Synthesized for the first time in 1926, phencyclidine, or PCP, was developed as a surgical anesthetic in the 1950s. But because this powerful drug caused frightening hallucinations, agitation, and anxiety in patients after surgery, its use in humans was discontinued in 1965. PCP is now used only in veterinary medicine as an anesthetic and tranquilizer for animals. On the streets, however, the drug continues to be sold under a number of slang names, including “angel dust,” “peace pills,” “STP,” “animal trank,” “embalming fluid,” and more. Under the Controlled Substances Act, PCP is now listed as a Schedule II controlled substance, meaning that it has no accepted medical use for human patients.
As a medication, phencyclidine is categorized as an anesthetic or as a sedative-hypnotic. When used recreationally, PCP is classified as a hallucinogenic, dissociative drug. This psychedelic substance is produced in illegal labs or stolen from veterinary clinics. The purity of the PCP that comes from underground laboratories is highly questionable. The potency and chemical contents of the drug may vary from one batch to another, making the effects unpredictable.
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A dose of PCP can cause severe side effects, including:
PCP users often take the drug in combination with other substances, such as marijuana, Ecstasy, cocaine, or alcohol. The use of PCP with other drugs only increases the risk of a serious or fatal reaction. If you or someone close to you is abusing PCP, a comprehensive drug rehab program can help you break free from substance abuse and restore your hopes for the future.
Increase in Abuse
Like other hallucinogenic drugs, PCP has experienced a rise in popularity in recent years. Users seek out this drug for its psychedelic and euphoric effects. A “good” PCP trip can cause pleasurable sensations, a sense of invincibility, a feeling of relaxation, and hallucinations. As a dissociative drug, it can also cause a sense of floating weightlessly away from one’s body.
But PCP can also have a host of dangerous side effects. The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) reports that PCP was associated with over 75,500 emergency room visits in 2011 — an increase of over 400 percent since 2005. PCP abuse increased most dramatically in younger adults between the ages of 25 and 34, and females were more likely to seek emergency treatment than males.
Why has PCP become increasingly popular, in spite of its dangers? There are a number of possible reasons for the rise in abuse:
- Availability. The chemicals used to make PCP are easy to obtain and relatively inexpensive, making it possible for the drug to be produced quickly in underground labs in the US.
- Perception of risk. Publicity about the dangers of PCP caused a decline in usage in the 1980s and 1990s. However, younger generations of users are less aware of the risks of PCP to the mind and body.
- Decline in use of other drugs. The increase in PCP abuse has been associated with a decline in availability and popularity of crack cocaine, a central nervous system stimulant that can cause delusions, paranoia, and violence.
The surge in PCP abuse is extremely disturbing, because it is considered to be one of the most dangerous hallucinogenic drugs available. Throughout its history as an illegal psychedelic drug, PCP has been linked to acts of violence, delusional behavior, and unintentional suicide.
In its commercial form, PCP is sold as a pure white powder that can be dissolved in liquid for injection. Street forms of PCP can vary in color from white to tan or yellow to brown, depending on their purity and their chemical additives. PCP is sold to recreational users as a powder, liquid, or in tablets and can be taken in a variety of ways:
- By mouth
- Snorted through the nostrils
- Smoked on marijuana or tobacco cigarettes
- Intravenously (injected into the veins)
PCP is also mixed with other drugs, such as marijuana, MDMA (Ecstasy), cocaine, or tranquilizers. The Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR) at the University of Maryland warns that PCP may be disguised as other drugs — such as methamphetamine, Ecstasy, LSD, or mescaline — when it’s sold on the streets. Users who are unaware of the true contents of their drugs are at risk of serious or fatal reactions when they take PCP in hidden form.
After taking PCP, the user will begin to feel its effects in a short time. When snorted or smoked, the drug can take effect in as little as two minutes. In tablet or capsule form, the onset is slower — from a half-hour to an hour, depending on the dose and the user’s sensitivity to the drug. A PCP high can last from four to 24 hours, but most experiences last from four to five hours. PCP exerts its effects on the brain by interfering with the actions of two important neurotransmitters: glutamate and dopamine. Glutamate is a brain chemical that is involved in memory, emotion, and the perception of pain, while dopamine affects mood and the perception of pleasure.
The effects and dangers of PCP vary depending on the dose, the user’s experience with the drug, and the user’s physical and psychological condition. Soon after taking the drug, the user may experience the following physical side effects:
- Irregular heartbeat
- Sudden changes in blood pressure
- Shallow breathing
- Nausea and vomiting
- Fever alternating with chills
- Blurred vision
- Muscle spasms
- Heavy salivation
- Poor motor coordination
- Loss of sensation of pain
- Slow reflexes
High doses of PCP can cause convulsions, seizures, coma, or sudden death. Some users experience catatonia, or a nonresponsive state in which the user stares into space without appearing to see or hear anything around him. In the long-term, PCP abuse can cause weight loss, muscle wasting, speech abnormalities, and liver damage.
An overdose of PCP can be fatal, but many PCP-related deaths are caused by secondary injuries or altercations that occur as a result of PCP use. Under the influence of PCP, users may have life-threatening delusions, like believing that they can fly, cross a busy street, or walk on water without being harmed. They may also be injured or killed while committing a violent crime or being involved in an altercation.
Because PCP can interfere with the ability to feel pain, people under the influence of this drug can be seriously hurt without even realizing it. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, even a single dose of PCP can cause severe motor impairment and sensory distortion, making the user incapable of operating a vehicle safely.
PCP is dangerous to the body, but the drug exerts its most destructive effects on the mind. Long-term users may continue to suffer from the neurological damage caused by PCP, experiencing flashbacks, cognitive difficulties, memory loss, and psychotic episodes. In the short-term, the psychological effects of PCP include:
- Extreme drowsiness
- Sensations of being detached from your body (dissociation)
- Distortions of the perception of time and space
- Visual and auditory hallucinations
- Feelings of isolation or alienation from others
- Inability to concentrate
- Panic attacks
- Severe agitation
- Delusions of being invincible
The psychological and emotional repercussions of PCP use can continue for months or even years after the user stops taking the drug. In a PCP “flashback,” the user experiences hallucinations or delusions, even though he or she isn’t under the influence. Although these flashbacks are usually brief, they can be terrifying and disorienting. In addition to flashbacks, PCP can cause long-term mental disturbances, such as:
- Distorted views of reality
- Memory problems
- Mood swings
- Paranoid thinking
- Hostility towards others
- Chronic depression and anxiety
- Social isolation
It’s important not to underestimate PCP’s potential to cause severe psychological damage. Even after the user quits, he or she is vulnerable to psychotic episodes, mood disturbances, and suicidal thoughts. The sooner you stop using PCP, the less likely you are to experience the prolonged effects of this drug.
Substance abuse experts disagree on whether PCP is addictive. However, federal health agencies like the National Institute on Drug Abuse state that the drug can cause compulsive use, cravings, and tolerance — the hallmarks of addiction. Regular users will eventually need higher doses of the drug to get the same high. Like meth or cocaine addicts, PCP users may go on binges for days at a time, staying up all night and all day to use the drug. These binges, also called “runs,” increase the risk of paranoia, delusions, and violence.
Recovering From PCP Abuse
Recovering from PCP use requires intensive treatment through a professional drug rehab program. PCP addiction is often accompanied by an underlying mental illness that may or may not have been diagnosed. To make matters more complicated, the side effects of PCP abuse — paranoia, anxiety, depression, and mood swings — resemble many of the symptoms of psychiatric disorders.
In order to achieve long-lasting recovery, rehab must begin with a thorough and careful evaluation. As part of this process, your medical history, psychological condition, and past experiences with substance abuse will be taken into consideration. Many PCP users also require treatment for other drugs, like alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, Ecstasy, or heroin. If you have the signs of a co-occurring psychiatric disorder, such as depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia, you need an integrated program that can help you manage the symptoms of mental illness as you recover from the effects of PCP.
PCP can cause psychological as well as physical dependence. In the early stage of rehab, your treatment team may recommend a medically monitored detox to safely clear the drug from your body. If you’ve been using heavily, you may need nutritional supplementation, fluid replacement, and extended periods of rest while your body recovers. Once your mind is clear and your body is stable, you can progress to the next stages of recovery. Psychosocial treatments for PCP abuse include:
- Individual psychotherapy
- Group counseling
- Family therapy
- Holistic therapies (massage, yoga, meditation, and acupuncture)
- Behavioral modification
- Relapse prevention training
- Transitional housing/sober living
- Aftercare support
The psychological effects of PCP abuse can be powerful and long-lasting. After rehab, you’ll need to be able to rely on a network of supportive friends, family members, and professionals as you rebuild your life. At Axis, we provide the resources you require to succeed in recovery, from the intake stage through aftercare. Our cutting-edge treatment programs are designed to address the challenges of multi-drug abuse, co-occurring disorders, and other complex conditions. Call our intake counselors at any time to learn more about our individualized treatment plans.