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Phencyclidine (PCP)

Medically reviewed on Apr 26, 2018 by L. Anderson, PharmD

What is phencyclidine?

Phencyclidine (PCP) was developed in the 1950s as an intravenous (IV) anesthetic; however, due to the side effects of postoperative delirium, confusion, and hallucinations, its development for human medical use was discontinued.

Today, PCP is abused for its mind altering effects, and it is no longer legally manufactured or used for medical purposes in the United States. PCP is considered a “dissociative” illicit drug due to its ability to distort sight, sounds, and lead to a feeling of detachment from one’s self.

How is PCP used?

PCP is available in tablets, capsules, crystals, and colored powders, which are either taken by mouth or insufflated (“snorted”). PCP can also be abused by injecting the drug, although this is uncommon. PCP is typically used in small quantities; 5 to 10 mg is an average dose, although this can be highly variable. The effects of PCP can last for 4 to 8 hours, depending upon route.

PCP is usually abused by inhaling, smoking or swallowing. Smoking is the most common method of abusing PCP.  The liquid form of the drug is phencyclidine base dissolved in a liquid solvent like ether, which is highly flammable. For smoking, PCP may be sprayed onto leafy material such as mint, parsley, oregano, or marijuana, and then rolled into a joint. It can be bought in a crystallized or powdered form, as well, and inhaled up the nose (“snorted”).

What are the streets names for phencyclidine?

Phencyclidine is illicitly sold under a number of street names including:

  • Angel Dust
  • Hog
  • Lovely
  • Wack
  • Embalming Fluid
  • Rocket Fuel

Supergrass, Killer Joints, and Fry Sticks are names used when phencyclidine is combined with marijuana and rolled into a cigarette (joint) for smoking.

PCP is most commonly bought as a powder or liquid.

Chemistry and Pharmacology of PCP

Phencyclidine is known chemically as 1-(1-phencyclohexyl) piperidine. It is considered a hallucinogen and a dissociative drug. Physically, phencyclidine is a white crystal-like powder, dissolves in water or alcohol, and has a bitter medicinal taste. On the street, PCP may contain any number of contaminants, leading to a tan to brown color with a powdery or gummy consistency.

Scientists believe PCP blocks the normal actions of certain brain chemicals, such as dopamine, which may result in the feeling of euphoria. PCP also disrupts glutamate, which modulates pain, memory, and emotions.

The “high” effects of PCP occur quickly when smoked, typically within 2 to 5 minutes, and within one hour after oral use. When smoked, peak effects occur in 15 to 30 minutes, and within 2 to 5 hours with oral use. When injected, effects can occur in 2 to 5 minutes. The effect can last from 4 to 8 hours, depending upon the dose consumed, but may have residual effects up to 24 hours. Larger doses can lead to hallucinations.

Phencyclidine has central nervous system (CNS) sedative properties, and interactions with other CNS depressants, such as alcohol and benzodiazepines, can lead to coma or accidental overdose.

Effects of Phencyclidine Use

Many believe PCP to be one of the most dangerous illicit drugs. PCP use can lead to a mind-altering experience that may include:

  • A feeling of detachment or “floating”
  • Numbness, blank stare
  • Slurred speech
  • Loss of coordination
  • A feeling of “superpower” strength with little fear
  • Rapid walking or excited talking
  • Feeling a “rush” (intense pleasurable experience, that is often short-lived)
  • Hearing or seeing things that are not there (hallucinations)

Mood disorders can occur, too. Anxiety, paranoia, hostility, violence, and a psychotic episode may appear.

Physiological effects of phencyclidine include an increase in breathing rate, elevated blood pressure and a faster pulse (heart) rate. Respiration becomes shallow, with flushing and excessive sweating.

Users of PCP may have issues with memory and cognition, difficulties with speech and learning, depression, and weight loss. These symptoms can continue long-term, often for up to one year after stopping phencyclidine use. Suicide after long-term use may be a greater risk, as well.

PCP can also lead to:

  • Immobility
  • Amnesia
  • Analgesia
  • Accidental injury

Nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, unusual eye movements, drooling, loss of balance, and dizziness can occur. High doses of phencyclidine can also cause:

  • Kidney failure
  • Irregular heart rhythm
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Death

Is phencyclidine (PCP) addictive?

Yes, phencyclidine is addictive. Drug cravings, drug-seeking behavior, and withdrawal symptoms are common complications. There are no specific approved drug treatments for phencyclidine addiction or withdrawal.

In a hospital, emergency room, or detention setting, PCP abusers may become irritated, violent or suicidal. They are not only dangerous to themselves, but to others. They should be kept in a calm setting, and not left alone to protect them from suicidal tendencies or accidental injury.

How is PCP addiction treated?

The first step is to realize you have a problem and to take action to get help. Ask your trusted friends, family, or healthcare provider for help.

Treatment may involve behavioral techniques, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and group therapy (talk therapy). If your symptoms of withdrawal are severe, you may need to stay at a treatment facility where you can be monitored for your safety. Medicines may be used to treat your withdrawal symptoms.

Recovery requires an ongoing effort to remain drug-free. Lean on your friends, family and support groups to help you through this period. Most importantly, focus on:

  • Going to your treatment sessions as scheduled
  • Taking care of your body by eating healthy food and exercising. Avoid other mind-altering drugs, including alcohol.
  • Avoid triggers like places, people, or emotions that can elevate your desire to use PCP again.
  • Replace your PCP use with activities that are positive for your growth and mind: consider meditation, yoga, joining a gym, or being involved in volunteer work.

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