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.

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?

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