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.
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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.
Side effects of PCP
An individual who uses PCP recreationally may think that it will produce euphoria, calmness and psychedelic effects, and likely has no understanding of the profound hallucinations and potentially disturbing side effects that can occur.
The hallucinogenic properties of PCP can significantly alter how an individual perceives their environment.
Some of the most common effects of PCP include:
- Sound, image and body distortion
- Depersonalization or feelings of detachment
- Loss of balance
- Unsteady walking
- Loss of sensation
- Inability to feel pain
- Bloodshot eyes
- Slurred speech or difficulty talking
- Acute anxiety
- Mood swings
- Feelings of impending doom
- Numbness of arms and legs
- Irregular heartbeat.
The most alarming of PCP's side effects are poor judgment and reasoning skills, psychosis, paranoia and self-injurious or violent action in those already prone to these behaviors.
Other possible reactions include loss of coordination, flushing, sweating, rapid eye movements and rigid muscles.
Long-term use of PCP can lead to difficulties with speech and thinking, weight loss, memory loss, depression and social isolation. These problems can persist for up to a year or more after an individual has stopped using PCP.
Health risks of PCP
Phencyclidine can also produce a sense of super strength and invulnerability; when combined with the drug's anesthetic effect (inability to feel pain), individuals can cause serious injuries to themselves.
PCP abusers are often brought to emergency rooms because of the drug's severe psychological effects and often violent or suicidal behaviors. High doses of PCP can also cause seizures and damage to the skeletal muscles (rhabdomyolysis).
Ingesting PCP with other central nervous system depressants such as alcohol or prescription tranquilizers can lead to a coma.
Severe PCP poisoning can also occur if an individual, when attempting to conceal the drug from authorities, mistakenly ingests large amounts from body stuffing or packing.
Repeated use of PCP can result in addiction, and abrupt discontinuation of the drug can produce withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms can include craving, confusion and depression. While distressing, withdrawal from PCP is not life threatening.
Treatment options for PCP
Individuals experiencing significant symptoms from taking PCP should be brought to a medical setting for supportive therapy and observation. Psychiatric evaluation or admission may be required for those who have persistent behavioral or distressing mental health effects.
The majority of users of PCP are abusing other drugs; treatment with a drug rehabilitation center or addiction professional is recommended.
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A new report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA) has found that visits to hospital emergency departments as a result of hallucinogenic drug phencyclidine has increased by more than 400% between 2005 and 2011.
PCP is a dissociative, anesthetic and hallucinogenic drug of abuse that is synthetically made illegally in uncontrolled settings. PCP produces a wide variety of often disturbing side effects. There is no way of knowing how much of the drug an individual takes or how a person will react to the drug, making PCP a very dangerous drug to abuse.