Partying among teens and young adults may have been viewed as relatively normal behavior in previous generations, yet these days, given the considerable dangers associated with various drugs and drug behaviors, the risks are far greater. Today’s “party culture” is more likely to involve prescription medications combined with alcohol and other drugs, the consequences of which can be very harmful, particularly because people between the ages of 12 and 25 have bodies and minds that are still developing.
Researchers now know more about adolescent brain development than ever before. And though teenagers are fast approaching legal adulthood, their brains continue to experience the intense emotions, unrelenting peer pressure, and quest for short-term reward that accompanies adolescence.1 By the time kids enter college, the parts of their brain involved with reward seeking and stimulation are firing on all cylinders. Couple this with an environment rife with temptation to use intoxicating substances, and dangerous situations are sure to arise. Such situations and their adverse outcomes might include:
- Pharma parties.
- Being involved in sexual assault.
Read on to learn more about the risks of party culture for teens and young adults.
What Are Pharm Parties?
In recent years, prescription drug use has escalated, so much so that it currently ranks second only to marijuana use among young adults. The combination of increased accessibility of prescription drugs, the misconception that prescription drugs are safer than other drugs, and the social acceptability of using prescription drugs has created the perfect storm for prescription drug misuse and abuse.2
A particularly worrying new trend among young people is sharing prescription and over-the-counter medications to get high. Teens gather to have a “pharm party”—also sometimes referred to as “Skittles parties”—where they each bring prescription drugs and contribute to a mixture of pills thrown into a bowl. These bowls and baggies of random pills mixed together are often referred to as “trail mix.” Teenagers pass around the bowl and each person takes a handful of the drugs to get high.2 Additionally, “pharming” refers to adolescents gaining access to and distributing pharmaceutical medications for personal use or to sell for profit.2
Thanks to the Internet, teenagers also know more about drugs and have determined which ones are more valuable. For example, they’ll deem that OxyContin is worth more than Xanax and require 2 or 3 Xanax in exchange for 1 OxyContin. It’s also common for a friend group to celebrate when a member of the group has a surgery or other medical procedure because they have the opportunity to get more prescription pain medications.2
Some teens even pharm for profit. They might purchase prescription drugs in other countries or online and sell them individually for a much higher price. For example, a teen could buy a bottle of 90 Vicodin tablets for about $220 and charge at least $10 a pill to their friends or schoolmates. Pharming ADHD medications like Ritalin can be much more lucrative on high school and college campuses, with the price per pill as high as $20.2
If you are pharming or thinking about it, consider the risks. Getting caught selling or using prescription or illicit drugs could cause you serious legal problems, physical risks—possible overdose, injury, and addiction—trouble at school, and destroyed relationships with your family and loved ones.
Easily Accessible Drugs for Teens
A number of potentially dangerous drugs are easily accessible to teens. Alcohol, prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, cough medicine, marijuana, K2 or Spice, and household products like inhalants are all abused substances that you might come across at home, at a party, or at a friend’s house.3
These drugs may not be heroin or cocaine, but they aren’t necessarily harmless, either, as might be the common perception. Today’s party culture may include abusing the following substances:
- Cough medicine: When taken in large amounts, the main ingredient in cough medicine (dextromethorphan, or DXM) can cause serious reactions, like nausea, vomiting, increased heart rate and blood pressure, impaired motor function, and numbness.3
- Prescription drugs: Taking prescription drugs in ways other than prescribed by your doctor can be very dangerous and can ultimately lead to addiction. Young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 were the biggest abusers of prescription painkillers, ADHD stimulants, and anti-anxiety drugs. In 2014, more than 1,700 young people died from a prescription drug overdose.4
- Inhalants: Sniffing the fumes or inhaling the aerosol from household items such as paint thinners, certain glue bottles, computer cleaning dusters, or nitrous oxide canisters can cause damage to the brain and other organs.5
- Marijuana: Marijuana use can lead to problems with learning and memory and can make it more difficult for you to solve problems. It distorts perception and can impair your coordination, which can increase your risk of accidents or injury.3
The Risk of Overdosing
When using illicit drugs like heroin, meth, MDMA, or even “study drugs” bought from a street dealer or questionable online source, an added danger exists with the fact that many of these could be cut with other harmful substances. When you take substances from people on the street, online, or from your peers, you don’t actually know what you’re taking. Your friend my offer you something and say, “Trust me, this stuff is pure,” but unless they have tested the drug themselves, there is no way that they can know whether or not the drug is pure. Drug dealers are good at what they do and they know what ingredients to use to dilute or bulk up drugs. Sometimes, adulterants like sugar, lead, caffeine, pesticides, aluminum, and glass are often added to drugs without the buyer’s knowledge.6 When you’re involved in the party culture, you place yourself at far greater risk of exposure to these dangerous substances.
More dangerous adulterants like fentanyl, carfentanil, and U-4770 (Pink) are now commonly cut into street drugs and counterfeit prescription painkillers, and they pose an extreme risk to users. These adulterants contain as much as 100 times the potency of morphine, and even a small amount (the size of a snowflake) can be fatal.7 According to the DEA, between January and March, 2016, 9 people died from taking counterfeit Xanax pills containing fentanyl; between March and April, 2016, there were 52 overdoses and 12 deaths from counterfeit hydrocodone tablets.7
Dangers of Sexual Assault
Studies consistently establish a link between alcohol and sexual assault. As many as 23% of female college students (nearly 1 in 4) report experiencing unwanted sexual contact while they were incapacitated due to alcohol or drugs. Of those, 11% said that the unwanted contact included oral sex or penetration.8 And females are not the only ones who experience assault. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted in college.9 So, being an active part of the college (or high school) party culture may place you at greater risk for being sexually assaulted if you are regularly compromised or incapacitated by substances.
What Is Sexual Assault?
Sexual assault is not the same thing as sex. By definition, sexual assault is not fun, not consensual, and for one of the people involved, it will forever alter their life. Sexual assault is when you have any unwanted sexual contact with another person. If you have not given consent for a person to touch you, they are not allowed to. Consent must be given with free will and when you are in a sound state of mind.10
When men drink, it significantly increases the odds that they will perpetrate a sexual assault; however, it is important to remember that being drunk does not cause men to sexually assault. Certain factors may lead to both alcohol consumption and sexual assault by men. For example, sexual assaulters are more likely:11
- To have a hostile view toward women.
- Be a member of a fraternity that encourages both heavy drinking and sexual exploitation of women.
- To have a history of trauma, violence, or abuse as a child.
For more resources and information on sexual assault and how to find help if you have been a victim, visit the following sites:
- National Sexual Violence Resource Center
- National Center for Victims of Crime
- Rape Abuse Incest National Network
- Resource Sharing Project
- National Institute of Justice
- Responding to Campus Sexual Assault
- Sisters of Color Ending Sexual Assault
- Vision of Hope
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- End Violence Against Women International
- International Association of Chiefs of Police
- Mending the Sacred Hoop
- National Alliance to End Sexual Violence
How to Stay Safe and Take Preventative Steps
Almost 700,000 people between the ages of 18 and 24 get injured while under the influence each year, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.12 The easiest way to stay safe and prevent the harmful effects of alcohol or drugs is to avoid parties—but if you do go, there are harm-reduction strategies that you can practice, such as:
- Don’t accept drinks from others: Do not accept drinks from people at a party or allow anyone to hand you a drink that you did not watch them pour. In a study of more than 6,000 university students, researchers found that 1 in 13 students had been drugged, and 1.4% reported drugging someone else.13
- Don’t drink too much: When you drink too much, you are likely not going to make good decisions, feel well the next morning, or maintain your routine. If you are going out, try to limit your intake to 1 or 2 drinks. You can sip slowly, alternate with water, or bring your own non-alcoholic beverages to the party. If you are going to drink, make sure you eat dinner with some protein before you go to the party.
- Don’t mix drugs: Alcohol can make you drowsy, and taking drugs along with it can intensify these effects. Mixing drugs with alcohol or other drugs places you at a greater risk for serious injuries, overdose, and accidents.14
- Do not go alone to a party: Going to a party in a group and leaving in a group can help you maintain accountability for your actions. Friends can help you if you have had too much to drink or are looking sick. Staying in your friend group will also help keep you safe.
- Winters, K.C. & Arria, A. (2011). Adolescent Brain Development and Drugs. The Prevention Researcher, 18(2), 21–24.
- Sham, M.K. (2010). Down on the pharm: The juvenile prescription drug abuse epidemic and the necessity of holding parents criminally liable for making drugs accessible in their homes. Journal of Contemporary Health Law & Policy, 27(2), 426–452.
- Drug Enforcement Administration. (2011). Get it Straight: The Facts About Drugs Student Guide.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Abuse of Prescription (Rx) Drugs Affects Young Adults Most.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Inhalants.
- Center for Public Health Faculty of Health and Applied Social Sciences. (2010). A Guide to Adulterants, Bulking agents and other Contaminants found in illicit drugs.
- U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration. (2017). 2017 National Drug Threat Assessment.
- Association of America Universities. (2015). AAU Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct.
- National Sexual Violence Resource Center. (2015). Statistics About Sexual Violence.
- We End Violence. (2010). Alcohol: Why It’s Not an Excuse.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol and Sexual Assault.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2015). College Drinking.
- Swan, S. C., Lasky, N. V., Fisher, B. S., Woodbrown, V. D., Bonsu, J. E., Schramm, A. T., … & Williams, C. M. (2017). Just a dare or unaware? Outcomes and motives of drugging (“drink spiking”) among students at three college campuses. Psychology of Violence, 7(2), 253–264.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2014). Harmful Interactions: Mixing Alcohol with Medicines.