PCP Drug of the Month: download
Transcript and Sources
Now it’s time for the drug of the month, where we give an overview and then dive into the science, history, and some recent trends in a different drug each month. Last month we took on heroin, which except for marijuana, has arguably been the most talked about drug in recent years. This month, we’re going in a very different direction, and will be focusing in on a drug that once dominated the national consciousness and debate, but has mostly dropped off the radar in recent decades, allowing old stereotypes and misinformation to continue unchecked: PCP.
To start things off, what exactly is PCP? Well, PCP stands for Phencyclidine (or sometimes pronounced fen-sick-lih-deen), and some common street names for it include Angel Dust, Embalming Fluid, Rocket Fuel, or Wet. Its chemical formula is C17H25N, and it is considered a member of the arylcyclohexylamine class, a class of designer drugs with sedative or anesthetic properties. In the world of pharmacology, PCP is considered a dissociative anesthetic, the same group of drugs as Nitrous Oxide, which we covered back in September. However, it is also sometimes classified as a psychedelic or hallucinogen, especially in the doses typically used recreationally. While it was once used medically in humans, that is now banned in the United States and most other countries, and it is now limited to veterinary use, commonly being used as a horse tranquilizer – but we’ll go into more detail on its history in our third installment.
So where does PCP come from? Unlike many of the other drugs we’ve covered, Phencyclidine does not originate with a plant that is then processed into a purer form. Rather, it’s completely synthetic, meaning it’s created in a lab from a series of other chemicals, most of them derived from petroleum products, just like plastics and many other consumer goods. Due to its illegality, the exact formula and methods for creating PCP are not widely known, but a skilled chemist would be able to figure it out.
In fact, many have, as while some black market Phencyclidine is diverted from legal veterinary sources, most PCP sold on the street typically comes from clandestine labs. Similar to meth, the best way to produce pure Phencyclidine is in a clean, well-equipped laboratory, but makeshift labs in bathtubs, basements, or deep in the woods are often used as a more flexible and low-cost alternative. According to DanceSafe, most of the PCP sold in the United States is produced in these sorts of labs in Mexico, then smuggled over the border for distribution. However, a large portion is also produced domestically, as these labs are also spread throughout the country, but seem to be concentrated in the Southwest, probably because remote desert areas make it easier to conceal these operations.
Of course, this often leads to impurities and contamination: while pure PCP is a bitter-tasting, white crystalline powder, it can also take on a tan or brown color if it contains other substances. In this crystalline salt form, PCP can be smoked, snorted, injected, or ingested orally. When smoking, users may mix the powder in with another substance like tobacco or marijuana; people snorting and ingesting orally will just use the powder by itself; and of course, if injecting, it must first be dissolved in a liquid.
Phencyclidine can also take other forms, and is sometimes sold as a tablet or capsule. But the most common form is as a liquid, as the powder is easy to dissolve in water or alcohol. It’s often dissolved in ether, producing a clear, slightly yellowish liquid. People will then take this liquid and spray it onto a leafy material, either an herb like mint, oregano, or parsley, or sometimes another drug like tobacco or marijuana, to make it easy to smoke. Dipping an entire tobacco cigarette or cannabis joint into liquid PCP is also a common practice, as the leafy material will soak it up, then users just have to wait for it to dry, and can then smoke it and get the combined effects of the drugs. This practice is why there’s a bit of a popular fear of black market marijuana containing PCP, though there isn’t much evidence to say this is at all common, and can also be explained by novice marijuana users consuming cannabis of a much higher potency than they’re used to.
PCP is nowhere near as popular as it once was, which we’ll get into later, but this lack of availability also causes there to be pretty big fluctuations in prices on the black market. According to a 2004 report by the Department of Justice, powdered PCP can sell for $20-30 per gram, while the liquid form can run anywhere from $125-600 an ounce. It’s also common for dealers to soak cigarettes in PCP ahead of time and sell them individually, and these can go for $5 to as much as $30 each. On the wholesale level, the DOJ estimates prices at $6,500 to $28,000 per gallon.
So that’s it for our introduction to Phencyclidine, more commonly known as PCP. Next week we’ll be diving into the science of PCP: how it interacts with the human body, the medical and recreational effects people seek, and the risks involved.
What is the science behind how it interacts with the body? What receptors does it influence? What are the medical effects of it, potential side effects?
Now it’s time for the drug of the month, where we give an overview and dive into the science, history, and current events for a different drug each month. For March 2016, that drug is Phencyclidine, more commonly known as PCP, so let’s get into the science of this commonly vilified drug.
As I explained last week, Phencyclidine’s chemical formula is C17H25N. In chemical structure, PCP is in the arylcyclohexylamine class, and, in pharmacology, it is considered a dissociative anesthetic. It is either sold as a powder, or dissolved in a liquid such as ether, and is most often smoked but can also be injected, snorted, or taken orally.
But no matter which method of administration is used, once in the body, PCP acts as an NMDA receptor agonist, meaning it inhibits the action of the NMDA receptor. This receptor plays a major role in the perception of pain as well as in learning, memory, and emotion. This is responsible for its anesthetic properties, and is the same mechanism used by many other drugs such as ketamine, nitrous oxide, and methadone. It also influences the actions of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which causes the euphoria associated with its use.
When PCP is snorted or smoked, the effects are felt within 2 to 5 minutes and last for 4 to 6 hours. When injected, the effects are felt even more quickly. Its biological half-life is 7 to 46 hours, meaning it can stay in your system for nearly two days after its use.
The effects of Phencyclidine vary based on its dosage. At low levels, which when snorted, is is just a milligram or so, it will simply produce a feeling of numbness and intoxication somewhat similar to larger doses of alcohol, making the user slur their speech and making it difficult to walk or balance. It also produces a distorted sense of time and disassociation with your body. Depending on set and setting, this can make people feel euphoric, anxious, depressed, or paranoid, and may cause them to behave strangely.
Moderate doses of 5 to 10 milligrams intranasally will produce anesthesia, and higher doses can lead to convulsions. Within this range are varying levels of disassociation, beginning with numbness and moving up into viewing yourself and the world differently, or even losing a sense of self and getting a feeling of floating or being out of your body. Some people enjoy this while others may get scared, and those with a history of aggressive behavior may act out and even get violent. A few cases of people with histories of violence doing terrible things while on PCP were heavily publicized and gave it its reputation, and we’ll go into those in more depth next week, but it’s worth pointing out that those sort of incidents were incredibly rare and not characteristic of PCP’s effects.
Overdose is possible but relatively rare, and most of the injuries and deaths associated with PCP are a result of poor decisions or body control while under the influence, including things like drownings, leaping from high places, motor vehicle crashes, and sometimes suicide.
Phencyclidine can also cause acute amnesia, meaning that some users are unable to remember anythin After its effects wear off, PCP can also cause intense hangover symptoms, such as nausea and numbness in extremities.
Phencyclidine has been shown to be addictive to many people, and is classified as a schedule II drug in the United States. It does have some medical uses, and was originally created as an anesthetic under the trade name Sernyl in the 1950s. But because of its adverse side effects like hallucinations and disorientation, its medical use on humans was discontinued and is now only used on animals.
So all in all, PCP can be very dangerous when used frequently or in high doses, but it does not turn all users into maniacs or cannibals like many people seem to think. That’s it for the science of Phencyclidine, and next week Rachelle will be going over the history of this infamous drug.
And now it’s time for Drug of the Month, where we take a closer look at the science, history, and recent trends in a different drug each month. For this episode, we’ll be discussing the history of Phencyclidine, also known as PCP.
As Sam explained in the introductory episode, unlike many of our past Drugs of the Month, PCP is not a naturally-derived substance, and is instead completely synthetic.
PCP was first discovered by accident by Victor Maddox, a chemist at Parke-Davis in Michigan, which was once America’s oldest and largest pharmaceutical manufactuer, and is now a subsidiary of Pfizer. Maddox discovered PCP while investigating other synthetic analgesic agents. Although unexpected, PCP was identified as potentially interesting, and as such, was submitted for pharmacological testing. The promising results of these pharmacological investigations led to the rapid development of PCP. It was approved for use as an investigational drug under the tradename Sernyl in the 1950s as an anesthetic, but because of its long half-life and adverse side effects, such as hallucinations, mania, delirium, and disorientation, it was removed from the market in 1965 and limited to veterinary use.
Manufactured in clandestine laboratories, PCP emerged as a substance of abuse in the mid-1960’s. It often appeared in pill form and was known as “The PeaCe Pill,” (with an emphasis on the C in peace) a term that contributed to the acronym PCP.7 It’s use spread in the 1970’s and peaked around 1978 as snorting or smoking the powder form of PCP (which gave users a more immediate high) became more popular.
Several extremely graphic and violent high-profile incidents in the early 2000s allegedly involving PCP has led to contemporary fear and hysteria surrounding the drug.
The first such horror story involves an R&B artist named Houston Edwards Summers the 4th, who simply goes by his first name Houston.
In 2005, before a show he was set to perform in London, Houston suffered an emotional breakdown and attempted to commit suicide by jumping from the window of his 13th-floor hotel room, while reportedly under the influence of PCP. When people in his entourage and his security personnel managed to stop him, he was restrained and locked in a first floor room. While in that room, Houston gouged his left eye out with a plastic fork. After the incident, he was arrested by London police and was put in rehab for two weeks. After the rehab, Houston went home to Los Angeles and apologized for the incident (although what he had to apologize for other than his own eye has been left unsaid). Although the use of PCP has achieved mythical status in this story, the artist does not confirm that the use of the drug was the cause of his eye-gouging, and from interviews granted afterwards, it sounds more like he was suffering a mental breakdown related to work, stress, and his own rising celebrity status, which he was not emotionally equipped to handle. It’s unclear if Houston was ever formally charged for the use or possession of PCP.
In the second incident, which is even more extreme and disturbing than the first, rapper Antron Singleton, known as “Big Lurch,” murdered his roommate and cannibalized her, again allegedly under the influence of PCP.
The victim was found in her apartment by a friend. Her chest had been torn open and a three-inch blade was found broken off in her shoulder blade. Teeth marks were found on her face and on her lungs, which had been torn from her chest. An eyewitness reported that, when Singleton was picked up by police, he was naked, covered in blood, standing in the middle of the street, and staring at the sky. Neighbors reported hearing “thrashing sounds, followed by an argument, when Singleton said ‘Tynisha, you’re a sock’, and from there was only screaming.” A medical examination performed shortly after his capture found human flesh in his stomach that was not his own. The victim’s boyfriend said she and the aspiring rapper used PCP the day before the alleged murder took place.
On November 7, 2003, Singleton was sentenced to life in prison. He had been convicted of murder and aggravated mayhem the previous June after pleading not guilty by reason of insanity at the time of the murder. The court ruled that his intoxication and claimed insanity were not satisfactory reasons for committing the crime, after a court-appointed psychiatrist who evaluated Singleton reported that he had no reason to believe Singleton was of unsound mind; three other court-appointed doctors concluded that Singleton was insane during the commission of the crime. The district attorney made a motion for a directed verdict, stating that PCP intoxication can not be used as grounds for an insanity plea in California, and the judge granted it. In this case, that not only did the perpetrator admit to PCP use, but that he attempted to use that as a defense for the crime he committed. In a 2009 hip-hop documentary called “Rhyme and Punishment,” Singleton explains that he began using PCP after being hospitalized for a car accident to ease the pain of his injuries.
From a lot of law enforcement testimony that I have personally heard in legislative committee hearing, it seems like a lot of the fear and hysteria surrounding the drug is also related to how frequently other substances such as marijuana or tobacco are either sprayed with PCP or dipped in it on the black market, leading to greater health risks to users, and from a law enforcement perspective, making it more difficult to detect.
That’s all for the history of PCP. Next week, Sam will be back with recent news and trends surrounding the drug.
Now it’s time for the drug of the month, where we give an overview and dive into the science, history, and current events for a different drug each month. For March 2016, that drug is Phencyclidine, more commonly known as PCP, so for this, our last installment, I’ll be talking about some recent trends around this almost universally vilified drug.
As Rachelle explained in the history section last week, PCP was one of the major focuses of the drug hysteria of the 1970s and 80s, with a few high-profile cases of gruesome suicides and murders that gave it a reputation for being able to turn normal people into homicidal maniacs or even cannibals, who also had super strength and couldn’t feel any pain. But, as anyone following the drug war knows, these stories were highly exaggerated and while PCP was involved, it was not the cause of these events – just like all of the trumped up claims of people committing atrocities while high on marijuana that were peddled during the era of Reefer Madness, and like we’ve seen more recently with drugs like bath salts.
Of course, there is a small kernel of truth to this perception, as PCP is an anesthetic, so it does make people much less sensitive to pain. It’s also a dissociative and can cause people to behave erratically or have delusions of grandeur. But by definition, people cannot have superhuman strength, and PCP has not been shown to actually increase the strength of people who use it. This idea was largely the result of fear-mongering that tried to make out drug users as a violent, unpredictable threat that needed to be stopped, which of course was also strongly related to race and casting black men as a menace to society.
An early example of this thinking about PCP in pop culture was in the original Terminator movie, where there is a scene in which Arnold Schwarzenneger survives a shotgun blast to the chest. Police responding to the scene say the only possible explanation was that he was on PCP. Of course, this is ridiculous, but the idea of people being impervious to bullets, tasers, or other weapons was, and still kind of is, a common and very incorrect belief about PCP.
The use of phencyclidine was actually pretty common in the 70s, but has declined rapidly since then. In surveys, the number of high school students admitting to having tried PCP at least once was 13% in 1979, but plummeted to less than 3% in 1990. In 2010, that number dropped further to only 1.8%. It’s pretty clear that PCP’s moment in the spotlight is over.
The rarity of PCP use, combined with the perception of it giving people super strength and making them act erratically, has turned it from a serious national concern into a bit of a joke. Since it is often used with marijuana, it’s also a convenient plot device for people to accidentally consume it and have some crazy things happen to them.
For example, in the movie Walk Hard, the main character becomes addicted to a wide variety of drugs after achieving fame and success as a musician. His wife gets worried about him and threatens to leave him if he doesn’t get sober. He agrees to stop using drugs, hugs her, and sneakily puts some PCP in his mouth. She notices, he denies it, and then runs out of the room, strips down to his underwear, and runs around the city flipping over cars, throwing mailboxes through windows, and climbing up buildings. It’s a bit unclear whether this was poking fun at what people used to think PCP could do, or just going along with those assumptions in order to get some laughs.
Another instance of PCP in pop culture is in the sketch comedy show Whitest Kids U Know, in a skit called “Gallon of PCP.” In it, two men who knew each other in high school run into each other in a park, one of them carrying a big jug with “PCP” written on it. During the conversation, it’s revealed that the man’s wife died earlier that day, because he left her with his drug dealer as collateral when he went to get some money, and then forgot about her. He seems totally fine with the situation because he’s high on PCP.
And one other example of PCP in the media was in the Comedy Central show Workaholics, in an episode where Adam is trying to camp out for the release of a new zombie video game but accidentally gets in line at a methadone clinic instead. He asks some people in line if they had any marijuana to sell him, and they go around back to make the deal and smoke some of it. After he smokes some, they tell him that it’s actually PCP and then try to rob him, but he freaks out and thinks that they’re zombies, imagining that he’s in the video game he was trying to buy.
While Phencyclidine seems to be the subject of jokes rather than headlines in recent years, it does still come up in the media from time to time. The prime example is the case of Aaron Hernandez, the former NFL player who was convicted of murder in 2015. During the proceedings, it came out that he was a frequent PCP user, and the defense actually brought in experts in order to testify about its effects and convince the jury that the drug caused him to commit this crime. It didn’t work, as the murder was clearly pre-meditated and not a random act of violence, and the prosecution even brought in their own experts to testify that the link between PCP and violence is actually not borne out by research. The court refused to place the blame on PCP and sentenced Hernandez to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
So that’s it for Phencyclidine, March 2016’s drug of the month. We’ll be back next week with an introduction for the new drug of the month for April.