Is Your Teen Pharming? Can You Tell?

Pharming has almost nothing to do with the pursuit of agriculture and everything to do with a new and highly dangerous way teens and even pre-teens acquire and experiment with serious drugs. With pharming, your kids are far more likely to snatch something from the home medicine chest than they are to buy from nameless shady dealers doing business on dark street corners.

While I was researching my 2004 book, “Buying Rx Drugs Online: Avoiding a Prescription for Disaster”, I got my first introduction to the concept of pharming from talking with dozens of teens and young adults willing to share their stories. At least a handful of those I interviewed admitted they had had at least one serious health emergency or other dangerous incident as a result of what they describe as just a little fun between friends. As one teen, “Sean” wrote, “It’s just no big scary thing. Never seen anybody get real sick or something. It’s sure no worse than my parents rushing home on Friday nights to make pitchers of margaritas.”

Usually performed within a group of friends or classmates, the rules of pharming can differ between various groups. But the basic practice goes like this: every teen in a group tries to come up with his or her contribution to the “grab bag”.

Once or twice a week or month, the group of pharmers get together in somebody’s bedroom, kitchen, or family room, and toss their donations into a pillow case or a shopping bag. Then the “goodie” bag gets passed around, with each kid choosing one or a handful of drugs at a time, until the supply is exhausted. Many of these impromptu pharming clubs have their own special rules: some take whatever assortment of drugs they happened to get right there and then while others might agree to dose themselves just before their final class on Friday afternoon.

What drugs go into a grab bag largely depends on what the participants can get their hands upon, from prescriptions drugs stored unsecurely at home, stolen from friends and neighbors, or bought over the counter or shoplifted from the local drug store. With access to online purchase accounts and either credit or debit cards, many teens also go online to buy potent narcotics as well as other prescription drugs like Ritalin, Xanax, muscle relaxants, and heavy duty weight loss drugs. Increasingly, teen males, some barely past puberty, are buying bootleg Viagra, Cialis, and other male potency medications. Some of these drugs get bought for group pharming; others are strictly for private use.

Take the case of “Josh”, a 17-year-old from an upscale Boston suburb, who claims he has been pharming since junior high. Formerly a mostly A student and Varsity sports enthusiast, Josh can’t wait until Thursday nights when his group of fellow pharmers gather in a friend’s den to share their drugs.

“We started out rinky-dink, stuff like Nyquil gel caps and over-the-counter sleeping pills. Then we got smart. Two of us have M.D. parents and man, they can score good shit some days.”

Josh says it was like Christmas every week when his older half-sister became a drug sales representative last year. The trunk of her car is often extremely well-stocked with free samples of potent medications she brings to doctors, he claims, adding that it’s not too difficult for him to get access to her supply.

Yet, even as Josh makes it clear he enjoys what he’s doing – he sometimes sells some of the samples to others at school or trades them for other drugs he likes better – he also freely discusses a few incidents where he or one of his pharming buddies became seriously ill from their mix of drug cocktails. His best friend suffered seizures on one occasion while a former girlfriend pharmer spent 17 hours unconscious in the hospital from one grab bag gathering.

“Don’t make it out to be some big thing. It’s not,” he told me just minutes before he related another occasion in which he spent hours feeling incapable of breathing normally. Even then, he admits he kept the truth from his parents and the doctor at the emergency room. “I lied, saying I thought it was asthma. I used to have those attacks as a kid.”

Another teen, this one who identified herself as a freshman at the University of Vermont, says she graduated from pharming parties but helps supplement her college expenses by buying prescription only drugs from offshore sites – where no prescription is demanded – to sell to college classmates who continue to pharm. Sounding proud of her entrepreneurial prowess, “Kit” reports she can buy a bottle of 90 10 mg Vicodin tablets for about $220 (or less than $2.50 a pill) and sell these codeine-related painkillers at a minimum of $10 a pill. If classmates are finding it hard to score elsewhere, Kit says she sometimes doubles or triples the price, a significant bump in her profit margin.

“I’ve never seen anybody get seriously hurt by this. Really. The media just likes to scare people with bad stories about the few who do get sick,” insists Kit.

But teens and young adults alike are being hurt. Deaths arising from complications from ingesting even small amounts of over-the-counter drug mixes occur throughout the U.S. every day.

Mary Beth, a widowed mother from Reading, PA who asked not to use her full name, wrote in about her 21-year-old daughter, formerly a dean’s list student at a Catholic university. She reports her daughter is still fighting her way back from a severe stroke probably caused by sky rocketing blood pressure after mixing large amounts of cold formula with other drugs at a college pharming session.

“Lori spent two weeks barely able to move or respond. Thank God, most of the damage is reversed. But to this day, she can’t speak or write normally even though she’s been in therapy. Lori should be graduating next May and maybe following her dream of going into TV or radio production. Instead, she’s living back home and the only job she’s been able to keep is at a sandwich shop. How can anybody say this pharming business is just fun? I pray every day for Lori and we do our best to help her, but the life she had is destroyed! Her doctors can’t say she’ll ever be able to recover all her brain function.”

Drug counselors suggest parents watch for signs that their teens and even pre-teens may seem particularly “out of it” after getting together with friends. They also recommend keeping prescription drugs out of the family medicine cabinet and behind a lock and key as well as limiting access to credit or debit cards that can facilitate the purchase of prescription drugs online from less than reputable pharmacies.

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