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PCP (Phencyclidine)

Medically reviewed on Apr 24, 2018 by L. Anderson, PharmD

Common or street names: Angel dust, boat, hog, love boat, wack, ozone, PeaCe pill, dust, embalming fluid, rocket fuel. Supergrass, superweed, whacko tobacco, and killer joints refer to PCP combined with marijuana.

What is PCP?

Phencyclidine (PCP) is a mind-altering drug that may lead to hallucinations (a profound distortion in a person’s perception of reality). It is considered a dissociative drug, leading to a distortion of sights, colors, sounds, self, and one's environment. PCP was developed in the 1950s as an intravenous anesthetic, but due to the serious neurotoxic side effects, its development for human medical use was discontinued. Ketamine (Ketalar), an anesthetic used for surgery and painful procedures was developed instead and is structurally similar to PCP.

In its purest form, PCP is a white crystalline powder that readily dissolves in water or alcohol and has a distinctive bitter chemical taste. On the illicit drug market, PCP contains a number of contaminants causing the color to range from a light to darker brown with a powdery to a gummy mass consistency.

What are PCP's effects on the brain?

Pharmacologically, PCP is a noncompetitive NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate) receptor antagonist and glutamate receptor antagonist, but also interacts with other receptor sites, and may have effects with dopamine, opioid and nicotinic receptors.

How is PCP used?

PCP is available in a variety of tablets, capsules, and colored powders, which are either smoked, taken orally or by the intranasal route ("snorted").

Smoking is the most common route when used recreationally. The liquid form of PCP is actually PCP base often dissolved in ether, a highly flammable solvent. For smoking, PCP is typically sprayed onto leafy material such as mint, parsley, oregano, or marijuana. PCP may also be injected. The effects of PCP can last for 4 to 6 hours. 

What are the effects of recreational PCP use?

Many believe PCP to be one of the most dangerous drugs of abuse. A moderate amount of PCP often causes users to feel detached, distant, and estranged from their surroundings.

  • Numbness of the extremities, slurred speech, and loss of coordination may be accompanied by a sense of strength and invulnerability.
  • A blank stare, rapid and involuntary eye movements, and an exaggerated gait are among the more observable effects.
  • Auditory hallucinations, image distortion, severe mood disorders, and amnesia may also occur.
  • Acute anxiety and a feeling of impending doom, paranoia, violent hostility, a psychoses indistinguishable from schizophrenia.

Physiological effects of low to moderate doses of PCP include:

  • slight increase in breathing rate
  • rise in blood pressure and pulse rate
  • shallow respiration
  • flushing and profuse sweating occurs.

Physiological effects of high doses of PCP include:

  • a drop in blood pressure, pulse rate, and respiration.
  • nausea, vomiting
  • blurred vision
  • flicking up and down of the eyes
  • drooling
  • loss of balance and dizziness
  • violence, suicide

High doses of PCP can also cause seizures, coma, and death (often due to accidental injury or suicide during PCP intoxication). Psychological effects at high doses include delusions and hallucinations. Users often refer to the experiences from hallucinogens as a "trip", or calling an unpleasant experience a "bad trip."

As with any recreational drug that may be injected, the risk for HIV, hepatitis, and other infectious diseases from shared needles is a possibility.

Can you get addicted to PCP?

PCP is addictive and its use often leads to psychological dependence, craving, and compulsive PCP-seeking behavior. Long-time users of PCP report symptoms of:

  • memory loss
  • difficulties with speech and learning
  • depression
  • weight loss that can persist up to a year after stopping PCP use.

PCP has sedative effects, and interactions with other central nervous system depressants, such as alcohol and benzodiazepines, can lead to coma or accidental overdose. Many PCP users are brought to emergency rooms because of PCP's unpleasant psychological effects or because of overdoses. In a hospital or detention setting, they often become violent or suicidal, and are very dangerous to themselves and to others. They should be kept in a calm setting and should not be left alone.

How do you treat a PCP addiction?

People who stop ongoing use of PCP experience drug cravings, increased appetite, headaches, sleepiness, depression, and sweating as common withdrawal symptoms. While studies are looking at options for drug treatment of PCP dependence, there are no specific approved treatments for PCP abuse and addiction. Patients may need to be hospitalized and receive behavioral treatments to address abuse issues with PCP.

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Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.

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