Back-to-School Pharm Party
Time magazine, the Washington Post, and others resurrect this ancient urban myth.
Kids, here's a great idea for a back-to-school party! Run to your bathroom and empty all of your parents' prescription and nonprescription medicines into a bag. Now call all your friends, tell them to do the same, and ask them to meet you at your wackiest friend's house. Next, retrieve the biggest bowl in the house and have everybody dump their pharmacological loot into it. Stir the mass of pills with your hand, call the rest of your friends, and invite each arriving guest to scoop up a handful and swallow as they enter party paradise!
On how many levels is this so stupid it can't have ever happened except as a joke?
If you've read one of my seven previous columns about the "pharm party" myth in which drugs are allegedly shared and consumed in this fashion (June 15, 2006; June 19, 2006; March 25, 2008; March 26, 2008; March 23, 2009; Jan. 21, 2010; and March 17, 2010), you already know that the media keep repeating this tall tale.
To reprise my earlier work, the pharm-party myth goes back to the 1960s, when the events were known as "fruit salad parties." The standard pharm-party article does not quote a participant, a police officer, or a parent who has actually witnessed the drug event. In most pieces, a drug counselor or a cop is the authoritative source who says the parties are rampant but then offers no proof.
When you think it through, pharm parties are completely illogical. Drug users have always traded drugs. But no druggie has an incentive to randomly share his parents' Oxycontin if there is a chance that all he'll get in return is his pals' over-the-counter allergy meds and Advil. Drug users are a discerning lot—they read labels and use Internet guides to identify their drugs in the field. As I've written before, they're no more likely to grab a handful of drugs out of a bowl and eat them on the blind chance that they'll get the buzz they want than an attendee at a backyard cookout will drink the first beer he touches at the bottom of the ice chest. Even heavy beer drinkers favor one brand of beer over another.
And yet the myth won't die. In a Sept. 13 feature about addictive pharmaceuticals, Time magazine reports:
This is leading to a rise in the incidence of what's known as skittling, a social phenomenon with deadly consequences. "Kids steal from their parents' medicine chests, go to a party and dump everything into a bowl at the door," says Juan Harris a Hanley [Center] drug counselor. "Anyone who comes in just grabs a handful."
The terms skittling or skittle parties have also appeared in eight newspaper stories in the past 30 months to describe pharm parties (Grand Rapids Press, April 4, 2008; the Oklahoman, July 27, 2008; Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, Dec. 10, 2008; the Bloomington, Ill., Pantagraph, May 23, 2009; the Rock Hill, S.C., Herald, July 19, 2009, reprinted here; the North Carolina Fort Mill Times, Dec. 11, 2009, reprinted here; Manchester, New Hampshire's WMUR-TV, Feb. 22, 2010; the Westchester County, N.Y., Journal News, March 11, 2010, reprinted here; and the Westchester County Journal News again, April 9, 2010).
Meanwhile, in the past six months, the term pharm parties has appeared in the Virginian-Pilot, Feb. 7, 2010; on CNN's Issues With Jane Velez-Mitchell, March 1, 2010, in which Marie Osmond talks about them in a Larry King Live tape; North Carolina's Asheville Citizen-Times, March 17, 2010; the Cincinnati Enquirer, April 12, 2010; the Albany Times-Union, April 15, 2010, reprinted here; Tulsa World, April 16, 2010; Florida's Stuart News, April, 18, 2010; Oklahoma's Woodward News, April 30, 2010; South Dakota's Argus-Leader, May 23, 2010, reprinted here; Harrisburg, Pa.'s WHP-TV, June 18, 2010, North Carolina's Richmond County Daily Journal, June 22, 2010; Connecticut's News-Times, Aug. 16, 2010; and the Washington Post, Aug. 24, 2010.
In none of these stories or mentions—including this week's Time piece—is a specific pharm party mentioned or a police report cited. They're all generic mentions, often coming from the lips of drug counselors or cops talking about the "problem." But sometimes the police actually talk sense. When the Fort Mill Times asks the head of York County's drug enforcement unit about skittle parties and pharm parties, he says plenty of people are doing pills, but no police records exist to document the pharm parties people are talking about.