Through the window it probably looked like harmless teenage fun: A donkey-shaped piñata swinging from the ceiling, kids taking turns giving it a whack until loot sprinkled onto the floor for everyone to grab.
But this was no ordinary party, it was a “pharm” party, and the loot this donkey was stuffed with included the deadly kind: pharmaceuticals, none of which were intended for the people about to swallow them.
Sound like an episode of Dateline? Think again. This party, and others much like it, happened in Winona, offering just a glimpse of the escalating reality that teens are raiding medicine cabinets, even in Winona, to get high.
There is a nationwide debate regarding how much of the legend of pharm parties is truth and how much is hype sensationalized by rumors and media attention. As the story goes, a pharm party means guests, usually teenagers or young adults, mix prescription drugs in a bowl and randomly pop pills, sometimes without even knowing what they are.
Experts disagree vociferously about whether any teenager or young adult would be ignorant enough to actually scoop a handful of mystery pills out of a bowl and pop them in their mouths like Skittles.
But as far as Mason is concerned, that debate can be put to bed right now. A graduate of a local high school who is now in his mid-20s, Mason (whose name has been changed to protect his privacy) was there when that piñata broke, he scrambled for those pills like everyone else, and some days is relieved that he lived to tell about it, though he seldom does.
The characterization that pills are randomly thrown into a bowl and blindly taken isn’t typically the case, Mason said, because teens who swallow prescription or over-the-counter drugs in search of a high are much more savvy and know exactly what many different drugs are and which will do the trick..
A more common scenario, Mason said, is that people who can get access to any of a variety of drugs popular for misuse bring them to parties to share, and in high school he could buy just about any pill for a couple of dollars at parties that he attended as often as a couple of times a month.
The reality, Mason said, is that from middle school on, every kid knows that there are things in the medicine cabinet at home that will get you high. For many, including Mason, that high starts with something as innocuous as cough syrup, which teens discover is readily available and can produce considerably psychotropic effects when misused.
The practice is called “robotripping,” so named after popular over-the-counter cold remedies like Robitussin, and even ABC news has reported that it is a dangerous practice that has killed primarily teenagers who think they can’t overdose on something they can buy at the corner drug store.
When an excessive amount of the cough and cold medicine containing dextromethorphan is taken it produces a hallucinogenic high, and its abuse has risen ten-fold since 1999, Poison Control officials say. Dextromethorphan is the second most abused cold remedy behind a cold drug called Coricidin, officials say, and both can have deadly consequences to young people looking for an inexpensive, legal and easy to acquire high.
Children as young as nine years old are part of the statistic that makes up emergency room visits for cold medicine overdose. Mason remembers when he and his friends would guzzle quantities of the stuff, how sometimes his friends would throw up and he would wonder if they had taken too much. But it didn’t stop them. “I guess it was for excitement, to experiment and get high,” he said. “You could have reactions and overdose or die, but people don’t think about that when they’re 16.”
After an injury when he was in ninth grade, Mason was prescribed a narcotic pain killer, which opened up a whole new world to him, a dangerous one that slowly transformed him into a kid living on the edge. “I did stupid stuff when I was a teenager. I was really stupid. I mixed stuff. Getting high was a medicine cabinet away.” Before long Mason had run out of his own pain killers and was riffling through his parents’ prescriptions to see if anything good was sitting there. Or he could buy pills from kids at school, with Ritalin and other attention deficit or anxiety drugs among the easiest pills to get if you knew who to ask.
Taking prescription drugs didn’t seem like that big a deal, Mason said, because an awful lot of the people around him were doing it, and not necessarily always the kids one would assume. In the beginning, Mason was the kind of kid no one would ever believe was sneaking to get high, too. “People didn’t think that of me, not at first,” he said. “But then I started experimenting and drifted over into that crowd.”
To keep kids today from following the same path, advice from health experts and Mason is the same: lock up prescription as well as over-the-counter drugs and be watchful for signs that a teen is dabbling in them or more.
Talking to kids about medicine use and abuse is key, officials say, because many teens have the misguided belief that the drugs are inherently safe, however taken, because they are prescribed by doctors. Silence is permission, the Partnership For a Drug Free America says, and no teen should have it to take chances with their life like an estimated 19% of U.S. teenagers already have.
From the Winona Health website:
Signs of teen substance abuse
Missing school or work
Unusual temper flare-ups
Loss of interest in hobbies and sports
Change in eating or sleeping habits
You have a tough job. Keeping your child away from drugs and alcohol is challenging. Half of all 12th graders have used illicit drugs, according to a survey (Monitoring the Future) sponsored and released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse in 2006. But with love and attention, you can do it. Your best weapon is to arm yourself with education. What substances are out there? What are the signs of abuse and addiction? If you think your child is abusing or is addicted, get help immediately and educate yourself.