events "fruit salad parties" (Lowell Sun, March 30, 1966; Tucson Daily Citizen, Dec. 9, 1969; Charleston Daily Mail, March 13, 1970; Coshocton Tribune, Oct. 8, 1970; Billings Gazette, Jan. 17, 1971). Although these news stories claimed the parties were real, there was no evidence that they really took place. No names of attendees. No first-person accounts. No corroborating evidence.

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6) Without a doubt, prescription drugs enjoy a high profile in today's culture. But are they all that more available to kids? Yes, the Chronicle reports, citing a study by the anti-drug propaganda outfit Partnership for a Drug-Free America. The Partnership says that 63 percent of American teens in grades 9 through 12 believe prescription drugs are easy to steal from their parents, up from 56 percent last year.

But the more reliable "Monitoring the Future" study from the University of Michigan reports otherwise. The percentage of surveyed students in 8th, 10th, and 12th grades who say non-heroin narcotics (Vicodin, OxyContin, and Percocet) are "fairly easy" or "very easy" to get is down or essentially flat (PDF) since the early 1990s. Monitoring the Future established the same availability trends for the two other classes of drugs kids might find in their parents' medicine cabinets: tranquilizers (PDF) and amphetamines (PDF). Monitoring the Future finds that self-reported use of tranquilizers and amphetamines is down or flat since the early 1990s. Non-heroin narcotics use has doubled since the early 1990s but has held flat for most of the last decade, according to the study.

So come and claim your award, my naive Chronicle colleagues. It's an aluminum bowl filled brimming with jellybeans, Pez, and Good & Plentys. Eat as much as you'd like, but at random only.

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Thanks to the numerous Bay Area readers who forwarded me the Chronicle piece. One sent me the online teaser for the article before it was published! I lift a box of Good & Plenty in his direction. Send drug sightings to slate.pressbox@gmail.com and inhale the intoxicating fumes of my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in Slate's readers' forums; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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 the letters Chronicle in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.