Phencyclidine is the pharmaceutical name for the drug commonly known on the street as PCP or angel dust. Developed in the 1950s as an intravenous anesthetic, it has since been discontinued for medical use. However, it is still commonly abused as a “club drug” and is associated with dangerous side effects. Read on to learn more about phencyclidine (PCP).
PCP was originally used in the 1950s as an anesthetic for humans under the brand name Sernyl, and also as a veterinary tranquilizer. By 1965, however, use of the drug was discontinued in humans because of the psychological effects it caused, primarily agitation and delusions. Around the same time it was discontinued, however, it gained popularity as a street drug, particularly in the late 1960s through the 1970s. Because pure phencyclidine still has veterinary uses, it is often stolen from these sources and sold on the street.
When in its purest, lab-manufactured form, PCP is a white, crystal-like powder that easily dissolves in water. However, because it is often manufactured in less than optimal conditions, the PCP found on the street can range in color from gray to tan to brown, and have a gummier consistency than is normal in the pure form of the drug. In addition to powder, the drug can also be purchased on the street distilled into a clear yellow liquid.
In its pure form, PCP is typically snorted or dissolved in water or alcohol and injected. It is also available on the street in tablets or capsules. Sometimes, the powder is sprinkled onto marijuana joints that are then smoked by the user. When smoked, snorted, or injected, the drug’s effects take place within a matter of minutes and typically lasts for four to six hours.
When abused, PCP antagonizes the NMDA receptors in the brain, which are responsible for feelings of excitement. This explains the agitation that those who have abused the drug may feel. The short term effects of PCP are characterized by a feeling of unreality and distance from one’s surroundings. Users also feel a sense of complete strength and invulnerability to danger, and may experience visual and auditory hallucinations, memory problems, paranoia, severe anxiety and severe mood swings. Most disturbingly, even one-time use of PCP can cause psychosis and symptoms similar to schizophrenia. These mental effects make this one of the most dangerous drugs to abuse.
Taking PCP also causes serious physical effects. Physical short term effects include slurred speech, numbness in the limbs, a blank stare, loss of physical coordination, and involuntary, rapid movements of the eyes. Users may also experience rapid heart rate, respiratory depression, high blood pressure or a drop in blood pressure, nausea, vomiting, and blurred vision. At a high dosage, abuse of PCP can cause seizures, coma, and death. This danger is most severe when PCP use is combined with alcohol or other drugs.
Use of PCP is both psychologically and physically addictive. Long-term users of the drug experience symptoms like memory loss, difficulties with speech and learning, depression, and weight loss that may persevere for months after withdrawal from the substance.
Those who attempt to purchase PCP on the street are often sold other drugs, such as methamphetamine. In addition, those who try to purchase drugs such as ecstacy and MDMA are often sold PCP instead. Confusion about what compounds street drugs actually contain is a key danger of abusing these substances.
The Food and Drug Administration classes PCP as a schedule II drug. It’s also considered a hallucinogen, in the same class as substances such as LSD, peyote, and psilocybin (mushrooms).
The drug’s popularity in the United States peaked in 1978, when Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes reported on the dangers of abuse. At that time, 13 percent of high school students admitted to trying PCP in 1979. Drug awareness programs helped propel the decline of PCP abuse, with just 3 percent of high schoolers reporting use in 1990.
While quite dangerous in the United States, abuse of PCP is relatively rare. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, only 6.1 million people (2.5 percent of the population) reported abusing this drug in 2007, a decline from the 2006 number. And research by Monitoring the Future notes that in 2008, 1.8 percent of high school seniors reported abusing PCP in their lifetimes, and only .6 percent reported using the drug within the past month.
In urban areas, however, the drug has seen a resurgence in the past decade in a form known as “wet.” PCP is distilled and cigarettes or marijuana joints are soaked in the resulting liquid, then smoked. In places like Philadelphia, this drug craze has been blamed by authorities for scores of violent incidents, psychotic behavior, and emergency room visits. Los Angeles and Washington DC have also been hotbeds of PCP-related arrests and incidents in recent years.