What to Know About PCP Use

Phencyclidine (PCP), commonly known as angel dust, has been part of the drug scene since the 1960s. It is used in the form of a white crystal powder or smoked as “fry,” or marijuana cigarettes laced with PCP. The effects of PCP are unpredictable and the side effects vary widely from person to person, ranging from sensory changes to schizophrenic-like behavior to stroke.

Also Known As: Some of the slang terms and street names used for PCP include Angel Dust, Hog, Rocket Fuel, DOA, Peace Pill, Supergrass, Ozone, Wack, Cliffhanger, Happy Sticks, Trank, Letha Weapon, and Kools.

Drug Class: PCP is classified as a hallucinogen and shares qualities with other dissociative drugs.

Common Side Effects: Side effects of PCP use include numbness, loss of coordination, disorientation, confusion, dizziness, nausea, hallucinations, feelings of detachment, increased heart rate, and elevated blood pressure.

How to Recognize PCP

PCP is a white crystalline powder that is easily soluble in water or alcohol. As a result, it can appear in a liquid form. Since PCP can easily be mixed with dyes, it can also appear in a variety of colors in powder, tablet, and capsule form. It is sometimes sold as a powder wrapped in metallic foil.

What Does PCP Do?

PCP is known as a dissociative anesthetic because people who use the drug are "disconnected" from the environment around them. Within 20 to 90 minutes of taking PCP orally, people report feeling happy and may experience distorted perceptions of light, color, sound, and touch as well as changes in time. Some people say they feel “out of body” or experience feelings of detachment.

People who misuse PCP often tout feelings of strength, power, and invulnerability. Others enjoy the numbing effect PCP can have on the mind. As an anesthetic, PCP dramatically reduces pain.

PCP can be eaten, snorted, injected, or smoked. The effects of the drug can be felt within two to five minutes if it is smoked (the drug is usually applied to a leafy material, such as mint, parsley, oregano, or marijuana). The method used to take PCP into the body can change the effects that it has and how long these effects last.

Effects of a PCP High
Verywell / Cindy Chung

What the Experts Say

Soon after PCP was introduced as a street drug in the 1960s, it gained a reputation of causing bad reactions and never became very popular with illicit drug users. People who misuse PCP can become violent or suicidal while taking the drug.

Since nearly all PCP production is illegal, there is no standard for purity or dosage. As a result, there is no way to know how much is being taken, making its use particularly dangerous.

Previously Approved Uses

PCP was developed in the 1950s as an intravenous anesthetic and marketed under the brand name Sernyl. Its use was discontinued in 1965 after patients who were given the drug experienced psychotic reactions, but the drug remained widely used in veterinary medicine as an animal tranquilizer.

PCP is now mostly manufactured illegally. Some PCP is manufactured legally for research purposes.

Common Side Effects

PCP can have different effects on different people. The way the drug is taken and the amount used can also change the effects of PCP.

Depending upon the dosage, PCP can have the following effects:

  • Low and medium dosage: Numbness, confusion, dizziness, nausea, changes in sensory perceptions, hallucinations, detachment, changes in heart rate and blood pressure.
  • High dosage: Dangerously high blood pressure and body temperature, aggression, psychological stress, hallucinations, memory loss.

Due to the possible sedative effects of PCP, if the drug is taken with other depressants, such as alcohol or benzodiazepines, it can cause a coma. If someone you care about becomes unconscious and unresponsive to verbal or physical attempts to wake them, call 911 immediately and tell them exactly what was taken.

Signs of Use

In addition to watching out for the drug itself (which may be in the form of a "fry," or cigarette or joint dipped in PCP) and any drug paraphernalia (such as rolling papers or pipes), take note of any changes in physical appearance and behavior. These could include new sleeping and eating habits, changes in friends, or loss of interest in sports and other social activities.

According to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, parents should watch out for the following physical signs of PCP use:

  • Flushing and profuse sweating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Flicking up and down of the eyelids
  • Disordered thinking or detachment from reality

Given the inconsistencies in the formulation, PCP purity and strength is unpredictable and can’t be dosed, which makes it easier to overdose. Signs of a PCP overdose include:

  • Agitation (overly excited, violent behavior)
  • Side-to-side eye movements
  • Lack of coordination
  • Uncontrolled movement
  • Hallucinations
  • Convulsions
  • High blood pressure
  • Psychosis
  • Altered state of consciousness
  • Catatonic trance (won’t talk, move, or react)
  • Coma

Myths and Common Questions

Many people believe that PCP can give you superhuman strength, but there is no evidence that the drug can increase muscle power. The drug may increase aggressive behavior and interfere with perception, however, so people using it may think that they can punch through steel.

Similarly, PCP does not turn a person into a cannibal or casual killer, unless they were already prone to these violent behaviors. It does cause hallucinogenic effects, which can continue for day or weeks and trigger psychotic symptoms similar to schizophrenia.

Tolerance, Dependence, and Withdrawal 

PCP is classified as a Schedule II substance, which means it has a "high probability" for misuse as well as the possibility for physical and psychological dependence. What's more, people who use PCP can build a tolerance for the drug, meaning that over time, they need more and more of the drug to experience the same "high."

How Long Does PCP Stay in Your System?

Depending on the drug test, PCP can be detected for a few days or a few months. Factors including metabolism, body mass, age, hydration level, and frequency of use play a role. Estimates for PCP drug test timetables include the following:

Test Type Length of Time Detectable
Urine 1 day to 4 weeks (with heavy use)
Blood 24 hours
Saliva 1 to 10 days
Hair Follicle Up to 90 days

Addiction

Repeated use of PCP can lead to craving and compulsive PCP-seeking behavior, despite severe adverse consequences, which by definition, means that it is an addictive substance.

According to the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), phencyclidine use disorder occurs when a person is taking PCP and experiences at least two of the following problems within a 12-month period:

  • Taking more PCP than intended
  • Inability to cut back or control use
  • Spending the majority of time obtaining, using, or recovering from PCP
  • Building tolerance
  • Experiencing cravings
  • Failing to carry out normal role expectations at school, work, or home
  • Continuing to use PCP despite social or interpersonal problems
  • Dropping out of social, occupational, or recreational activities
  • Taking PCP in situations which are dangerous to self or others
  • Using PCP despite physical or psychological problems

Withdrawal

People who suddenly stop using PCP can experience physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms, which are not life-threatening but may require the attention of a trained medical professional. Many experts recommend supervised medical detox to help better cope with the symptoms of PCP withdrawal, which can include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Chills
  • Headaches
  • Sweating
  • Tremors
  • Craving
  • Confusion
  • Depression

For people with a history of chronic, long-term use, withdrawal symptoms include flashbacks, hallucinations, memory loss, difficulties with speech and thinking, weight loss, depression, and other mood disorders that can persist for up to a year after quitting the drug.

How to Get Help

People who are experiencing a "bad trip" while on PCP are usually placed in a quiet area or room with little sensory stimulation. Sometimes the person is given benzodiazepines to control seizures or extremely agitated behavior.

While there is no known treatment for PCP addiction specifically, residential treatment and proven therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help people better understand their addiction and any co-occurring mental illnesses.

Under the right medical guidance, it is possible to recover from a PCP addiction and learn how to avoid triggers, better care for the body and mind, and build a community of support.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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Article Sources
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