WRDATF Blog

P is for PCP

Neil Wilson
Neil Wilson

P is for PCP

All drugs collect slang terms around them, especially when the scientific name is somewhat tricky to pronounce or remember.

Its not surprising then that Phencyclidine or phenylcyclohexyl piperidine was nearly always shortened to ‘PCP’ or its most common slang term ‘Angel dust’. It’s a drug that’s been little heard of recently with many people perhaps thinking of a car-finance loan when they hear the acronym rather than a drug that was labelled the “number one” drug problem in the United states by People magazine in 1978. It’s portrayal in the media however still provides us with useful perspectives.

PCP first appeared on the American pharmaceutical market in the 1950’s as an anesthetic pharmaceutical, although medical sales finished in 1965. When produced illegally or taken in large enough quantities, its hallucinogenic and dissociative properties became more apparent. Users reported that in the short-term it fundamentally changed how they saw reality. Perceptions of time and space seemed to warp shapes and sounds appeared to be wildly distorted. A sense of ‘distance’ from their environment was also reported along with a strong feeling of euphoria. It was however the user’s change in mood that was seen as the primary effect. Many found the experience uplifting, but it took others to dark aggressive places in their own minds.

In higher doses a range of effects have been noted. These include a drop in blood pressure, pulse rate, and respiration. In addition nausea, vomiting, blurred vison and a loss balance are common.

Illegal use peaked during the 1970’s but it’s use dropped dramatically from the 1980’s onward. PCP was generally replaced by the use of Ketamine which was beginning to have widespread availability and possessed similar dissociative effects.

The use of PCP in United States has remained static for many years now with around 3% of adults having tried the drug at least once in their lifetime. Whilst the figures for PCP use are not reported in the main Irish prevalence surveys, the figure of 3% lifetime use is accurate for LSD, another hallucinogenic drug.

PCP is usually snorted from its salt form, where it appears as a white-tan crystal or powder. When PCP base is dissolved (usually in ether) it can be sprayed onto various plants such as tobacco, cannabis or even parsley, mint and oregano before being smoked.

Quite why it gained the slang term ‘angel dust’ is something of a mystery. Clearly some users have compared it’s use to a spiritual experience which other claim it has taken them to a seemingly different realm. Mentions of ‘angel cake’ referring to a light cake mix with a strong sugar kick beloved of those who enjoy afternoon tea have been around since Victorian times and may be part of it’s entomological background. Some argue that whilst ‘Angel dust’ may try to describe the experience of using PCP, it is actually an ironic name as it’s use can lead to a ‘bad trip’.

PCP is also referred to as ‘embalming fluid’, most likely because of the somatic or numbing effects of the drug. This has led to the widespread urban myth that PCP is primarily made up of embalming fluid. Some dealers and users picked up on this mis-understanding and have actually used embalming fluid either alongside PCP itself or even as a straightforward replacement.

Whatever it gets called, the hysteria that the American press unleashed over a few isolated examples of highly aggressive behavior linked to PCP is where we will now focus.

When Rodney G. King stepped out of his car after a high-speed chase in March 1991, they immediately concluded--although they were wrong--that King was high on PCP. The officers yelled out, “He’s dusted,” according to Officer Timothy Wind, one of four officers indicted in the case. Sergeant Stacey Koon said his mind raced with stories he had heard about the superhuman strength of PCP suspects, when he first observed King. He told investigators that he feared King could, in a moment, turn into the “Hulk,” grabbing police weapons and putting officers in a “death grip.” Later it was concluded that King was over the drink-driving limit, but no illegal drugs were involved. The four police officers inflicted a severe beating on King which was filmed by an uninvolved bystander from his balcony. After the tape was released to a local TV station the public outcry was immense. Despite three of the police officers standing trial they were acquitted in the following year. Los Angeles saw six nights of rioting and the deaths of 63 people as a result.

Whilst we cannot know how things would have worked out if drug use hadn’t been suspected, it seems clear that the association of particular drugs with particular immigrant communities is a deep-rooted problem in American society. This is especially true when myth and mis-reporting amplifies the mistrust and fear, leading to calls for heavily repressive measures. Many see such measures as having strongly racist undertones.

This reputation of PCP as an ‘aggressive’ drug is considered by some commentators to be due to a combination of media hype and a few very high-profile cases more than anything else. One such case is that of ‘Big Lurch’. Big Lurch (real name Antron Singleton) who is currently serving a life sentence in a Californian jail for the murder of his former 21 year-old roommate Tynisha Ysais in 2002. The especially grizzly murder was lapped up by the press who reported at length on the details such as the teeth marks found on the face and lungs which had been torn from her chest. Big Lurch was picked by the police in a nearby road, he was naked, covered in blood and staring wildly at the sky. His lawyer’s defence of ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ due to his use of PCP was not accepted by the court. At a later date Tynisha’s mother launched a separate lawsuit against ‘Black Market Records’ claiming that Big Lurch’s record company had plied him with drugs" to encourage [him] to act out in an extreme violent manner so as to make him more marketable as a 'gangsta rap' artist”.

It's not surprising that the media latch onto any drug-related story as it helps them to shift units. The reporting of PCP has been echoed over the years with Mephedrone, Spice and MPDV to name just a few. Whether the media amplify the more salacious details or just straight-forwardly fictionalise accounts is sometimes difficult to work out. For example in 2009 the Sun newsapaper in the UK ran with the headline “Legal Drug Teen Ripped his Scrotum Off”. They quoted a report from Durham Police report that stated: “A large number of contributors state how addictive mephedrone is and they are constantly topping up as one individual states that after using it for 18 hours his hallucinations led him to believe that centipedes were crawling over him and biting him. This led him to receive hospital treatment after he ripped his scrotum off.”

One online comment got to the heart of the matter by adding the comment: “This is awful and so obviously true because the cops based their facts on online forums. There’s no surer way of establishing facts, ask any police officer. Anyway, when I took mephedrone my entire right leg turned inside-out for six hours. It only went back because I poured milk over it, continuously, through a funnel.”.

Whist we might laugh at the absurdity of it all a serious issue underlies the media portrayal of any drug. The way stories concerning drugs are handled inform the way that the public thinks about policy; and the way the public thinks has a strong influence on what that policy will be.


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