Drug Guide

PCP (Phencyclidine)

By Anthony McDaniel, M.D.

Phencyclidine (a complex clip of the chemical name 1-(1-phenylcyclohexyl)piperidine, commonly initialized as PCP), also known as angel dust and myriad other street names, is a recreational, dissociative drug formerly used as an anesthetic agent, exhibiting hallucinogenic and neurotoxic effects. Developed in 1926, it was first patented in 1952 by the Parke-Davis pharmaceutical company and marketed under the brand name Sernyl. In chemical structure, PCP is an arylcyclohexylamine derivative, and, in pharmacology, it is a member of the family of dissociative anesthetics. PCP works primarily as an NMDA receptor antagonist, which blocks the activity of the NMDA receptor and, like most antiglutamatergic hallucinogens, is significantly more dangerous than other categories of hallucinogens. Other NMDA receptor antagonists include ketamine, tiletamine, and dextromethorphan. Although the primary psychoactive effects of the drug lasts for a few hours, the total elimination rate from the body typically extends eight days or longer. As a recreational drug, PCP may be ingested, smoked, or snorted. Users tend to demonstrate symtoms that mimic schizophrenia such as delusions, hallucinations, paranoia and disordered thinking. As a dopamine reuptake inhibitor, PCP is addictive.

PCP began to emerge as a recreational drug in major cities in the United States in 1967. In 1978, People magazine and Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes called PCP the country's "number one" drug problem. Although recreational use of the drug had always been relatively low, it began declining significantly in the 1980s. In surveys, the number of high school students admitting to trying PCP at least once fell from 13% in 1979 to less than 3% in 1990. PCP comes in both powder and liquid forms (PCP base is dissolved most often in ether), but typically it is sprayed onto leafy material such as cannabis, mint, oregano, parsley, or ginger leaves, then smoked. PCP is a Schedule II substance in the United States, a List I drug of the Opium Law in the Netherlands and a Class A substance in the United Kingdom.

Psychological effects include severe changes in body image, loss of ego boundaries, paranoia and depersonalization. Hallucinations, euphoria, suicidal impulses, and aggressive behavior are reported. The drug has been known to alter mood states in an unpredictable fashion, causing some individuals to become detached, and others to become animated. Intoxicated individuals may act in an unpredictable fashion, possibly driven by their delusions and hallucinations. PCP may induce feelings of strength, power, and invulnerability as well as a numbing effect on the mind. Occasionally, this leads to bizarre acts of violence. However, studies by the Drug Abuse Warning Network in the 1970s show that media reports of PCP-induced violence are greatly exaggerated and that incidents of violence were unusual and often (but not always) limited to individuals with reputations for aggression regardless of drug use. The reports in question often dealt with a supposed increase in strength imparted by the drug; this could partially be explained by the anaesthetic effects of the drug. The most commonly-cited types of incidents included self-mutilation of various types, breaking handcuffs (a feat reportedly requiring about 550 lbs of pressure), inflicting remarkable property damage, and pulling one's own teeth.

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