PCP, also known as phencyclidine and referred to informally as “angel dust”, is an hallucinogenic drug used recreationally for its dissociative effect. Its appearance is that of a white crystalline powder that can be eaten, smoked, snorted or injected. It can also be dissolved in water or alcohol. When smoked, PCP is often applied to a leafy material such as mint, parsley, tobacco or cannabis, which is then ignited and inhaled through a pipe.
First synthesised in 1926, PCP was first thought to have potential use as an a surgical anaesthetic. However, its acute and long lasting side effects made it unsuitable for such purposes and it was largely forgotten about until the 1950s. Attempts to reintroduce it were made firstly in 1953 under the brand name “Sernyl” and again in 1967 under the name “Sernylan” with intended use as a veterinary anaesthetic. However its side effects again made it unsuitable for such purposes, and it was largely superseded by ketamine before being withdrawn completely.
However, it soon re-emerged as a recreational drug, used for its intoxicating dissociative effects. Users report a feeling of detachment from reality, accompanied sometimes by a sense of strength and power. Users may also experience visual and auditory hallucinations. There are many reports of PCP users achieving surprising feats of strength owing to its numbing effects, which can unfortunately include self-destructive acts such as users pulling out their own teeth.
PCP has a relatively low addiction rate when compared to other drugs such as cocaine or heroin, which is at least in part due to its unpleasant and long lasting side effects, which can often last for more than a week after the drug is taken. It can however be addictive nonetheless, and whilst general use has declined since the 1980s, it can still be found on the street, primarily in the US.
PCP has no current practical uses either in medicine or otherwise, which means that it is manufactured exclusively by drug dealers and amateur chemists, who will sometimes combine it with other drugs. This often results in impurities, which can potentially be even more damaging than the drug itself.
Whilst there have been reported instances of PCP use in many countries, it remains most popular in the United States. It has a variety of different street names both referring to the drug itself, and to mixtures of it with other drugs. Some of its names include “angel dust”, “amoeba” and “rocket fuel”, whilst a cigarette that has been dipped in PCP is known as a “fry stick”, “sherm stick” or “amp”. Smoking such a cigarette is known as “getting wet”.
PCP in cannabis joints is known as “dust blunts”, “happy sticks” or “dippers”, while PCP combined with MDMA is sometimes referred to as “Pikachu”, and ingesting this substance is known informally as “elephant flipping”.
The effects of PCP can vary by the dose taken; in small doses it causes intoxication and numbness of the extremities, while more moderate doses will produce a strong anaesthetic effect, accompanied by a feeling of detachment from reality. Users will often stare blankly, with rapidly involuntary eye movements. In higher doses, PCP can cause visual and auditory hallucinations, and this distortion of reality can often lead to irrational and dangerous behaviour from addicts, sometimes resulting in death.
PCP has a range of negative effects, particularly in high doses. These include decreased blood pressure and heart rate, nausea and loss of balance. The drug can also cause severe psychological problems, including feelings of anxiety, paranoia, and symptoms consistent with those of schizophrenia. Such symptoms can sometimes remain for many months after the drug has been taken. Very high doses of PCP can also lead to seizures, comas or even death.
PCP’s anaesthetic effect, combined with an increased perception of strength, has been known to lead to unusual physical feats from addicts under its influence. These can include violence as well as self-destructive acts such as pulling one’s own teeth out.
The initial effects of PCP last for a few hours before wearing off, however it will stay in the body for a considerably longer amount of time than other drugs, typically a week or more.
PCP is not thought to be physiologically addictive, however regular users can quickly become behaviourally addicted to it despite its unpleasant side effects.
Whilst PCP use has been reported around the world, it is mostly manufactured in the United States, particularly in Southern California, and its use is largely limited to this country. Production is thought to be falling as the number of PCP addicts decreases.
PCP has not been manufactured commercially since the 1960s, and so nearly all production originates from amateur chemists working in clandestine labs. Given its falling demand and its similar production process to other drugs, these labs will often be equipped to “cook” other drugs such as crystal meth in addition to PCP. Most of these labs operate on a very small scale. PCP is an entirely synthesised drug, and so at least a basic knowledge of chemistry, as well as some specialist equipment, is required in order to manufacture it.
Given that demand for PCP is largely restricted to America, there is very little in the way of cross-border or intercontinental trafficking of the drug. Most production of PCP is thought to be controlled by urban criminal gangs, who also constitute its primary market. Whilst most production is localised to Southern California, distribution channels are known to reach across the country including areas such as Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington D.C. These distribution channels are also largely controlled by criminal gangs.
With the advent of more powerful drugs producing less unpleasant side effects, use of PCP is largely dropping, and with it is the number of facilities capable of producing the drug. US drug enforcement agencies take a particularly hard line with PCP, and so labs are regularly dismantled. Many labs prefer to prioritise more popular and therefore more lucrative drugs. Whilst a 1979 survey reported that 13% of high school students had admitted to trying PCP at least once, this figure dropped to 3% in 1990, and is thought to have decreased since to 2.7% of the whole US adult population in 2008.
PCP is a strictly controlled drug in the US, with a Schedule II classification meaning that its manufacture, distribution, possession and use are all punishable with custodial sentences.
Little research has been done into whether PCP is physiologically addictive, however it is thought to be highly psychologically addictive, and that users can build up a tolerance to its effects over time.
Symptoms of a user being under the influence of PCP include flushing, numbness and disassociation from reality. This can also be accompanied by vacant staring, loss of balance and involuntary eye movements. Users may also exhibit shallow breathing and sweating.
Repeated use of PCP, or use in high doses, can cause severe psychological problems. Users are prone to anxiety, paranoia and symptoms consistent with schizophrenia. They may also have an unrealistic perception of their own strength, which when combined with the irrational tendencies associated with the drug may result in violent actions towards themselves or others, potentially leading to suicide attempts. PCP abuse over a long period of time may result in amnesia, depression, weight loss and difficulty concentrating. These symptoms can potentially last for a year or more after cessation of the drug. Use of PCP among adolescents may also affect growth hormones.
Abusers of PCP will engage in compulsive addictive behaviours in order to get their next fix. This usually means that they will suffer from financial problems, and potentially resort to stealing and other crimes to feed their habit. PCP users will tend to binge on the drug over a couple of days with little sleep, and so persistent tiredness may be a sign of PCP addiction.
PCP addiction can be very serious, and so before embarking on the recovery process an addict should consult their doctor so as to give them the best chance of successfully quitting the drug and reducing the likelihood of relapse. PCP can cause significant psychological damage, and so an addict should be closely monitored to ensure that they don’t cause harm to themselves or others. The drug can cause anxiety, paranoia, disordered thinking, irrational behaviour and symptoms of schizophrenia, with many addicts being at an increased risk of suicide.
A doctor may also be able to treat the effects of the drug and its withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea and dizziness. It has not yet been scientifically proven whether PCP is chemically addictive, however it is known to be highly psychologically addictive. To that end, the most effective strategy for getting off PCP is simply to stop taking it, however it is advisable to elicit the assistance of medical professionals in providing the best chance of recovery.
Addiction in this form stems from habit, and so not engaging in behaviours or situations in which PCP would normally be taken should be a priority. This obviously extends to no longer mixing with acquaintances who take the drug, thus limiting the chances of an addict having access to it.
Recovery from PCP addiction is a long process, longer than that of many other drugs, as the substance will stay in the body for a week or more after taking it.
Psychological effects such as memory loss, disordered thought process and depression can last for up to a year after cessation of the drug. Considering the relatively long term nature of these effects, it may be appropriate for a PCP addict to make use of a detox facility in order to best deal with the symptoms. Such a facility can also provide therapy or counselling to help an addict deal with life without having to turn to drugs.
An addict may have been using PCP as an escape from deeper emotional problems, and failure to deal with the underlying causes can result in a higher chance of relapse. Depression, job loss, traumatic life events or money troubles could all be potentially contributing factors to addiction, and so it is important to find out what drove a user to abuse the drug in the first place. It can be all too easy for a recovering or recovered addict to get another hit and revert back to previous destructive behaviours.