Phencyclidine (PCP), also known as "angel dust," is an illegal psychedelic drug that induces hallucinations and produces a feeling of detachment from oneself and one's surroundings.
Originally developed in the 1950s as a surgical anesthetic, the drug was soon discontinued after it was found to cause agitation, hallucinations and irrational thinking in patients waking up from its effects. It was used in veterinary medicine until 1978, after which it became illegal to use altogether.
Recreational drug users may unknowingly ingest PCP through tainted ecstasy or heroin. The wide variability of psychiatric effects, along with the loss of sensation to pain, increases the chance of harm or accidental death to the user.
You will also see introductions at the end of some sections to any recent developments that have been covered by MNT's news stories. Also look out for links to information about related conditions.
Fast facts on PCP
Here are some key points about PCP. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
- A hallucinogenic is a substance whose primary effect is to alter sensory perception, mood, and thought patterns
- LSD, ecstasy and ketamine are other examples of hallucinogens
- Two years after it was dropped by Parke, Davis and Company, PCP surfaced as a street drug
- PCP use has gone through rises and dips since the 1970s
- The majority of the side effects of PCP are behavioral and psychological
- An individual high on PCP may have a blank, staring gaze, seemingly catatonic or comatose
- Out of all hallucinogenic recreational drugs, PCP is especially known for causing violent or psychotic behavior
- PCP use is associated with bizarre behavior such as public nudity
- The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported two deaths from PCP in 2012.
What is PCP?
A phencyclidine molecule. The drug was first manufactured in the 1950s.
Parke, Davis and Company produced PCP as Sernyl in the 1950s. It was used for both its anesthetic and tranquilizing effects until it was discontinued in 1967 and limited to veterinary use only. In 1979, legal manufacturing of PCP in the US was suspended.
PCP is a white crystalline, bitter-tasting powder that quickly dissolves in water or alcohol. The drug can be taken orally, snorted or injected, but is more likely to be smoked. Leafy plants such as mint, parsley or marijuana are often sprayed with PCP, or a rolled joint is dipped into a phencyclidine solution and then smoked.
Phencyclidine affects multiple neurotransmitter systems in the brain; it inhibits the reuptake of dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin, and also inhibits the action of glutamate by blocking NMDA receptors.
These receptors are responsible for pain sensation, emotions, learning and memory functions. PCP interrupts the functioning of these receptors, allowing the brain to disconnect from normal sensory experiences, or "reality." In higher doses, however, phencyclidine may also excite these receptors.
The effects of PCP vary depending upon the amount of active drug taken and how it is ingested.
A typical dose is 5-10 mg (10 mg has been reported to cause stupor) with the effects being felt 30-60 minutes after oral ingestion, or a few minutes after smoking. Immediate effects last 4-6 hours, but a return to a normal state can potentially take up to 24 hours.
However, because the drug is made illegally in uncontrolled conditions, there is no way of knowing how much of the drug an individual is actually taking.
Street names for PCP
- Angel dust
- Elephant tranquilizer
- Embalming fluid
- The PeaCe pill
- Rocket fuel
Extent of PCP use
PCP is a Schedule II controlled substance in the US, meaning that the drug carries a high potential for abuse, potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence. PCP is made illegally in covert laboratories, with dozens of analogues (drugs that are chemically similar) available on the street.
According to the 2014 National Survey of Drug Use and Health, an estimated 1.2 million people aged 12 and older (0.4% of the US population) were current users of hallucinogens, with PCP having the lowest rate of use.
Based on Emergency Department data, the majority of those seeking PCP-related treatment are males 25-34 years of age.
On the next page, we look at the side effects of PCP, the health risks associated with its use and available treatment options.