In 2014, just over 1 million American adults (those aged 12 and above) were classified as current users of a hallucinogenic drug, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health(NSDUH) publishes. Phencyclidine, or PCP, was initially developed in the 1950s as an anesthetic drug, but according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), its many side effects caused the medical community to disavow its use. PCP was also used as an animal tranquilizer in veterinary medicine for a period of time.
Today, PCP is considered an illegal drug that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reports is mostly produced in illicit laboratories. The drug is a water-soluble, white crystalline powder in its pure form; however, after it is “cut” with other substances and readied for distribution on the street, PCP generally appears brown or tan in color and gummy or powdery. Sold clandestinely as a powder in small foil packages, in liquid form, as a tablet or capsule, or applied to herbal material like marijuana, mint, oregano, or parsley, PCP is snorted, smoked, injected, or swallowed. Tobacco or marijuana cigarettes may be dipped in PCP as well. The California Journal of Emergency Medicine reports that PCP is inhaled 70 percent of the time it is abused.
On the street PCP is called angel dust, love boat, hog, killer weed, rocket fuel, peace pill, embalming fluid, amp, ozone, fry, dust, animal tranquilizer, dippers, happy sticks, tic tac, shermans, horse tranquilizer, wets, wack, waters, and supergrass. According to the DEA, high school students and young adults make up the majority of the PCP user population.
PCP Intoxication and Side Effects
PCP is considered a dissociative drug as it makes individuals feel disconnected from reality, from their surroundings, and from themselves. Smoking or injecting PCP causes the drug to take effect rapidly in a matter of minutes while snorting or swallowing it may delay the onset of intoxication for up to a half-hour, the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) reports. Most of the effects of PCP start to wear off in about 4-6 hours, but it can take a full 24 hours for the drug to completely clear the body.
Long-term PCP use can trigger psychotic effects that may mimic those of the severe mental disorder schizophrenia, and these effects can last up to a month. PCP can have different effects depending on how much is taken at once. In low or moderate doses, PCP can cause:
- Impaired coordination
- Nausea and vomiting
- Rapid heart rate
- High body temperature and sweating
- Fast breathing
- Distortion of self, time, space, and sensory perceptions
- Impaired concentration
- Disorganized thinking
- Sense of calmness
- Feelings of invincibility
- Heightened sex drive
In higher doses, PCP side effects can include all of the above as well as:
- Aggression and violent outbursts
- Bizarre behaviors
- Severe anxiety
- Memory loss
- Blurred vision
- Involuntary eye movements
- Muscle rigidity
- Fear and panic
- Exaggerated strength
- Potentially dangerous spikes in central nervous system functions like respiration, heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature
- Paranoid delusions
- Speech difficulties
According to the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), around 75,000 people in the United States received emergency medical care for a negative reaction to abusing PCP in 2011. Mixing PCP with other drugs, particularly others with similar central nervous system depressant properties like opioids, benzodiazepines, or alcohol, can greatly increase the possible hazardous side effects of the drug. Since PCP is an illegal drug produced in clandestine laboratories, individuals may not be sure of its exact chemical makeup as the drug can be “cut” with other toxins to stretch it out. It can be close to impossible for people to know exactly what is in the version of PCP they are purchasing and taking, making it risky and dangerous.
PCP can cause individuals to act in a manner that is out of character and erratic and highly unpredictable. Accidents and injuries may occur. Self-harming and violent episodes are not uncommon, and individuals may present a danger to themselves or others while under the influence of PCP.
Dangers of Perpetuated PCP Abuse
PCP may be taken most often sporadically as a “party” or “club” drug, but regular use can cause a person to build up a tolerance to the drug. When this happens, a person will need to take higher doses each time to get the desired reaction. Over time, the brain can become dependent on PCP and a physiological dependence can form.
Drug cravings and withdrawal symptoms as the drug leaves the body are side effects of PCP dependence. Individuals may suffer from lethargy, depression, sweating, headaches, and intense cravings for PCP when the drug wears off once dependence has formed. This makes PCP an addictive substance as individuals wish to avoid these negative side effects and become unable to control their use of the drug.
Once addiction is present, thoughts become consumed with how to get PCP, using it, and “coming down” from the drug. Individuals may use PCP in potentially hazardous situations and without regard to personal safety. Work, school, family obligations, recreational activities, interpersonal relationships, and social engagements take a backseat to PCP use, and individuals may become withdrawn, secretive, and suffer from mood swings and erratic behaviors. A person’s physical and emotional state declines. Sleep patterns, appetite levels, and behaviors become unpredictable. Individuals often continue to use PCP even though they know it is harmful to them. Financial difficulties and criminal actions may be the result of attempting to obtain more PCP. The Global Information Network about Drugs (GINAD) reports that compulsive behaviors and persistent tiredness due to bingeing on the drug are signs of PCP addiction.
Chronic PCP use can cause persistent difficulties with speech, significant mood disturbances, depression, memory loss, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, weight loss, social withdrawal, and trouble thinking and concentrating, which can continue for up to a year after stopping the drug, NIDA warns. GINAD reports that individuals battling PCP addiction are at a heightened risk for suicide compared to the general population.
Help for PCP Abuse and Addiction
As an addictive drug with difficult emotional withdrawal symptoms, PCP is most safely processed out of the body in a secure detox facility that employs trained healthcare providers to help manage the symptoms. Physical side effects like dizziness and nausea can be managed with medications during medical detox, while emotional distress can be calmed through supportive, therapeutic, and pharmaceutical methods. Individuals who attend medical detox while the body processes the PCP out of its system are able to achieve a stable physical level before entering into a more comprehensive addiction treatment program.
Complete programs may include therapy, counseling, support groups, holistic measures, relapse prevention tools, anger management and life skills training, and family support programs, among other offerings. Since some of the side effects of PCP addiction can linger for an extended period of time, continued support, counseling, and therapy after completing a treatment program are highly beneficial. There are many different types of treatment programs with multiple options designed to suit each individual specifically. Families and individuals are encouraged to work directly with addiction treatment specialists to decide on an optimal recovery plan.