Like the kid with a mouthful of loose teeth won’t stop believing in the tooth fairy, the press just can’t release itself from the fantasy of “pharm parties.”
Since the middle of the decade, scores of news organizations—major and minor—have run pieces about “pharm parties,” events at which teenagers purportedly dump into a big bowl the pills they’ve pilfered from their parents’ medicine cabinets and then gulp them down at random. (I wrote about the pharm-party coverage yesterday and twice in 2006.)
I’ve failed to locate a single human source or article that documents a single such festivity, let alone proves that they’re commonplace, as the media would have you believe. The closest anybody has come to finding a pharm party is Time magazine’s Carolyn Banta, who in 2005 wrote about attending a party in New Jersey where teenagers swapped drugs and called it a “pharming party.”* But kids swapping drugs is nothing new, and it’s nowhere near as sensational as teens playing Russian roulette with mixed lots of pharmaceuticals.
I’ve resisted calling pharm parties an urban legend in previous pieces, but no more, thanks to reader (and Slate contributor) Nancy Nall Derringer, who e-mailed me a terrific tip this morning. She recalled reading warnings about similar get-togethers in Ann Landers’ advice column back in the 1960s, only the kids called the drug sessions “fruit salad parties.” My search for a Landers mention of fruit-salad parties failed, but I did find six news stories alleging their existence. Each is as apocryphal and ridiculous as anything you’ve read about pharm parties.
The March 30, 1966, Lowell Sun was the earliest clip I located, and it is a classic of the genre. In a general piece about drug use, the Sun’s reporter confided:
In Medford, several months ago, a group of teen-agers had a “fruit salad party.” Each person brought three pills. The pills were mixed together in a bowl, and each person took three. Most of the takers were hospitalized, and one is still in serious condition, in a coma.
Observe the journalistic rigor practiced by the Sun. No sources. No names. No mention of specific drugs. How do you gauge the truth value of such a paragraph?
Next up: The Tucson Daily Citizen alleged in a Dec. 9, 1969, article that the “old fashioned potluck supper had taken on a new twist.” Instead of sharing food, young partygoers were throwing “fruit salad parties” in which “the pills are combined into a colorful mixture, and young Tucsonians gulp them by the handful” with no idea of what they were swallowing. The Daily Citizen’s source was a registered nurse who had written about the topic for the American School Board Journal. (Here’s is a snippet about fruit-salad parties from the Journal.) Her sources? “[D]rug seminars and lectures she has attended as well as interviews with law officers, professional men and prosecutors from throughout the United States.” Not exactly primary sourcing.
The Charleston Daily Mail published its own thin story about “fruit salad parties” on March 13, 1970, reporting:
Ingredients for the party included students, plates of fruit salads and pills from the family medicine chest. Each student brings a pill, conceals it in a fruit salad and the salads are passed from student to student until no one knows whose pill he’s getting. Neither does the student know what kind of pill he’s going to swallow.
Pills are water-soluble so they can dissolve in your stomach. Wouldn’t the fruit melt the pills before they could be spooned up? This piece, which names no sources, doesn’t add up, either.
Ohio’s Coshocton Tribune got a medical-center official on the record for its Oct. 8, 1970, fruit-salad-party expose. I leave to your good judgment whether the paper’s account stands up:
Fruit salad parties are also very popular with the younger sect. Six or seven pills are taken out of a couple of bottles in the medicine cabinet. When everyone reaches the party destination, the pills are all put together in a large bowl. The bowl is passed around until it is empty, with each taking a different pill each round until they are out. [George Bates, clinical chemist at Dayton Medical Center,] recalled six youngsters brought into his hospital recently, all victims of a “fruit salad party.”
The Billings Gazette sounded the fruit-salad alarm in a Jan. 17, 1971, piece that cited the director of the state’s alcohol and drug commission. And California’s Hayward Daily Review ran a brief UPI wire story on Dec. 9, 1971, that sourced the National School Public Relations Association about the menace:
“Young people take different kinds of pills out of the family chest—tranquillizers, aspirin, barbiturates, hot pills, liver pills—and bring them to the party,” the organization said.
I don’t know what a “hot pill” is, but it sounds like a buzz kill, especially in a fruit salad.
And there my fruit-salad party investigation ended, only to be restarted by Robert M. Stutman, a retired Drug Enforcement Administration special officer who has been telling anybody who’ll listen in recent years that fruit-salad parties are real.
But Stutman appears to think fruit-salad parties are a new thing, according to a recent Baltimore Jewish Times report (Oct. 19, 2007):
In the 1960s and ‘70s, [Stutman] reiterated, teens would never take these pills, because they would be associated to the very people they were rebelling against, their parents. Now, according to Mr. Stutman, the rebellion is over, and the pills are part of addictive behavior.
What kind of pomegranates has he been chewing?
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Correction, March 27, 2008: The original version of this story mistakenly stated that a drug party described in a Time magazine story took place in Cape Cod. It took place in New Jersey. (Return to the corrected sentence.)