What is phencyclidine (PCP), or angel dust?
Originally developed in the 1950s as a surgical anesthetic, the drug was soon discontinued after it was found to cause agitation and mania, hallucinations, and irrational thinking in patients following its use.
The psychiatric effects vary widely, but it is considered dangerous, and its use has been linked to violent and aggressive actions, psychosis, and a risk of accidental death. An overdose can be life-threatening.
Here are some key points about PCP. More detail is in the main article.
- PCP is a schedule II, hallucinogenic drug. A hallucinogen alters sensory perception, mood, and thought patterns.
- It has psychological effects and has been linked to bizarre, violent, and psychotic behavior.
- Suddenly stopping PCP use will lead to withdrawal symptoms, including craving and depression.
- Hospitalization is often necessary to help someone stop using PCP.
What is PCP?
Hallucinations and delusions can be triggered by PCP.
PCP appeared on the market in the 1950s as an anesthetic and tranquilizer known as Sernyl. It was discontinued in 1967 and limited to veterinary use only.
In 1979, legal manufacturing of PCP in the United States (U.S.) was suspended.
It is now a Schedule II controlled substance in the U.S., because it carries a high potential for abuse and may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence. A person may be imprisoned for making, distributing, possessing, and using it.
It is made illegally in secret laboratories, along with dozens of analogs (drugs that are chemically similar) available on the street. It is thought to be made primarily in the United States (U.S.), mostly in Southern California, but it is distributed across the country.
The following are street names for PCP:
- Angel dust
- Elephant tranquilizer
- Embalming fluid
- Killer joints
- The PeaCe pill
- Rocket fuel
PCP is a white crystalline, bitter-tasting powder that quickly dissolves in water or alcohol. It is also found in tablet or capsule form.
Users may smoke, snort, swallow, or inject PCP. Leafy plants such as mint, parsley or marijuana are often sprayed with the chemical, or a rolled joint is dipped into a PCP solution and then smoked.
What happens when someone takes PCP?
PCP affects multiple neurotransmitter systems in the brain. It inhibits the reuptake of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin.
It also inhibits the action of glutamate by blocking NMDA receptors, which are responsible for pain sensation, emotions, learning, and memory functions.
Interrupting these receptors allows the brain to disconnect from normal sensory experiences, or "reality." In higher doses, however, it may also excite these receptors.
A typical dose is 5 to 10 milligrams, and 10 mg has been reported to cause stupor. The effects are felt 30 to 60 minutes after oral ingestion, or a few minutes after smoking. Immediate effects last 4 to 6 hours, but a return to a normal state can take up to 24 hours.
However, because the drug is made illegally in uncontrolled conditions, there is no way of knowing how much is being taken, or what the effect will be.
The effects of PCP vary, depending upon the amount of active drug taken and how it is taken.
An individual may use PCP because it produces euphoria, psychedelic effects, and a sense of calm. However, they may experience effects that they do not want.
Soon after taking a low dose, there may be a rise in blood pressure, body temperature, and heart rate.
A larger dose will have the opposite effect, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing.
PCP can cause a person to experience:
- sound, image and body distortion
- depersonalization or feelings of detachment
- loss of balance and coordination
- loss of sensation and inability to feel pain
- acute anxiety, agitation, and mood swings
- feelings of impending doom
- numbness in the arms and legs
Other people may notice that the user is showing:
- poor co-ordination and an unsteady gait
- bloodshot eyes and rapid eye movements
- slurred or garbled speech, or difficulty talking
- confusion and disorientation
- a blank stare
- stupor or lack of movement
- combativeness or aggression
- bizarre behavior
They may be drooling.
It can also lead to:
- rigid muscles
- amnesia, or memory loss
- chills and sweating
- irregular heartbeat and low blood pressure
- reduced breathing rate
- dizziness, nausea, and vomiting
High doses can lead to:
- damage to the skeletal muscles, known as rhabdomyolysis.
Poor judgment and reasoning skills, psychosis, paranoia, and self-injurious or violent action may occur in those already prone to these behaviors. The person may develop a type of psychosis similar to that seen in schizophrenia.
A sense of super strength and invulnerability, combined with the inability to feel pain and poor judgment, can lead to serious injury.
Users of PCP are often brought to emergency rooms because of the drug's severe psychological effects and violent or suicidal behaviors.
Ingesting PCP with other central nervous system (CNS) depressants, such as alcohol or prescription tranquilizers, can lead to coma.
Severe PCP poisoning can also occur if an individual, when attempting to conceal the drug from authorities, mistakenly ingests large amounts due to body stuffing or packing.
The effects can be hard to predict, because production and sale are illegal and therefore not controlled.
Long-term health risks
Long-term effects include:
- stuttering and difficulty speaking
- problems with reasoning and memory
- anxiety and depression
- suicidal thoughts
- social isolation and withdrawal
These can last for up to a year.
Some people may experience flashbacks and hallucinations for a long time after using PCP. This is known as hallucinogen-induced persisting perceptual disorder (HPPD).
Toxic psychosis can also develop, causing hostility, paranoia, and delusions in users.
These problems can persist for up to a year or more after an individual has stopped using PCP.
Addiction can also develop, as a person builds up a tolerance to the drug. Addiction and related mental health problems make it hard to function socially, financially, and professionally. This can lead to further complications.
Withdrawal and treatment
The first step toward withdrawing from PCP is to seek supportive therapy.
Discontinuing PCP suddenly can produce withdrawal symptoms. Anyone seeking recovery from PCP use will need medical supervision and possibly hospitalization.
Withdrawal symptoms include:
While distressing, withdrawal from PCP is not life threatening. Recovery takes time, however, as the person will need support as they learn the skills necessary for a drug-free life.
Those with persistent behavioral problems or distressing psychological effects may need psychiatric evaluation and treatment for mental health problems.
The behavior of a person using PCP can be dangerous to themselves and to others. It is important for the person to seek help, or for their loved ones to intervene, if possible.
It may be worth asking a professionally trained person to approach the loved one, as it can be difficult for families to intervene.
Treatment with a drug rehabilitation center or addiction professional is recommended.
The bottom line
The extent of use of PCP appears to be falling. In 1979, 13 percent of high school students said they had tried PCP. By 1990, that figure had fallen to 3 percent.
Results of a National Survey on Drug Use and Health, published by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), show that, in 2015, 0.2 percent of 12- to 17- year olds had tried it at some time in their life.
Despite this fall in its use, PCP is still a matter of concern to health authorities and drug agencies.
Anyone who is concerned about substance use should speak to their primary care physician. A doctor can assist if any medical treatment is necessary, and they can also refer a person to available local services or support groups.
The SAMHSA website can direct you to helplines and other assistance.