PCP Symptoms & Signs of Abuse
PCP has a bad reputation, even among drug abusers. It has sparked urban legends of sweat-soaked naked people fighting off packs of police officers with superhuman strength. While many of these horror stories are exaggerated, the reality is that PCP is extremely dangerous, especially for people who have a history of mental illness. PCP causes users to think they are invincible, so they sometimes act irrationally and violently. PCP users frequently suffer other unpleasant symptoms, such as a skyrocketing body-temperature and a rapid heartbeat. They may sweat excessively and strip naked to cool off.
One of the most unique aspects of PCP is that it causes such a wide variety of unpredictable and dangerous symptoms. The symptoms depend on the dose, the method of taking PCP, and the person, but the most negative symptom is extremely bizarre aggressive behavior.
These symptoms are illustrated in one of the most shocking true stories of PCP abuse. It involved Antron Singleton, a rap artist from Texas known as “Big Lurch,” who experienced severe symptoms of psychosis after smoking PCP for 5 days in April 2002. Police found him walking naked down a street with blood all over his mouth and body. Investigators went to his apartment and discovered the mutilated body of his female roommate, with multiple stab wounds and bite-marks on her face and organs. The investigators determined that Singleton murdered her, broke her neck, jaw, and eye, hacked open her chest, and ate part of her lung while under the influence of PCP.
PCP Symptoms at Low Doses
At low doses of 1 to 5 milligrams, PCP acts like a stimulant, speeding up a person’s normal body functions. The user may breathe faster and experience a faster heartbeat, elevated blood-pressure, flushed skin, excessive sweatiness, numb feet or hands, or loss of muscle control.
PCP Symptoms at High Doses
At higher doses of 5 to 15 milligrams, PCP acts like a depressant, slowing down the body. The user begins to experience trance-like sedative and anesthetic effects, awake but unable to talk or coordinate movements. They may also experience slowed breathing, nausea, dizziness, muscle spasms, uncontrolled eye movements, or amnesia.
PCP Symptoms at Extremely High Doses
At very high doses of 15 milligrams or more, PCP starts to cause people to act like they have schizophrenia. The most common symptoms are paranoia, abnormal feelings of suspicion or fear, hallucinations, confusion, detachment from reality, and psychosis.
Flashbacks or Aftershocks
There is also a risk of “flashbacks” weeks or months after PCP wears off. This is because PCP is stored in body tissues much longer than other drugs, especially the fatty parts of the liver and brain. The stored PCP can be released by stress, fatigue, exercise, or the use of other drugs, resulting in the person unexpectedly feeling symptoms of PCP.
What Makes PCP so Unpredictable?
PCP is an anesthetic medication that is abused recreationally as a hallucinogen or a dissociative drug. Depending on the dose, PCP also works as a depressant or a stimulant, which is why it has such unpredictable effects. Furthermore, because PCP is a synthetic drug that is made in illegal labs, it is often impure and mixed with other drugs. All of that adds up to an unpredictable psychoactive cocktail.
Where Does PCP Come From?
PCP (phencyclidine) is a synthetic drug that was developed as an intravenous anesthetic medication for surgeries in the 1950s. Today, doctors no longer use PCP for anesthesia because patients frequently became extremely agitated and delirious as they were coming out of anesthesia. It is not uncommon for people to act strangely when an anesthetic drug is wearing off, but hospitals stopped using PCP because patients were unusually violent. They often believed that terrible things were happening as soon as it began wearing off. Veterinarians continued to use PCP as an animal tranquilizer for a few years, but as it became more popular for people to abuse PCP, all legal manufacturing of PCP was stopped in the United States in 1978.
In the 1980s, illegal drug laboratories caused PCP to re-emerge as a popular recreational psychedelic drug because it was powerful, easy to make, and highly profitable. At the time, PCP was known as “angel dust,” but it quickly became notorious for causing bizarrely violent criminal encounters with police officers. The result was a steep drop-off in the number of teenagers who reported using PCP in the 1990s.
How Long do the Symptoms of PCP Last?
PCP is a bitter-tasting white powder that can be dissolved in water, snorted, smoked, or swallowed in a tablet. Some people also use liquid PCP to dip marijuana or cigarettes before they are smoked. The effects of PCP are fastest when it is smoked – usually within minutes, with symptoms peaking at 30 minutes and wearing off within 4 to 6 hours. It generally takes about 24 hours for the symptoms to wear off.
Feeling no Pain
PCP is an anesthetic, so it numbs pain-receptors in the brain. It also makes a person feel invincible with “superhuman” strength, like they can lift a car or survive jumping off a building. When a person is on PCP, they do not react to pain or fear doing things like punching windows. They might lay down in the middle of a roadway, walk around naked, or attack people and inanimate objects. There have been people on PCP who died as a result of accidental drowning, motor vehicle accidents, severe self-mutilation, suicide, and more. There have also been people who unintentionally injured themselves while on PCP – but because PCP is also an anesthetic, their injuries were not diagnosed until after the drug wore off and the pain returned.
Dissociation from Reality
PCP is abused recreationally for its mind-altering effects. Scientists classify PCP as a dissociative anesthetic, which means that PCP can cause a person to feel like they are disconnected from their body and the rest of the world. Most people find the dissociative symptoms very frightening. For example, a person on PCP who is dissociated from their body might look at their hands and not recognize them as their hands. Panic is a common response to these negative feelings, which can lead to dangerous behaviors, self-mutilation, or serious injuries.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) classifies PCP as a Schedule II hallucinogenic drug for legal reasons. Hallucinogens are drugs that can cause people to experience things that are not real. Hallucinations are powerful distortions in a person’s sense of reality. The symptoms of a hallucination include rapid mood swings, intense emotions, seeing or hearing things that do not exist, or feeling things like itching or crawling skin that seem real but aren’t. PCP users describe hallucinations like having conversations with inanimate objects that come to life, or “out-of-body” experiences.
Criminal Behavior and Violence
Taking PCP causes a person to experience a completely altered sense of reality, combined with a god-like feeling of invincibility. PCP gained notoriety when police officers experienced first-hand how difficult it was to arrest someone on PCP. People who have taken high doses of PCP commonly do things that endanger themselves or other people, resulting in criminal behaviors.
These behaviors range from murder to getting naked in public. People on a high dose of PCP are also far more likely to react violently to being arrested for their criminal behaviors, making it an extremely dangerous situation for the police officers as well as a person on PCP. PCP users may continue to struggle after they have been tasered multiple times. They may break their own hands while they continue to struggle in handcuffs. They may break a rib and continue to struggle until they puncture a lung. There have been people on PCP who became violent and appeared to feel no pain when they were tasered or even shot multiple times by police officers.
The erratic and dangerous behaviors of a person on PCP increases the likelihood that a police officer will use stronger methods to control the individual. Furthermore, the lack of pain response in the individual who is being arrested may lead the police officer to mistakenly believe they are not doing any harm to the individual. All of these factors increase the risk of injury and death for everyone involved.
Tolerance and Physical Dependence
As if the short-term behaviors of a person on PCP were not dangerous enough, PCP is also a powerfully addictive drug. That means a person will gradually build up a tolerance to PCP, so they need to take higher and higher doses to get the effect they are seeking. This increases the risk of an accidental PCP overdose, physical dependence, and addiction. It also means that a person will experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly stop taking PCP, or they can’t get more.
Over time, this cycle of drug abuse to avoid the worsening symptoms of withdrawal can make it impossible to quit or to say no when offered the chance to use more PCP. A person who has become physically dependent on PCP will experience withdrawal if they suddenly stop.
The symptoms of PCP withdrawal include aggression, depression, anxiety, paranoia, weight loss, speech impairment, memory loss, and other cognitive problems that can last up to a year after detoxification. The timeline of withdrawal symptoms varies depending on how long the person was using PCP, but because it remains in the body for a long time (up to 7 days), the symptoms generally last at least 1 week.
Addiction to PCP
Illicit drug addiction occurs when the person is no longer in control of their drug-use, despite the consequences. PCP is an addictive drug and people who use it recreationally often develop powerful cravings, physical dependence, and psychological disorders. The long-term use of PCP can cause a person to become violent or suicidal. They may hear voices threatening them with death. Their heartbeat may become irregular and blood-pressure skyrockets, resulting in seizures or coma – and they may continue using PCP despite these negative effects. Once a person has become addicted to PCP, they can no longer stop using it on their own. They will require a specialized treatment plan under the supervision of a doctor who is familiar with PCP addiction.
PCP abuse can cause permanent brain damage, liver damage, kidney damage, or seizures if the body temperature increases to 108°F or more. PCP users can die from fever-induced organ failure. Death can also occur as a result of heart attacks or strokes as a result of massive increases in blood-pressure, constricted blood vessels, and irregular heart rhythms. Even if a person does not die from these serious heart problems, they are likely to experience brain damage. Some studies suggest that long-term symptoms of memory loss, speech problems, and mood disorders are actually caused by mini-strokes in the brain.
PCP Risks in Teenagers
The risks are even more serious for young people. Even low-to-moderate use of PCP by a teenager can negatively affect hormones that control emotional and physical development. PCP also seems to stunt the growth of teenagers who abuse it frequently. Teenagers may also develop permanent learning delays or intellectual disabilities.
Short-Term Symptoms of PCP
- Feeling overly calm
- Mood swings
- Intense anger
- Slurred speech or stuttering
- Feeling invincible
- Muscle spasms
- Blank stare
- Rapid involuntary eye movements
- High blood pressure
- Fast heartbeat
- Inability to make a decision
- Psychotic behavior
Long-Term Risks of PCP
In large doses, PCP can cause symptoms that are very similar to schizophrenia or other severe mental illnesses, with paranoia and delusions that make it hard for the person to think rationally. The individual may get so caught up in their own delusions that they cannot tell the difference between the delusion and the real world. It is not uncommon for people who are on PCP to injure themselves intentionally or accidentally while they are hallucinating. Other PCP long-term effects may include seizures, coma, and death because of suicide or injury.
PCP is a dangerous drug. If you suspect someone you know is abusing PCP, encourage them to seek help immediately before they injure themselves or others.
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