PCP (Phencyclidine) (Encyclopedia of Drugs and Addictive Substances)
- How Is It Taken?
- Usage Trends
- Effects on the Body
- Reactions with Other Drugs or Substances
- PCP Use Is No Legal Defense for Murder
- The Law
What Kind of Drug Is It?
Phencyclidine, commonly known as PCP, can be classified both as an hallucinogen and as an anesthetic. For legal purposes, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) considers PCP an hallucinogen, meaning it can make people see, hear, feel, and otherwise sense things that are not real. Scientists classify it as a . Dissociative refers to a feeling of being disconnected from one's body. An anesthetic is a substance that causes a loss of sensation in the body.
Depending on the dosage, PCP also acts as a depressant or as a stimulant, slowing down or speeding up normal body functions. PCP can do all of these things, and in addition, it can have many other weird, unpredictable, and dangerous side effects.
PCP is a synthetic substance, meaning that it is made in a laboratory. The ingredients used in its manufacture are completely artificial and not found in nature. The only way to create it is to use industrial chemicals. Many authorities on drug use consider PCP among the most dangerous substances of abuse. What is sold on the street as pure PCP is usually quite impure.
Typically, PCP is mixed with other substances, which can have their own harmful effects and can add to the drug's risks. Furthermore, because many people know how harmful and unpleasant the effects of PCP can be, drug dealers will often come up with a new name for their product in order to convince potential buyers to try it. Thus, someone who is actually trying to buy PCP may end up with something else, while someone trying to buy another drug may really be given PCP.
PCP was developed in the 1950s as an anesthetic. It showed promise for use in humans during surgery because of its strong numbing effect. However, the drug also has a dissociative effect, meaning it causes users to feel disconnected from their bodies. During the 1960s, PCP's dangerous side effects began to be noticed. The authors of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
research report titled "Hallucinogens and Dissociative Drugs" explained, "PCP was used in veterinary medicine but was never approved for human use because of problems that arose during clinical studies, including and extreme agitation experienced by patients emerging from anesthesia." Frequently, patients who had been given the drug became violently upset and imagined terrible things were happening to them when the dose began to wear off.
In 1978, all legal manufacture of PCP was stopped in the United States because street use was becoming too widespread. Illegal laboratories still continued to produce the drug because it is fairly easy and cheap to make. According to "DEA Briefs & Background: Phencyclidine (PCP)," its manufacture is centered in the Los Angeles area in California, although illegal laboratories have been found in other places around the country.
Illicit Drug Manufacturers "Pass Off" PCP as Other Drugs
Street use of PCP was fairly widespread during the middle and late 1960s. However, the many horror stories associated with its use caused its first wave of popularity to be rather short-lived. It continues to reappear on the street decade after decade, going by a wide variety of names. Experienced drug users know that PCP has very dangerous and frightening effects. Yet, drug dealers keep selling it because of the huge profits they can make.
What Is It Made Of?
PCP has no links to anything that is found in nature. The only way to make it is to combine dangerous industrial chemicals. One ingredient is cyanide (SY-uh-nide), a deadly poison. Other ingredients are chemicals that may otherwise be used to make plastics, paint remover, motor fuels, and other products. In fact, one of the clues that frequently leads to the discovery of an illegal PCP laboratory is the strong odor of chemicals. Labs are also found due to explosions or fires caused by careless handling of these chemicals by the illegal drug manufacturers. When found in large amounts, PCP gives off a powerful odor like that of ammonia.
Use of Dangerous Fillers
In its purest form, PCP is a white, crystalline powder. When mixed with water, it dissolves quickly and produces a clear liquid. Absolutely pure PCP is considered very rare on the street, however. Even though it is inexpensive to make, dealers usually cut it, or blend it, with other substances, so that they can turn a higher profit. PCP manufacturers sometimes cut their product until there is as little as 5 percent of PCP in the mixture. The added substances can alter the appearance of the drug, making it tan, orange, or brownish in color. The extra ingredients may change it from a powdery form into something more like sludge. Many substances are used to cut PCP, and some of them have their own harmful effects on the body.
In addition to intentionally blending PCP with other materials in order to increase dealers' profits, the drug is frequently contaminated. This happens simply because it is manufactured by people who do not really know what they are doing. They are unable, or unwilling, to purify the final product or to test it properly. One
common contaminant in PCP is PCC, a substance that gives off cyanide when burned.
How Is It Taken?
PCP is produced in liquid, powder, and tablet form. There are numerous methods of taking it. It is smoked, snorted, injected, or swallowed.
Smoking: The Most Popular Method
The most common way users take PCP is by smoking it, either in a pipe or in cigarette form. Liquid PCP is sprayed or sprinkled onto some kind of leafy material. Marijuana is used, but so are common herbs such as mint, oregano, and parsley. Commercially sold tobacco cigarettes are sometimes dipped in a solution of PCP. Menthol cigarettes are often preferred for this purpose because PCP smoke is extremely hot. Users believe that using mentholated cigarettes or mint leaves will help to cool the smoke and keep the mouth and tongue from becoming irritated. (Separate entries on marijuana and nicotine are available in this encyclopedia.)
PCP is sometimes used to disguise poor-quality marijuana, or even to make common herbs such as parsley seem like powerful marijuana. Users may not be told that PCP is the real active ingredient in the plant matter. When applied to marijuana or other leafy matter in this way, PCP is referred to as killer joints, killer weed, lovelies, supergrass, superweed, and wets, among other names. PCP is also frequently sold as delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the active ingredient in marijuana. Genuine THC is almost impossible to buy on the street, so almost anything called THC is likely to be PCP instead.
When PCP is sprayed or sprinkled onto any leafy material, it is most likely spread around unevenly. Therefore, two cigarettes from the same batch of PCP-treated leaf material may contain vastly different amounts of PCP, with one having as little as 1 milligram of PCP and another as much as 20 or more milligrams. Tablets, powders, and liquid forms of PCP may also vary widely in strength and purity, adding to the difficulty of knowing how much is really being taken.
Snorting and Swallowing PCP
The powdered form of PCP is snorted, or inhaled, often through a straw or tube. Snorting PCP is far less common than smoking it. If PCP is taken by swallowing, it is usually in the form of tablets. The PCP and the tablets are made by illegal drug manufacturers. Therefore, there is no standard color, size, or shape by which to identify them. While PCP itself is usually white, yellow, or brownish, tablets can easily be dyed any color. Knowing that PCP has a bad reputation, drug dealers frequently try to make PCP tablets look like other, more popular drugs.
Injecting Liquid PCP
Far less common than smoking, snorting, or swallowing PCP is the practice of injecting it into the bloodstream with a syringe. While taking PCP in any manner is very dangerous, injecting it exposes the user to even more hazards than other methods of taking it. If users who are smoking the drug begin to overdose, they will frequently pass out before they reach critical levels. Those who snort or eat the drug will often vomit if they take an overdose, which quickly removes some of the poison from their bodies.
But if the drug is injected, there is no easy way to get the excess out of the person's system. Death is more likely than it would be if a person overdosed using another method of ingestion. In addition, the use of dirty needles by PCP users increases their risk of contracting HIV (the human immunodeficiency virus), which can lead to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), and other viruses.
PCP is frequently added to other drugs such as amphetamines, cocaine, ecstasy (MDMA), heroin, ketamine, and LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) in order to produce more intense or strange effects. (Entries on all of these drugs are available in this encyclopedia.)
Are There Any Medical Reasons for Taking This Substance?
Some researchers are investigating a possible medical use for PCP. Giving the drug to patients immediately after they have suffered a heart attack or may protect them from suffering permanent brain damage. If this proves to be true, a less dangerous form of the drug might be developed that would give the brain the same protection without causing the serious side effects connected with PCP.
Researchers also continue to study the effect of PCP on animal brains in the hope that they will learn more about mental illnesses such as schizophreniaA mental disease characterized by a withdrawal from reality and other intellectual and emotional disturbances.. People suffering from schizophrenia show many of the same symptoms common among PCP users, including: 1) paranoiabnormal feelings of suspicion and fear; 2) hallucinationsisions or other perceptions of things that are not really present; 3) confused thinking; 4) detachment from reality; and 5) a generally twisted view of the world. Some scientists think they may be able to figure out more effective treatments for schizophrenia by studying the effects of PCP on animal subjects.
PCP's effects are so unpredictable and frequently so unpleasant that it has a well-deserved bad reputation, even among drug abusers. According to a NIDA InfoFacts report titled "PCP (Phencyclidine)," most people who try it once say they would never want to use it again. The drug is addictive, however. If it is used regularly, the body becomes dependent on it. Dependence occurs when a user has a physical or psychological need to take a certain substance in order to function. As such, addicts will suffer physically if they don't take the drug.
Some people use PCP regularly. The slang term for PCP addicts is "dusters." Some dusters say the only reason they continue to seek out the drug is because of their physical addiction, while others crave the physical and emotional numbness the drug brings. Dusters often go on what they call "runs" or "sprees," using the drug for two or three days in a row, hardly eating or sleeping during that time. When the spree ends, they may sleep for a long time, then wake up feeling depressed, confused, and very sick.
The 1960s Drug Culture
The first reports of PCP's use as a came from the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, California, during the mid-1960s. Initially, the drug was seen in tablet form. It was said to cause feelings of great peacefulness. For this reason it was called the Peace Pill. Yet, as more people tried the drug, it became obvious how inaccurate this nickname was. At times the drug caused euphoria (yu-FOR-ee-yuh), which is a state of extreme happiness and enhanced well-being. But along with these powerfully good feelings came negative experiences with the drug that were very common as well.
By the summer of 1968, PCP use had fallen dramatically in San Francisco due to the many horror stories related to the drug. PCP use did spread to other areas in the United States, mainly large cities such as New York and Washington, D.C. As in San Francisco, after the first wave of street use passed, PCP abuse dropped sharply, because users had experienced the bad effects of the drug themselves.
Nevertheless, as time passed, PCP emerged again on the street drug market. In the early 1970s it was sold in tablet form, as a liquid, and as a crystalline powder. Even though users tended to avoid the drug, dealers continued to manufacture it because it was cheap, easy to make, and very powerful. To overcome the lack of demand for the product, dealers began the practice of giving PCP new names and pretending that it was something other than what it really was. It was most commonly sold as THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.
PCP Resurfaces as a Club Drug
PCP use has gone through rises and dips since the 1970s. After climbing in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, PCP use dropped off, most likely because of the popularity of another powerful, very
inexpensive drugrack cocaine. The 1990s saw another upswing in PCP use, along with the many so-called club drugsMostly synthetic, illegal substances found at raves and nightclubs, including the drugs ecstasy, GHB, ketamine, LSD, methamphetamines, PCP, and Rohypnol. being used at certain dance clubs and all-night dance parties called . Most PCP users abuse a variety of drugs, and many of the other club drugs are closely related to PCP in chemical makeup.
PCP is frequently used along with other drugs in order to produce stronger, different effects than either substance would produce alone. PCP is often taken with amphetamines, cocaine, crack cocaine, ecstasy, ketamine, LSD, marijuana, or methamphetamine. Users who have taken some sort of PCP drug cocktail at a rave frequently follow up the next day with a tranquilizer called benzodiazepine (ben-zoh-die-AZ-uh-peen) in order to help them cope with the terrible feelings of coming down from their high. (Entries on benzodiazepines and tranquilizers are included in this encyclopedia.)
Since 1975, NIDA has provided funds to the University of Michigan to conduct a yearly survey of American students. This survey, known as Monitoring the Future (MTF), includes questions on students' drug use and their attitudes toward drugs. MTF results indicate that PCP use among high school seniors has generally declined in the United States since 1979. In that year, 7 percent of twelfth graders reported having used PCP in the previous year. By 1990, only 1.2 percent said that they had used PCP in the past year. In 2004, 0.7 percent of twelfth graders reported having used PCP in the previous year, although 1.6 percent said they had used it at some point in their lives.
According to the "2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)," 3 percent of Americans age 12 or older had used PCP at least once in their lifetimes. Use was highest among those older than the age of thirty-five. In that age group, 3.6 percent reported ever having used PCP, compared to 3.3 percent in the age range between twenty-six and thirty-five, 3 percent of those between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, and 0.8 percent of those age twelve to seventeen.
Emergency Department (ED) Visits
The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) tracks hospital emergency department (ED) visits caused by drug use. The latest DAWN statistics published as of mid-2005 were from the last two quarters of 2003. During those six months, 4,581 ED visits were reported for PCP poisoning.
"Pulse Check" data published in 2004 show that PCP is considered a growing threat according to drug officials in Houston, Texas; Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota; Phoenix, Arizona; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; St. Louis, Missouri; San Diego, California; and Washington, D.C. The authors of the "Pulse Check" report note that "in Philadelphia, emergency department episodes involving PCP have increased, particularly for individuals in their late teens, [and] in St. Louis, it is used by an emerging group of young Black users, particularly females."
Effects on the Body
One of the most unique and dangerous aspects of PCP is the wide array of unpredictable effects it can have on people. The effect depends on the amount taken, the method of taking it, and the user's mental state.
At low doses of 1 to 5 milligrams, PCP tends to act as a stimulant, causing an increase in breathing rate and blood pressure. As the effects kick in, the user's face may become flushed and sweaty. In addition, muscular coordination decreases, and parts of the user's body, especially the hands and feet, may start to feel numb.
PCP also produces a mental sense of being detached, or disconnected, from one's body and environment. Most users find this effect very frightening and disturbing. For example, people may stare at their hands and not be able to recognize them as their hands. This altered awareness of the body and the feeling of dissociation, or separation from body parts, is similar to what people experience when they are put in sensory deprivation chambers. (Such chambers, also called isolation tanks, keep the body from receiving any outside stimuli. Dark and soundproof, the tanks are used by people wanting to relax, meditate, and achieve an out-of-body experience. However, some people who have used the tanks for long periods of time end up hallucinating and feeling depressed.) PCP users experience similar negative effects.
PCP use has also been described as being similar to the delirious, dreamlike state sometimes experienced during a high fever. Panic is a common response to these unpleasant feelings. Such panic frequently leads to dangerous actions that can cause serious injury to the user or other people.
Feeling No Pain
PCP users frequently display signs of confusion, a decrease in reasoning power, and poor judgment. An inability to reason properly can lead to serious accidents, especially when combined with an inability to feel pain. Individuals on PCP may injure themselves and not even feel it. There have been reports of people setting themselves on fire, banging their heads into walls, pulling out their own teeth,
and gouging and cutting themselves, yet not responding to the pain. More people die as a result of the bizarre, dangerous behavior brought on by PCP use than by the drug's effects on the body itself.
The most frightening stories about PCP intoxicationosing physical and mental controlre those that involve people who explode into violent behavior. They may feel that they have super-human strength or that other people are plotting against them. Because they are temporarily numb to pain, PCP users may aggressively attack large groups of people or even armed police. People have jumped from windows or cliffs, believing that nothing can hurt them.
Hospital records show instances of normally peaceful individuals attacking their families because of some paranoid brought on by PCP. In most cases, however, extremely violent behavior due to PCP use is more likely to occur in individuals who already have a history of violence.
Mimics Mental Illness
On a chemical level, PCP affects behavior by acting on substances in the brain called neurotransmittersA substance that helps spread nerve impulses from one nerve cell to another.. Alterations in neuro-transmitter levels often result in extreme mood swings, emotional instability, and an inability to organize thoughts logically. PCP scrambles the normal transmission of information in the nerves that run to and from the brain. Scientific studies on animals have shown that the change in brain chemistry typically caused by PCP is similar to changes caused by schizophrenia, a serious mental illness. A person who is suffering from schizophrenia, like a person who has taken PCP, may experience hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, and confused thinking.
The effects of PCP are felt most rapidly when the drug is smokedsually within minutes of the first inhalation. The high typically peaks within thirty minutes and wears off after four to six hours. If the drug is swallowed, the effects are not felt as quickly, but they take longer to subside. Generally, it takes about twenty-four hours for someone who has taken PCP to begin to feel normal again. PCP remains in the body tissues for considerably longer than most other drugs, making it especially dangerous.
At higher doses, from 5 to 15 milligrams, PCP begins to act like a depressant. The side effects become more numerous. The NIDA research report "Hallucinogens and Dissociative Drugs" notes that PCP's "sedative and anesthetic effects are trance-like." Users remain conscious but are barely able to move or speak. Blood pressure usually drops, although in some cases it may surge even higher. The pulse rate also decreases, and breathing becomes more shallow. Nausea, vomiting, wheezing, and drooling may occur as well.
Some users run a fever, accompanied by dizziness, shivering, blurred vision, and jerky movements of the body. Spasms and secretions in the lungs can affect the breathing process. Muscles often become so rigid that the body may take on strange poses. Users' eyeballs may flick up and down in rapid, uncontrolled movements. At this dosage level, users typically lose the ability to feel pain. They may also find it difficult to remember simple information about themselves or even recognize familiar surroundings.
At very high doses of 15 milligrams or more, PCP can cause users to act very much like schizophrenics. They may actually hear voices threatening them with death. As the heartbeat becomes irregular and blood pressure shoots up and then falls back down, seizures, convulsions, or coma may result. If a user's body temperature reaches 108°F, he or she runs the risk of permanent damage to the liver, kidneys, or brain.
Addiction and Withdrawal
PCP is an addictive substance, meaning that repeated use is habit-forming. The body becomes dependent on the drug. If the user fails to get a dose, the body will react with withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal is the physical and mental effects that the user experiences when he or she stops taking the drug.
Withdrawal symptoms include aggressive behavior, , anxiety, trembling, lack of emotion, upset stomach, and cold sweats. Regular PCP use causes addicts to develop a tolerance to the drug. This means that the user must take higher and higher doses of the drug to produce the original effect or high experienced. This makes it extremely easy for a long-term user to end up overdosing.
PCP can bring on some of the longest-lasting toxic reactions caused by any street drug. Deaths from overdoses are usually attributed to respiratory failure, meaning the user stops breathing. Death may also result from heart attacks, strokes, seizures, or damage to the vital organs from high fever. In addition to deaths from overdose, there is also a high risk of death resulting from dangerous behavior carried out in highly unstable mental states.
Bad Trips and After shocks
Users of all types of hallucinogens sometimes speak of having a "bad tripAn intense and usually very visual experience produced by an hallucinogenic drug.," or a very negative, nightmarish experience with the drug. Anyone using PCP is at significant risk of having a bad trip. Reactions can include intense fear and panic, paranoia, delirium, and feelings of being cut off from one's own body and from reality in general. The most likely candidates for bad trips are people who have previously experienced them or people who do not realize they are taking PCP. Those taking a very impure product or an extremely large dose are also at great risk for a bad trip. Such experiences can cause lasting psychological problems.
Regular use of PCP leads to many physical and mental health problems, including loss of memory, depression, mood disorders, difficulty forming thoughts and speaking, weight loss, rage, and suicidal thoughts. The "memory loss and depression may persist for as long as a year after a chronic user stops taking PCP," according to the "Hallucinogens and Dissociative Drugs" report. Some researchers suggest that the long-term problems with memory, speech, and thought may be caused by small strokes brought on by PCP use. The effects of the drug greatly increase the likelihood of a stroke. It causes blood vessels in the brain to constrict, or get smaller, while simultaneously sparking a dangerous rise in blood pressure.
People who use PCP can experience "aftershocks." These events are similar to the flashbacks that sometimes occur in users of LSD and other hallucinogens. An aftershock can hit weeks or even months after a user's last dose of PCP. Plus, it can happen to someone who has taken the drug only once. In an aftershock, some or all of the drug's effects are felt again, even though no fresh dose was taken. This occurs because PCP can be stored in the body in areas such as the liver and brain that are high in fat. The stored PCP can be released from these areas by chemical changes in the body that occur due to stress, fatigue, exercise, or the use of certain drugs.
If a pregnant woman takes PCP, the drug will pass from her bloodstream into the baby's system. A baby whose mother was addicted to PCP may show signs of withdrawal from the drug soon after birth. These symptoms include irritability, nervousness, and muscle tension. Babies who are breast-fed are also at risk if their mothers use PCP. The drug will quickly pass into the mother's milk and be transmitted to the child when it nurses.
Reactions with Other Drugs or Substances
PCP is a powerful and dangerous drug when used alone. Among hard-core drug users, however, PCP is often used along with other drugs, both legal and illegal. Popular "club drugs" such as ecstasy and ketamine are closely related to PCP and are sometimes taken with it. The combination intensifies the effects of each of the drugs taken. PCP forms an especially deadly mixture when taken with sedatives, or depressants, such as alcohol, nitrous oxide, and tranquilizers. (Entries on these drugs are available in this encyclopedia.) A user's body can quickly become overwhelmed by the onset of a double sedative effect, and the chance of an overdose increases dramatically. Overdose symptoms in such cases would involve seizures, convulsions, coma, and respiratory failure.
PCP is often applied to marijuana or used along with marijuana. PCP may interact with THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, to produce a more intense and dangerous high.
Treatment for Habitual Users
An overdose of PCP brings on extreme fear and agitation in users. They frequently become violent. Tranquilizers may need to be administered until the effects of the drug wear off, so emergency medical attention is required. The NIDA InfoFacts report states, "Many PCP users are brought to emergency rooms because of PCP overdose or because of the drug's unpleasant psychological effects. In a hospital or detention setting, these people often become violent or suicidal and are very dangerous to themselves and others. They should be kept in a calm setting and not be left alone."
Because PCP makes users emotionally unstable and fearful, an addicted user must be treated with great care and understanding. One of the most effective types of therapies is the twelve-step program pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous. Such programs are run by former users and allow people struggling with the same addiction to meet and give each other support in a non-confrontational, nonjudgmental manner.
PCP is a dangerous drug. Just one use can trigger bizarre behavior that could lead to the serious injury or death of the user or someone else. The health risks are numerous as well. Longtime users have shown multiple mental, emotional, and physical difficulties. They have trouble organizing their thoughts; their attention spans may be very limited; and their moods and emotions are unstable. They may become incapable of interacting normally with other people. In adolescents, the use of this drug can cloud the development of normal self-identity and awareness of others. At any age, PCP use will interfere with the user's family life, friendships, and school or job performance. Users typically end up isolated and depressed.
Under the terms of the U.S. Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970, PCP is classified as a Schedule II hallucinogen. This classification means the drug carries a high potential for abuse and may only be used legally in certain, tightly restricted medical settingssually in cases involving drug research. In the United Kingdom, PCP is listed as a Class A drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act. This means that PCP is not legal for any medical use, and it is illegal to possess or supply the substance to anyone.
The manufacture, sale, use, and possession of PCP are illegal in the United States and the United Kingdom. In the United States, first-time offenders may end up in prison for five to forty years and be fined up to $4 million. Repeat offenders can face a penalty of twenty years to life in prison and fines of up to $8 million. In the United Kingdom, possession of the drug is punishable with a fine, and up to seven years in prison, while supplying the drug can lead to larger fines and life imprisonment.
There are more than thirty substances that are chemically very similar to PCP, including PCPy, TCP, and PCE. These are often sold on the street as PCP, and perhaps are even accidentally manufactured by illegal drug makers. All of these substances are classified as Schedule I hallucinogens by the DEA. Schedule I drugs have no recognized medical uses.
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See also: Designer Drugs; Ecstasy (MDMA); Ketamine; LSD (Lysergic Acid Diethylamide); Marijuana