Phencyclidine (PCP) is a synthetic drug that was developed as a general human anesthetic in the 1950s and later used as a veterinary tranquilizer. Today, PCP is by and large an illicit and notorious street drug made illegally in secret labs.
In addition to its most infamous name, Angel Dust, street names for PCP include Rocket Fuel, Peace Pill, Sherman, and Zoom.
PCP is categorized as a hallucinogen. The hallucinogen category includes a wide range of drugs, such as plants like peyote and psilocybin mushrooms as well as synthesized formulas like LSD and ketamine. The drugs in this group are diverse, but they share some key distinctions.
Hallucinogens cause a significant change to the thoughts and feeling of users as well as to their perception of their situation and surroundings. As indicated by their name, these drugs can cause hallucinations. A user may experience images, voices, or sensations that seem very real, even though they are not.
PCP is also categorized as a dissociative drug. Dissociative drugs make users feel separated or distant from their surroundings, bodies, and reality. Most dissociative drugs, including PCP, alter the user’s brain chemistry in the following ways:
- They disrupt the brain chemical glutamate at certain receptors on nerve cells. Glutamate is vital to the processing of emotion and cognition, so it affects memory and awareness. Glutamate also plays a major part in pain recognition and perception, as it is responsible for activating pain-regulating cells outside the brain.
- They change the behavior of neurotransmitters, specifically dopamine, which is related to the euphoric feelings many users experience while on dissociative drugs.
How is PCP Used?
Tablets or capsules of PCP in powder form can be ingested. The powder can also be snorted.
PCP is also commonly smoked. Users dip or spray leafy material, such as marijuana or mint, in liquid PCP and then smoke it.
PCP and Other Drugs
Throughout its time on the street market, PCP has been sold under the guise of different drugs to unknowing users. It has also been used in combination with other drugs. These drugs include:
- MDMA (ecstasy). Street MDMA is notoriously unstable and unpredictable. Researchers have confirmed that PCPthat has been found in illegal ecstasy pills.
- Formaldehyde. Some drug users dip their cigarettes (marijuana or tobacco) in what they believe to be formaldehyde, or embalming fluid, for a hallucinogenic experience. This is sometimes called a Loveboat or Shermstick. Many researchers believe it is actually PCP that is being used rather than formaldehyde.
- Marijuana. PCP in powder form may be rolled into marijuana cigarettes. Users may soak marijuana in liquid PCP before smoking it. This is a popular method of PCP use, sometimes called wet.
An Unpredictable Drug
One of the most dangerous things about PCP is that it is highly unpredictable. Its effects can be influenced by many things.
- Brain chemistry: Everyone’s brain chemistry is different, so PCP will have different effects on different users. A user may see their friend have a mild hallucinogenic experience and expect the same but then experience a much more traumatic or dangerous reaction.
- Personal factors: Genetic influences, current emotional state, and body fat content will influence the effect of PCP on a user.
- Production issues: Because it is made in clandestine labs and sold through street dealers, a buyer can never be sure of its strength or specific chemical makeup. A user may experience PCP very differently from one use to the next.
Disguised as marijuana: PCP disguised as marijuana may trick someone in a social setting to smoke what they believe to be marijuana when it is, in fact, mind-altering PCP.
Effects of PCP
PCP’s effects will vary widely depending on the user, dosage, and method of consumption. A low dose of PCP (often considered less than 5 milligrams) may produce the below effects on a milder scale, while a higher dose will result in more extreme sensations and feelings.
Short-Term Psychological Effects
- Hallucinations: visual, auditory, and sensory
- Euphoric feelings
- Drowsiness or sleepiness
- A feeling of being weightless and immune to pain
- A feeling of superhuman strength
- Paranoia, panic, terror, or fear of one’s life being in immediate danger
- Inability to concentrate
- Bizarre, out-of-character behavior
- Distorted perceptions: disassociation the self as well as time, space, and reality
- Agitation, anger, and violence
- Delusions of grandeur
- A robotic, stiff demeanor
Short-Term Physical Effects
- Dizziness and nausea
- Irregular heartbeat or a feeling of the heart racing
- Loss of regular motor skills
- Excessive saliva or vomit
- Blurry vision
- Breathing irregularities, such as shallow, slow, or interrupted breathing
- Inability to feel or register physical pain
- Unusual rigidity in muscles
- Abnormal blood pressure (too high or low)
- Chills and shivering
- Increased body temperature
- Inability to speak in cohesive sentences or to speak at all
These may be caused by a high dose, or they may appear when PCP is used in combination with other drugs, including certain prescription drugs.
Extreme Short-Term Physical Effects
- Rhabdomyolysis (destruction of muscle cells)
- Flashbacks or hallucinations
- Memory loss or impairment
- Chronic depression and anxiety
- Suicidal feelings or attempts at suicide
- Speech problems
- Social isolation
- Withdrawal from friends, family, and society
- Desire to binge on PCP
- Toxic psychosis
Signs of Use
If you encounter a person on a high dose of PCP, you are likely to realize quickly that something is wrong. The extreme symptoms listed above will cause the person to behave bizarrely and appear out of touch with reality.
People exhibiting extreme PCP effects may be a danger to themselves and others.
It may be harder to identify a user on a lower dose of PCP or someone who is more familiar with the drug and able to disguise some of its effects. Signs may include:
- Blank staring
- Agitation or overexcitement
- Heavy perspiration
- Problems with speech, such as slurring or stuttering
- Seeming unable to speak or think clearly
- Strange chemical smell
If a person is using PCP regularly, they may show signs of long-term PCP use even when they are not under the influence of the drug. These may include:
- Memory loss
- Mood swings
- Development of speech problems
- Withdrawn or detached attitude
- Depression or overall sadness
- Angst or anxiety
- Disappearing or becoming unavailable for days at a time when they may be bingeing on PCP
PCP: Then and Now
PCP was developed in the 1950s under the name Sernyl as a general anesthetic by researchers at Parke, Davis & Co. After clinical studies revealed its adverse effects on patients (anxiety, agitation, and delusions), it was instead used as a veterinary tranquilizer.
PCP first hit the street market in San Francisco’s famed Haight-Ashbury district during the tumultuous and drug-centric 1960s. Hallucinogens were very popular in that era, with the use of psychedelic drugs like LSD and “magic mushrooms” skyrocketing. PCP became popular as well.
By 1978, 13 percent of high-schoolers reported that they had tried PCP. By 1981, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), PCP had become the third most common cause of emergency room overdose cases, behind heroin and cocaine.
The drug’s popularity declined in the 1980s after it became illegal even for veterinary use in 1978.
While PCP use has been in decline since its peak, it has remained on the street market, sometimes trending in popularity. For example, there was a resurgence of PCP use between 2009 and 2013. This uptick was perhaps halted by a crackdown on illegal PCP labs in 2013. According to a study published by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in 2015, only 0.2 percent of teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17 had tried PCP.
Relative to other drugs, research remains slim on PCP, but looking at state-by-state statistics, it’s clear that PCP remains a problem. In 2017, PCP remained in the top 10 list of drug reports for items seized by law enforcement, totaling 421 reports. Pennsylvania reported 55 PCP-related overdose deaths in 2016 as well.
Today, news reports of PCP use prove that the drug is not going anywhere. It’s still on the street and available.
These reports also serve as a reminder of the dangerous and sometimes tragic results of an extreme PCP trip- from outlandish behavior to violent rampages, attacks on law enforcement, and overdoses. In 2018, the dangers of PCP abuse were cited by the defense in the murder trial of NFL star Aaron Hernandez, an alleged user of the drug.
Again, relatively little research has been conducted on PCP addiction in humans, particularly physical addiction. PCP’s extreme effects are a major deterrent to continual use and addiction, yet some users do become physiologically dependent on the drug, particularly those who take high doses (10 milligrams or more).
Habitual users also have reported needing to take higher amounts of PCP to get similar effects as their use continued, indicating a physical tolerance to PCP can develop.
Withdrawal and Treatment
In addition to the lingering adverse effects of PCP, which can last for more than a week after taking it, withdrawal symptoms may include drug cravings, headaches, exhaustion, and excessive appetite.
Treatment for PCP addiction, like treatment for any addiction, should be customized. It can vary greatly, depending on the user and their experiences.
Initially, treatment may focus on providing a healthy environment for the user to go through withdrawal and the aftereffects of use. Ongoing treatment will depend on the severity of the long-term effects of use, but it will involve therapy to examine and break physiological dependence on the drug.
Continued treatment should include mental health assessment, medication (if needed), and therapy.