bar Title: PCP: Facts About Phencyclidine
Author: Lisa Turney
Publisher: Do It Now Foundation
Publication Date: October 2002
Catalog Number: 123

..Dirty Dealing

It's hard to keep a bad drug down.

Because no sooner has word gotten out about the last dangerous, crazy, or rip-off drug than someone's scraped the crud off the bottoms of their shoes, wrapped it in plastic and foil, and pawned it off as the latest thing in chemical high cuisine.

And by the time people have all gotten the word about green shoe scrapings (or whatever), a brand-new drug turns up or a forgotten old one returns and a new Drug Abuse Phenomenon is born.

Take PCP, for example.

Over the years, it's made more names for itself on the street more often than any other drug.

PCP scams are legendary, too, including switches for nearly every substance that's ever been dropped, shot, or snorted in the name of chemical consciousness and artificial good times.

Also legendary is PCP's reputation as a bummer drug, one that can shake up even veteran users.

Since PCP is so high in bummer potential and since it gets shuffled around under so many names (from "angel dust" to "zoot"), you might think that dealers think they have something to hide when it comes to this drug.

And you might be right.

..Early Years

The name PCP comes from the drug's chemical name 1-(1-phencyclohexyl) piperidine. It was developed in 1926 as a surgical anesthetic and became widely known as phencyclidine.

Its developers hoped it would prove safe and effective, but early researchers decided it wasn't much of either and it sat on a shelf until 1957.

That's when pharmaceutical researchers dusted it off, named it Sernyl®, and began testing it again.

And PCP did look promising for a while. In fact, the drug carried only one serious drawback: After surgery, patients went a little crazy, with jumbled speech, delirium, and hallucinations.

The drawbacks proved serious enough that, in 1965, its manufacturer removed Sernyl from testing.

If you're wondering what a drug company does with a discredited drug, sometimes they do the same thing that dealers do on the street: Rename it, re-package it, and re-release it. And in the case of Sernyl, the "new" product was dubbed Sernylan®, and it was quickly marketed as a veterinary anesthetic.

That same year, in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, a new tablet dubbed the "PeaCe Pill" appeared. Hailed, as most new drugs are, as the best thing yet, the PeaCe Pill failed spectacularly at living up to its name.

And in a wave of bad press -- and bad user reactions -- PCP disappeared into the oblivion it so richly deserved.

..The Big Switch

But in the early 1970s, the drug re-emerged, this time as a liquid and a crystalline powder and in tablet form. But the word was out on PCP and experienced users stayed away in droves.

Almost unable to give phencyclidine away under its own name, street dealers decided that PCP is the stuff dreams -- or, at least, big bucks -- are made of. As a result, PCP became the raw material in numerous street drug swindles.

And it has been in a lot of them -- in batches of marijuana, heroin, and LSD, and in filler like parsley and talc.

On the street, it travels under a long list of names -- from "hog" and "squeeze" to "wack" and "space base" (when mixed with crack). The possibilities are limited only by a dealer's imagination -- or deviousness.

In other words, they're virtually infinite.

..Angel Dust & 'THC'

Still, the two most common aliases for PCP over the years have been "angel dust" and "THC."

Angel dust, which originally referred to a combination of heroin and cocaine, was one of PCP's earliest assumed identities.

Always on the lookout for a way to save a buck while making a buck, dealers simply swapped PCP for one drug, then the other, until the original blend was forgotten altogether and angel dust itself became just one more name for PCP.

Similarly, PCP is sometimes sold as "THC," the main ingredient in marijuana. The problem is that PCP's similarity to pot starts and stops at very light dosages.

..Inner Workings

Although PCP can be used in a number of ways, today it's most often smoked -- either in drug-laced cigarettes or in marijuana or parsley "joints" containing the drug.

No matter how it's used, PCP produces a tangle of powerful drug effects -- acting as an anesthetic, stimulant, depressant, and hallucinogen at the same time.

Often misclassified as a hallucinogen, PCP really is in a class of its own. Medically it's often described as a deliriant or a dissociative anesthetic (which means it causes psychological detachment and blocks pain).

But whatever it's called, the most distinctive feature of PCP is the unpredictability and sheer weirdness of its effects. And those vary with dosage:

  • Low doses (3-8 mg) cause mild intoxication. Users show impaired coordination, slurred speech, and erratic eye movement.
  • Bigger doses (8 to 12 mg) pump the low-dose effects up higher, and add increased heart rate and blood pressure, fever, sweating, nausea, a blank stare, and a shuffling, disjointed gait that some users call "zombie walking."
  • Higher doses can unleash a range of serious problems, from a sharp drop in blood pressure to muscular rigidity, convulsions, even coma and death. And while lower-dose effects may only last a few hours, higher-dose effects can continue for several days.

The difference between low- and high-dose effects points up a real danger for users.

Because low-dose effects are like those produced by marijuana, users can smoke more and more to sustain the high. But the resemblance to pot can end with a few more dusted joints, as a full-blown PCP trip kicks in. And that can lead to a full-blown PCP bummer.

Bad PCP trips are unpredictable and often frightening. They can involve rapid, uncontrollable shifts in mood combined with bizarre delusions and hallucinations. Violent, aggressive outbursts are also common.

Unfortunately, there aren't many ways to ease a PCP bummer outside a medical facility. Time-honored LSD talk-down techniques are often useless: PCP users can be so detached they don't "hear" support, and so paranoid they may not accept it anyway.

That's why the best advice to follow in an emergency is to get help fast.

..PCP Problems

We could fill volumes describing the long-term effects of PCP. But perhaps the most critical information can be boiled down to a simple statement: The body stores PCP in muscle and fatty tissues at full psychoactive potential, which can mean all sorts of problems for users -- even after they stop using.

Since PCP builds up in the body, regular use causes tolerance, so that larger doses are needed to achieve desired effects. Increased doses, in turn, increase the risks of overdose.

And because PCP ultimately acts as a depressant, slowing breathing and heart beat, alcohol or other downers taken with PCP can also trigger an overdose.

For many users, a more immediate danger involves the "behavioral toxicity" of the drug.

What's that?

Simply the dumb, crazy, and dangerous things that people do when they're wasted. Car crashes and drowning rank high on the list of PCP-related accidents and, in fact, account for most user deaths.

A final group of risks includes flashbacks and long-term emotional problems.

Unlike LSD flashbacks, which are psychological in origin, PCP aftershocks are physically-based and involve actual drug effects. Post-high bummers brought on by drugs, stress, or fatigue have been known to occur weeks or months after last use.

..Last Words

So what's the last word about PCP?

Just this: It's a bummer drug, one that usually turns up on the street disguised as something else, and when it does, it's usually bad news.

Because no matter what it's called and how well it's packaged, PCP is PCP.

And that means it's always going to be causing problems for somebody somewhere.

Don't let that somebody be you.

Because if you think about all the rip-offs and freak-outs that have gone around and come down throughout the drug's history, you might just come to the conclusion that PCP dealers were right all along: They really do have to be pretty creative to sell PCP.

Because nobody ever wants what it really is.

..Sidebar | Dusting Yourself Off: How to Get Off PCP

Need help -- or know someone who does -- in coming back from PCP?

Good. Because the fact is that PCP can trigger a range of problems, and users can try a range of solutions to bring themselves back from a PCP binge or habit. And the sooner, the better.

Here are some key areas to focus on:

  • Exercise. Regular exercise can work wonders in defusing the tension and depression that can follow in PCP's wake. Jogging, especially, is great for undoing anxiety or panic. And exercise increases body metabolism, which can speed the elimination of PCP breakdown products from the body.
  • Diet. A few small changes here can make a big difference in the way you think and feel. Go heavy on the complex carbohydrates, lighten up on junk; skip caffeine and simple sugars; and drink lots of water (at least 8 glasses a day).
  • R & R. (That's rest and relaxation, not rock & roll -- unless they're the same thing to you.) Take it easy for a while. Realize that you've been through a tough time, and give yourself space to adjust and get your life back into an even flow. Make up your mind about who you intend to be from here on out, then get busy making it happen.

It may not be fast or easy, but we guarantee that it's a lot more fun than the alternative.

This is one in a series of publications on drugs, behavior, and health by Do It Now Foundation.
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