Press Box

Back-to-School Pharm Party

Time magazine, the Washington Post, and others resurrect this ancient urban myth.

Pharm parties: real or fake?

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.

“We haven’t seen it ourselves,” the drug cop tells the newspaper. “We hear about them when we arrest somebody.”

But evidence that you should never say never comes from WHSV-TV in Harrisonburg, Va. In its June 21, 2010 report, the station quotes and names a 17-year-old who says he attended a pharm party! At last, a first-person take, direct from the scene of the bacchanal!

“While I was hanging out with them, they asked me if I wanted to go to a pharm party,” the young man tells WHSV. “I never knew what it was, so I said sure.” The young man told the station that he was shocked to see other kids taking random meds from a bowl and washing them down with alcohol. He says he did not join in.

We can believe that the young man is lying about the pharm party. Or that he’s exaggerating. Or that he is confusing what he saw with what he has heard talked about. Or we can believe he’s telling the absolute truth and that after four decades of apocryphal drug stories masquerading as news, life is now imitating fiction, and kids are finally munching random drugs.

Me? I’ll believe it when I hear it from the drug-eaters themselves.


Time magazine reported on pharm parties once before. In a July 24, 2005, piece (about which I’ve written), its reporter spent time with kids who met at a suburban New Jersey home to swap pharmaceuticals. There was no communal bowl, but the reporter told me that “two or three” of the 15 young attendees described the event as a “pharming party.” Where did the kids learn about the term? “My assumption is that they probably heard it from a popular culture reference,” the reporter told me. Have you been to a pharm party? What did you wear? Send other insights to and drink deep or taste not from 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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