PCP in D.C.

Last night’s episode of Drugs Inc. explored D.C.’s growing PCP market. And while the episode focuses mainly the drug’s rise in the nation’s capitol, the resurgence isn’t limited to the area – indeed, PCP is also on the rise in Philadelphia and some other cities in the Mid-Atlantic region.

But for those who remember PCP as a biker-gang drug demonized during the beginning of the War on Drugs in the 1970s, today’s PCP may look a bit different. Here’s what you need to know:

Today’s PCP is dipped

Developed in the 1950s as an anesthetic, PCP was dismissed by the scientific community after patients experienced the paranoid delusions associated with today’s street drug. But unlike the powdered angel dust of 70s and 80s, today’s PCP is much more popular in its liquid form. “Dippers” or “sherm” are a preferred vessel of consumption: dealers will dip cigarettes or joints filled with tobacco and/or marijuana in liquid PCP, then sell the dried product pre-dipped on the street. Although the technique has been around for some time, the method of consumption has grown in widespread popularity only recently.

Some dealers also will dip the cigarettes/joints in embalming fluid or formaldehyde in addition to, or as a substitute for PCP. The chemicals both result in a similar high to PCP, and also cause cigarettes and joints to burn slower. According to I09, this is a technique that dates back to the 1960s popularized by its affordability. The confusion here is that “embalming fluid” is sometimes slang for liquid PCP – this, of course, can lead to a disorienting, inconsistent high for users who are buying completely different drugs under the same name.

pcp cigaretteThe effects are the same

While the delivery method may be different, the liquid form of PCP still yields similar effects to the drug’s powdered forefather. A hallucinogen which achieves sensory delusions and hallucinations by blocking chemical signals between different parts of the brain, PCP unleashes a wave of incoherent mental reactions which can resemble schizophrenia or psychosis. According to the Center for Substance Abuse Research at the University of Maryland, PCP also disrupts the functioning of receptors which control the perception of pain, learning, memory and emotion.

Like most drugs, PCP’s effects are mostly determined by the size of dose, surrounding environment and personality/mental profile or the user. This is partially the reason why some users experience euphoria and relaxation, while others experience anxiety and agitation. It’s also important to note that while displays of superhuman strength is a common media image perpetuated by anti-drug campaigns and sensational news coverage, UMD reports that PCP itself isn’t necessarily responsible for this behavior. Mental illness and a history of violence is often a greater indicator of erratic physical behavior while on the drug.

Physical effects also vary depending on circumstances. Most users will experience impaired motor skills and diminished vision, but greater doses can result in an abnormal heartbeat, vomiting and intense nausea. There’s also an explanation for images of hysterical users wreaking havoc while not wearing any clothes. Users who report overdosing often mention high temperatures, which users attempt to combat by shedding their clothing.

Extensive PCP use can have long-term, lasting effects. Particularly for young users whose brains may still be developing, frequent consumption can result in impaired memory, speech problems, chronic anxiety and paranoia. Some users have even reported minor hallucinations even when sober.

Society and PCP

No longer the Hells Angels biker, PCP has hit some of the same poor, urban communities devastated by crack cocaine. Since the drug surged back from record low usage in the 90s, The Washington Post’s done extensive reporting on PCP in D.C., covering the coinciding rise in PCP and fall of crack. In 2009, the Post reported that 10 percent of adults submitted to drug tests upon entering the city justice system tested positively for PCP. This was the highest rate in five years. Although small, another stat is telling: in 2008, the number of people with PCP in their system arrested on murder and sexual assault charges jumped to 12 from three the previous year. This worries police, who see these same trends in other types of mostly violent crime.

The trend appears to be regional – The Daily Beast ran a profile of the drug’s return to peak levels, while prosecutors in Prince George’s County, which borders D.C., told the Washington Post that they’ve seen an uptick as well. But the change in demand for the drug isn’t unprecedented – indeed, drug trends are generally cyclical, and fluctuate based on demand and availability. In the 1970s, 13% of high school seniors reported using PCP.