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:
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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.
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:
One of the most dangerous things about PCP is that it is highly unpredictable. Its effects can be influenced by many things.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
(February 2015) What Are the Effects of Common Dissociative Drugs on the Brain and Body? National Institute on Drug Abuse. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/hallucinogens-dissociative-drugs/what-are-effects-common-dissociative-drugs-brain-body
(2016) Phencyclidine — PCP. Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR). from http://www.cesar.umd.edu/cesar/drugs/pcp.pdf
(December 1984) Angel Dust Use in Capital Said to Reach Epidemic Proportions. The New York Times. from https://www.nytimes.com/1984/12/09/us/angel-dust-use-in-capital-said-to-reach-epidemic-proportions.html
(2011) The PCP Story. California Narcotic Officers’ Association. from https://www.cnoa.org/documents/NPCP.pdf
(September 2017) What is MDMA? National Institute on Drug Abuse. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/mdma-ecstasy-abuse/what-mdma
(October 2017) What is phencyclidine (PCP), or angel dust? Medical News Today. from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/305328.php
(July 2017) Analysis of Overdose Deaths in Pennsylvania, 2016. DEA and University of Pittsburgh. from https://www.overdosefreepa.pitt.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/DEA-Analysis-of-Overdose-Deaths-in-Pennsylvania-2016.pd_-1.pdf
(January 2018) Doctor testifies about PCP in Aaron Hernandez murder trial. CBS News. from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/doctor-testifies-about-pcp-in-aaron-hernandez-murder-trial/
(January 2016) What are hallucinogens? National Institute on Drug Abuse. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/hallucinogens
(2016) 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-TrendBreak-2015.pdf