In the basement of a Cape Cod on a suburban street in northern New Jersey, a teenage boy turns to a friend and asks impatiently, "What did you get? I'll give you some of this"--indicating a bottle of Ritalin stuffed into the front pocket of his backpack--"for some of that painkiller." As a rap song plays just loud enough not to disturb the neighbors, his friend eyes the bottle suspiciously. "Is this generic, or is it the good stuff?" he asks. Upstairs, several teens are sitting at the kitchen table listening to a girl who looks to be about 15 tell how she got the narcotic Oxycontin from the medicine cabinet at home. "It was left over," she says, "from my sister's wisdom-teeth surgery."
This isn't an ordinary party--it's a pharming party, a get-together arranged while parents are out so the kids can barter for their favorite prescription drugs. Pharming parties--or just "pharming" (from pharmaceuticals)--represent a growing trend among teenage drug abusers. While use of illegal substances like speed, heroin and pot has declined over the past decade, according to a report issued three weeks ago by Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), abuse of prescription drugs has increased sharply. CASA says about 2.3 million kids ages 12 to 17 took legal medications illegally in 2003, the latest year for which figures are available. That's three times the number in 1992, or about 1 out of every 10 teens. "It's a hidden epidemic," says Dr. Nicholas Pace, an internist at New York University Medical Center. "Parents don't want to admit there's a problem out there."
The problem isn't just that kids can easily become addicted to painkillers like Oxycontin or Vicodin, antianxiety medicines like Valium or Xanax, or attention-deficit-disorder drugs like Ritalin and Adderall. Taken without proper supervision, those medicines can send kids to the emergency room. They can lead to difficulty breathing, a drop or rapid increase in heart rate or trouble responding when driving a car, especially when the drugs are combined with alcohol, as they often are. Pain medications, which are also powerful nervous-system depressants, are particularly dangerous--and especially prized. "If I have something good, like Oxycontin, it might be worth two or three Xanax," says a 17-year-old pharming veteran who was one of more than a dozen guests (and one of the few girls) 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."