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PCP: The Long-Term Effects


PCP – or phencyclidine – is a powerful and dangerous street drug that has wreaked havoc on users and their families for decades. Despite its effects being known as causing severe harm in both the short and long term, addicts and curious teenagers continue to abuse the drug. PCP is no longer in the spotlight of drugs, as the opioid crisis sweeping the nation has claimed many lives, and most of the headlines as well.

But opioids aren’t the only drugs injuring and killing people. PCP is alive and well, and continues to be one of the more dangerous drugs on the black market. The effects of PCP have led to some pretty gruesome acts – murders, cannibalism, self-mutilation and general psychosis. So how did such a powerful and dangerous drug become widely available on the black market? Let’s look at the history of PCP.

How PCP Came To Be

PCP, often called angel dust, is a hallucinogenic drug with anesthetic properties, having the chemical name 1–(1–phencyclohexyl) piperidine. The drug was created in 1956 by Detroit’s Parke Davis Laboratories for use as an anesthetic in surgery, then later as veterinary medicine, though it is no longer used as such. PCP’s side effects – from distorted self-perception to severe disorientation and unpredictable, psychotic behavior – quickly made it a no-go to use in any capacity.

Production shuddered, and the drug was supposed to become a thing of the past, but it found its way over the next few decades as a street drug that was possible to create in a home lab. PCP is relatively easy and inexpensive to manufacture, which fueled its rise as a major illegal drug in the United States during the mid-1960s. As the drug became more popular, violence related to its use – including suicide, homicide, and self-mutilation – grew in the 1970s and ’80s. Estimates say that at least 7 million Americans used PCP on at least one occasion between 1975 and 1983.

The drug officially became illegal in 1978, but the damage had already been done. Word was out on how to manufacture the drug, and it was an easy sell to those looking for an extreme high. In the mid-1980s, PCP use declined due to the rising popularity of crack cocaine. While PCP use has dwindled slightly over the last few decades, it has not disappeared. The drug is cheap and powerful, and its dangerous allure keeps users coming back for more. In fact, a national survey on drug abuse showed that 6 million U.S. residents aged 12 and older have used PCP at least once in their lifetime. It also revealed that teenagers and young adults use the drug the most, with 225,000 individuals aged 12 to 17 and 777,000 individuals aged 18 to 25 using the drug at least one time. More than 3 percent of high school seniors in the United States used the drug at least once, and more than 1 percent used the drug in the past year. These numbers, while not at their heights of the 70s and 80s, are very troubling.

What PCP Looks Like

The original form of PCP looks nothing like today’s street versions, which can be manufactured and ingested in a variety of ways. Pure PCP is a white crystalline with a distinctive chemical taste. Illegal PCP, the kind you find on the street, normally has contaminants that cause its color to range anywhere from light to dark brown, and is often a more powdered substance than pure PCP.

Street PCP is sold as tablets, capsules, and colored powders, because it makes the drug easier to ingest, easier to make and easier to sell. PCP users ingest the drug using a variety of methods, including smoking, snorting and swallowing. Powered PCP can be particularly dangerous, as snorting it makes it have an immediate effect. The most common form of ingesting PCP, though, is smoking it. The drug is also commonly used as a spray on marijuana after it is dissolved in ether or other alcohol based liquids.

Street Names

PCP’s most common street name is “Angel Dust” or simply Dust.” But it has a variety of other names as well, including: Embalming Fluid, Ozone, Wack, Rocket Fuel, Hog, Cliffhanger, Happy Sticks, Goon Dust, Trank, Peter Pan, Lethal weapon and Kools. When combined with other drugs – mostly marijuana – PCP can go by these names as well: Organe Pokemon, Loveboat, and Green kryptonite.

PCP’s Effects

There’s a reason for the gruesome acts of violence perpetrated by those using PCP – its serious effects on the brain in both the short and long term.

Short-Term Effects

PCP halts the brain’s neurotransmitter activity by attaching the receptors in the brain. When this happens, sights, sound and other senses are distorted, creating hallucinations and a “floating “effect where the user feels as if they are flying. The extreme euphoria PCP causes can make users feel as if they are operating outside of the normal confines of time and space. This is partially responsible for the violent acts sometimes committed by those on PCP.  Users may also imagine things that are not real.

The effects of PCP intensify with larger doses, and can affect different users in different ways, due to certain biological or psychological factors. The high from PCP lasts between 4-6 hours, but its most potent effects come shortly after ingesting the drug. PCP also fuels severe anxiety. Fifty percent of people who went to the emergency room because of issues with PCP report significant elevations in anxiety symptoms.

Long-Term Effects

When PCP attacks the brain, the short-term effects are obvious. But the long-term effects may be even worse. Any drug that damages the brain in the way PCP does can make the user’s future murky at best. That’s because the drug actually alters the structure of the brain, which leads to memory problems, trouble with concentration and perception, and difficulty making correct judgements.

These issues can last a lifetime, particularly for chronic users of the drug. These users can also suffer flashbacks – meaning they feel the effects of the drug even though they are not currently on it. PCP users have high rates of depression and anxiety, and may experience auditory or visual hallucinations long after the drug has left their system. For those who are already at risk for mental disorders, PCP can trigger psychosis and other psychotic episodes.

Long time PCP addicts may experience changes in speech and speech impediments, stemming from either physical changes, or changes related to memory and cognitive dysfunction. These brain changes can last for up to one year after a person detoxes from PCP – sometimes much longer. It doesn’t end there though – those who routinely take large doses of PCP put themselves at risk for increased tolerance, dependence, and addiction. Once users develop a high tolerance to PCP, they are at a greater risk of overdose and lasting physical harm. Quitting the drug cold turkey often leads to PCP withdrawal symptoms, including cravings, aches, and mental health changes. The level at which a user abuses PCP will determine how much long-term effects the drug will have.

According to American Addiction Centers, “One of the major problems with taking PCP regularly is that many people who abuse this drug go on binges, often called “runs” – something that is similar to “tweaking” among people who struggle with meth abuse. A person may take PCP several times, for two or three days during which the person does not sleep or eat. The run is followed by a long period of sleep. This can cause serious malnutrition and mental health damage. A person on a PCP run may experience damage to internal organs from failing to eat or drink enough, or they could accidentally hurt themselves. People who struggle with PCP abuse may go on runs up to four times per month.”

Changes in the brain are not the only long-term effects of PCP. Heavy users are more likely to injure themselves from falls, cuts, bruises, or burns. Since PCP can induce delusions, users may feel invincible, which leads them to do and try dangerous things that they normally would not. Since PCP makes the user numb to most pain, accidental self-harm occurs often.

PCP Overdose: What to Look For

PCP overdoses are common, due to the drug’s incredible strength. Signs of PCP overdose vary from person to person, but symptoms may include:

Agitation:  An unpleasant state of extreme arousal, leading to the user experience feelings of being stirred up, excited, tense, confused or irritable.

Altered State of Consciousness: A loss of the ability to function on a normal level. Users can experience confusion and imagine things.

Catatonic State: A loss of the ability to talk, move or react to anything. Brain functions have been shut down when users are in a catatonic state.

Coma: A total lack of awareness or function outside of normal bodily functions like breathing.  

Convulsions: Seizures caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain, which can happen from too much PCP use.  

Hallucinations: Experiencing hallucinations is a desired effect from PCP, but it can cause the user to act out and injure themselves or others.

High Blood Pressure: Abnormally high blood pressure is a symptom of PCP overdose, and can cause serious damage to the arteries and eventually lead to a heart attack.

Rapid Eye Movement: Involuntary eye movements are caused by abnormal function in the areas of the brain damaged by PCP.

Psychosis: A severe mental disorder in which thoughts and emotions are impaired to the point where the user is completely detached from reality.

How to Prevent Long-Term Damage From PCP

If someone you know is abusing PCP, immediate action must be taken to get them off of the drug. This drug is incredibly dangerous, and even a single use can lead to severe PCP symptoms and even death. Helping an addict can be a very difficult, and very emotionally taxing affair. In many cases, they may need to check into a recovery facility, either inpatient or outpatient depending on the severity of their illicit drug addiction.

Treating addiction requires a combination of physical care and mental care, as well as forced sobriety. First time users may not need to visit a rehab center, but those who are fully addicted to PCP would be best served by entering a treatment facility. Many treatment facilities have counseling services that can help families and friends of addicts cope with the problem, and convince the addict to seek treatment. If you or a loved one are struggling with a PCP addiction, contact Luminance Recovery today.

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