In Union Square, the skater kid pulled out a plastic bag full of pills, both blues (the four-hour tablets, often called “homework pills”) and oranges (time-release capsules), which he had because a doctor had diagnosed him with ADD.
“Score,” S. said. “Can I have 50?”
“That’s 50 bucks.”
“Don’t be a fucking idiot.” S. flashed a sassy grin that she knows has a way of getting boys to cooperate. “I’ll give you—I don’t know—how’s about 20 bucks?”
“Fine,” he said sulkily, and S. put the pills in a little coin purse and headed back home. When she got to her building her doorman gave her a suspicious look, as he often did, which got to her. After all, what did he know? Was he a 16-year-old girl? Could he relate to the pressure? Did his close friend die? Why was everyone always . . . prying? She had the urge to do something, to somehow hurt him, but what would be the point? So she just smiled a little awkwardly, and went upstairs to start her homework. “I’m a star studier,” she told me that last time we spoke. “I hate school so much, but you should see me. I’m unstoppable!”
There are, of course, health risks to such behavior. Too many uppers and your heart rate can go ballistic, too many downers and it can stop beating; mixing both can put your whole body at war with itself. “You’re basically playing pinball with your brain’s chemistry,” says Dr. Turecki. “You can induce a psychotic state.” But such cases are extreme, and rare, which makes the standard dictum that Drugs Are Bad all the more difficult for kids to take seriously when it comes to pharmaceuticals (especially when their parents’ medicine cabinets are fully stocked with them). Unlike drinking in excess or taking ecstasy, psychotropic drugs don’t annihilate normalcy so much as adjust it: a little Adderall for studying, Xanax to come down off the Adderall, Ambien or Klonopin to get a good night’s sleep—and Zoloft or Prozac or Wellbutrin to stave off the volatile moods that go hand in hand with being an adolescent. “That’s a primary concern of ours,” says Tessa Kleeman. “When you use a substance for something you can do naturally, you’ll ultimately lose the ability to do it naturally. In teens, pill popping can replace maturing emotionally—that person is eliminating human experience from their life.”
J. could’ve told you that. Here we are, a new school year just getting under way, which for J., a senior at a highly competitive public school, may end up meaning business. Last year, she sold (mainly) Adderall and Ritalin. Prices ranged from $3 to $10 a pill, depending on what she calls “the supply-and-demand ratio.” Her business model was both modest and flawless: She got the Adderall from a guy who works in a Rite Aid pharmacy and hooked her up in bulk for the “mad cheap” price of $20 for 100 milligrams; the Ritalin came from a friend who had numerous bottles sitting around “from when his doctor thought he had ADD but his parents weren’t sure.” People like J. have become a common presence in New York high schools: the unwitting dealer, the outgoing kid whose entrepreneurial flair gets her Constant Connection status.
“It’s not like I wanted to be a dealer or anything,” J. told me the other night. “I just got tired of spending money on these things myself. This way I’m good. I get 50 bucks in my pocket, and I can trade up easy. Like, there’s another kid, used to be such a geek, now he sells Xanax and OxyContin—so I give him what he needs to get fucked up, and he does the same for me.” We were walking along the street in Queens, near where she lives, checking out stretchy acid-washed jeans at V.I.M. J. is 17 years old, a sparkplug in female form: funny, blunt, a fast talker, every word punctuated by her tongue ring, which clicks against her teeth with the regular rhythm of a stopwatch.
She barely remembers how she first got into prescription drugs—they were just around, everywhere, not remotely taboo. In freshman year, she started going to punk shows and running with a crew who liked to do lines of Ambien and hydrocodone (generic Vicodin). Pharmaceuticals were so ingrained in her consciousness that for a biology project she decided to interview her peers about their experiences with antidepressants—not because she was particularly fascinated, but because it seemed easy.
To master the art of pharmaceuticals, to possess the knowledge of how to use her brain as a science experiment, J. and her friends often go online or study medical textbooks in the library, looking up drugs and seeing if “the side effects sound appealing.” She’s even invented her own means of ingesting the drugs, which she calls “parachuting”: grinding the pills, placing them in tissue paper, and dropping them down your throat. “That way, you get all the drug’s surface area,” she explained. “Even more than when you snort it.”
Lately, though, her outlook has started to change. Friends have gone into rehab, or gotten “crazy edgy,” and her own mood has developed a habit of swinging unpredictably from one extreme to another. Though she started dealing for the free product, J. soon cared more about making money, and then suddenly swore off dealing. She said she was “more mature about it,” and when I asked her what that meant, she said it was simple: Something wasn’t right with swallowing so many pills to do things that were ostensibly normal. “People are always trying to feel better, you know?” she said. “But they don’t know how to naturally make themselves feel better anymore, how to respect themselves, love themselves. What is that?”
Her adolescent swagger aside, I was struck by what J. was saying, how her attitude was at once flip and philosophical. It was an outlook shared by most everyone I interviewed. J. and her peers are truly the first generation to come of age in an era in which the much-touted products of major pharmaceutical companies have merged with the rebellious spirit of adolescence. And yet the majority of these teenagers expressed serious and well-thought-out reservations about such drugs. Prescriptions are too easily available, they said. Pills are more addictive than anyone realizes. Over and over I was told that if they could choose to, they would not have so many pills in their lives. But of course it’s not entirely up to them. They may mimic the behavior of their parents, but in the end, they’re still children.