PCP is short for phencyclidine, an analgesic that affects the endorphin and enkephalin opioid receptors. It comes in the form of white powder or a liquid sold on the street. It may be ingested by dipping a cigarette or marijuana joint in the liquid before smoking it, sprinkling the powder over marijuana before smoking it, or simply snorting the powder. The liquid can also be injected.
- Classified as a Schedule II drug by the U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration, PCP has medicinal use, but it also has a high risk of abuse and addiction.
- PCP is most commonly called angel dust, but it is also known as wack, crystal T, trank, embalming fluid, OPP, and rocket fuel, among other names.
- Recreational use of PCP first started in the 1960s.
- Use of the drug causes a feeling of dissociation from oneself and one’s surroundings.
There is no safe version of PCP and no safe dose. Any amount and any level of use is extremely dangerous.
Is PCP Addictive?
Yes. Regular use of PCP can cause psychological dependence, a problem that manifests in the form of cravings for more of the drug, compulsive use of PCP, and feelings of agitation when without the drug. Regular use can also cause physical dependence or a tolerance to the substance, meaning that regular users will need larger and larger doses so they can experience a high.
When physical dependence occurs with psychological dependence or psychological dependence occurs alone, an addiction disorder is diagnosed. Once an addiction is evident, treatment that includes medical care, if needed, and comprehensive therapeutic intervention is necessary.
What are the Short-Term Effects?
Intoxication linked to PCP use is easy to spot. The short-term effects of use can include physical signs and personality changes that often are seen in people who are under the influence. These include:
- Bloodshot eyes
- Shallow breathing
- Rapid resting heart rate
- Numbness in the feet, legs, arms, and hands
- Muscle rigidity
- Slurred speech
- Lack of balance
Though it may be easy to identify someone who is intoxicated, it may be less clear that the cause is PCP use. However, the incidence of numbness and muscle rigidity can be a physical red flag for PCP use.
There also are many psychological effects of PCP use that can help the objective viewer to determine the drug that caused the problem. Among them are:
- Unpredictable behavior
- An inability to carry on a coherent conversation
- Disordered thinking
- Hallucinations (aural and/or visual)
- Expressing feelings of invulnerability or super strength
- Anxiety or paranoia
- Violent behavior
What are the Risks of Short-Term Use?
Even occasional or one-time use of PCP can be fatal or trigger choices that can have devastating lifelong consequences. While under the influence of PCP and experiencing hallucinations and delusions, accidents are likely. People may hurt themselves without realizing it, feeling invincible and taking chances that they otherwise would not. Deaths due to jumping off a high building, drowning, car accident, self-mutilation, or suicide while under the influence of PCP are not uncommon.
Additionally, with an elevated heart rate, people who are under the influence of PCP may experience a cardiac event, ending up in a coma or dying as a result. If one’s heartbeat is erratic, clotting can be an issue, causing a stroke that can be fatal as well.
It is not just the potency of phencyclidine that is problematic. The drug is no longer manufactured legally, so the version found on the street will always be an illicit concoction created by black market drug dealers. With no oversight in production, there is no way to know the chemical makeup of the drug or its effect. PCP can be cut with anything under the sun, stored in a potentially unsafe manner, smuggled by any means necessary across borders, and exposed to bacteria and viruses that can be just as deadly as the chemicals used to cut the PCP and the PCP itself.
What are the Effects of Ongoing PCP Abuse?
Over time, the effects of consistent PCP abuse can add up. The acute effects, such as psychosis and paranoia, aggression and agitation, and unpredictable behavior, can continue to be a problem.
Many studies have found that cognitive difficulties can be ongoing even after use of the drug stops. For example, one study performed on monkeys found that long-term use of PCP contributed to an ongoing struggle with associative motor learning. They also found that for about 12 months after the last PCP administration, the monkeys continued to exhibit decreased learning ability.
Another study found that locomotion and social interactions in mice continued to be impeded by PCP use that was consistent after regular injections were stopped.
What are the Signs of PCP Abuse and Addiction?
The signs of PCP use or abuse are all the short-term psychological and physical effects that are caused by use of the drug. It is not difficult to identify someone who is under the influence of a hallucinatory drug like PCP. Technically, any PCP use is termed abuse because it is not legal for recreational use and is not legally manufactured to treat humans. No one gets a prescription for phencyclidine.
However, when PCP use becomes a regular habit, concerned loved ones will notice changes that may include:
- Loss of interest in old hobbies, friends, and interests
- Lack of money
- Lack of organization
- Staying out later and/or isolating oneself from loved ones
- More aggressive, confused, or disconnected interactions
When PCP abuse turns into an addiction, all of the above continues to be a factor, and any combination of the following can become an issue as well:
- Lying about drug use or whether they are high
- Making commitments and not following through
- Driving while under the influence
- Stealing money or items of value
- Disappearing without contact for days at a time
- Run-ins with law enforcement
- Acute health issues related to drug use
- An inability to stop using PCP even with a genuine desire to quit or repeated promises to cut down on use
When the signs of PCP abuse and addiction cannot be ignored, it is time to seek treatment services that can help.
Is PCP Addiction Treatable?
Absolutely. Addiction is a disorder that does have physical components but is also defined by extreme psychological issues. For someone who is primarily using PCP because of a substance use disorder, it is important to connect with treatment that offers:
- Medical and psychological stabilization
- As much onsite supervision as needed to ensure psychological stability, physical safety, and zero access to PCP or any illicit substances
- Evaluation and testing to determine what mental health issues are based on PCP abuse and which are diagnosable mental health disorders in their own right
- A unique treatment plan based on initial assessments and primary treatment goals
- Access to a therapeutic intervention that may include traditional talk therapies, experiential therapies, and/or holistic treatment options
- Ongoing peer and therapeutic assistance after treatment that supports ongoing mental health care and sober living
Is Your Loved One Living Ready for Help?
According to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 32,000 people older than the age of 12 reported first-time PCP use in the year before the study. Overall, about 1.1 million said they had used hallucinogens of any kind, including PCP, and millions have tried the drug in their lifetime.
The problem of PCP use disorders is far from uncommon. As long as people are manufacturing and distributing PCP, families will continue to wrestle with the problem.
Is your loved one using PCP? The good news is that family members are very often the reason why someone living with an active addiction opts to enroll in a treatment program. Even if they are not interested in treatment, if you can assist them in the process of connecting with rehabilitation, they will benefit.
In all cases, the earlier the intervention begins, the better able the individual will be to get what they need from a treatment program and learn how to live without drug use of any kind.
Experimental use is the first stage of use, and if this stops with no further issues, treatment is not needed. However, at any of the stages of use, it is necessary to present the need for treatment and encourage your loved one to get help.
PCP use that occurs more than just once in a while or on the occasional weekend is considered regular use. At this point, family members are encouraged to be alert and actively work to help their loved one identify the need to stop.
When your loved one puts PCP use above doing well at work, taking care of family members, or otherwise caring for their life, they are at risk of overdose, death due to an accident, and the development of an addiction. A formal intervention that demands entry into treatment and a cessation of all use of the drug, with the promise of extreme changes if they don’t get help, can be effective at this point.
When the person cannot stop their PCP use and opts against getting treatment, it is time to make sure the promised changes happen. If you stated that you would no longer pay your loved one’s rent, allow them to live with you, or otherwise support them as they self-destruct, make sure you follow through. If you have not staged an intervention, including a handful of other concerned family members that ends with assistance directly into a treatment program, now is the time.
Whether your loved one is in denial that they need treatment at all, aware of their need for treatment but cannot transition into a rehab program, or continually leaving their drug rehab program, your consistent support of their sobriety is the best way to help them find a new life in recovery.