Prescribed Ritalin, OxyContin stolen from medicine cabinets at home, and other psychoactive prescription drugs are the stock in trade at so-called “pharming parties,” where young people trade medicines and often mix pills with alcohol to get high.
Time reported July 24 that even as use of “hard” illicit drugs like heroin and cocaine has declined in recent years, abuse of narcotic painkillers and stimulants has skyrocketed. An estimated 2.3 million kids ages 12-17 abused legal medications last year, according to the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
“It's a hidden epidemic,” says Dr. Nicholas Pace of New York University Medical Center. “Parents don't want to admit there's a problem out there.”
At pharming parties like one recently held in suburban New Jersey, painkillers like OxyContin — which can produce a strong high, but also present a great danger of overdose — are highly valued. “If I have something good, like Oxycontin, it might be worth two or three Xanax,” said a 17-year-old at the New Jersey party. “We rejoice when someone has a medical thing, like, gets their wisdom teeth out or has back pain, because we know we'll get pills. Last year I had gum surgery, and I thought, 'Well, at least I'll get painkillers.'”
Part of the allure of prescription drugs is that they can be easier for kids to get than illicit drugs. Some trade on their own prescriptions (obtained legitimately or by faking symptoms), while others steal from family members or order drugs from online pharmacies.
“When adults and medical professionals treat medications casually, we need not be surprised that adolescents are treating them casually,” said Francis Hayden, director of the adolescent mental-health center at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
“My friend told me to save the painkillers for when I'm drinking or getting high,” says the 17-year-old at the suburban party. “I know a lot of people who live by pills. They take a pill to wake them up, another pill to put them to sleep, one to make them hungry and another to stop the hunger. Pills can dictate your life — I've seen it.”