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- Phencyclidine (PCP) was originally used as a surgical anesthetic but quickly fell out of favor.
- Today, PCP is mostly smoked by dripping liquid PCP onto marijuana or tobacco cigarettes.
- PCP has a high potential for addiction and abuse.
- PCP produces a wide range of physical and psychological side effects.
- Some people who abuse PCP develop permanent psychological side effects.
- PCP overdose is very dangerous and if you suspect it, call 911.
- PCP detox should happen in a medical facility because it can be very dangerous.
- After initial PCP detox, addiction treatment can continue in an outpatient or residential setting.
PCP addiction is on the rise but is a treatable condition. Understanding the signs of abuse as well as what to do if someone you know is addicted to PCP is key to getting help.
PCP, or phencyclidine, is a drug originally made as anesthesia for surgery. PCP was used in the 1950s until people begin reporting negative side effects days after their last dose. Patients reported hallucinations and depressed mood, causing PCP to fall out of favor.
PCP is a dissociative anesthetic and hallucinogen. It can cause someone to lose consciousness and memory of events. Dissociative agents can also cause people to have altered and distorted perceptions and feelings of detachment from reality.
A hallucinogen causes people to see or hear things that are not there. PCP can trigger the mind to experience a sensation, like hearing someone talk, even if no one is speaking.
How is PCP Used?
People can use PCP in multiple ways. The most common method is smoking PCP, but the list includes:
- Injected (intravenous or IV)
- Orally (by mouth)
The effects of PCP are felt about 2-5 minutes after smoking it. Injecting PCP and snorting PCP work in about the same amount of time.
Taking PCP by mouth will produce effects in 30-60 minutes.
PCP is often dissolved in water or ethanol (alcohol) and stored in a small glass bottle with a dropper. Drops are then applied to a tobacco or marijuana cigarette, which is called a “dripper,” “supergrass” or “fry.”
PCP Addiction Symptoms
Someone addicted to phencyclidine will usually show signs of substance use disorder (SUD).
SUD is a set of criteria that help establish whether an addiction is present. A person with two or more symptoms may have mild SUD. Four or more is moderate SUD and six or more symptoms have severe SUD. The criteria are:
- Giving up or cutting back on important social, professional, or leisure activities because of use
- Intense cravings or urges to use the drug
- Needing to use more to obtain desired effects
- Spending a majority of time using or recovering from the use of PCP
- Unable to stop using PCP despite wanting to
- Uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms start when PCP use stops
- Using in physically hazardous situations
- Using more PCP than planned or for longer than planned
- An inability to meet important social, or professional obligations because of use
- Using PCP even though the person knows it is harming their physical and mental health
- Using PCP even though they know it is causing frequent problems at work, school, or home
Paraphernalia refers to items or tools used to ingest a drug. Smoking is the most common route of ingestion, but the process is different than other drugs of abuse and there is no such thing as a PCP pipe. To smoke PCP, it is first dissolved in water or alcohol (ethanol) to make liquid PCP.
Liquid PCP is yellowish-clear to yellowish-gold and usually stored in small, glass dropper bottles. Therefore, smoking paraphernalia for PCP would be normal tobacco or marijuana cigarettes and a dropper of PCP liquid.
For injection, a person may have a syringe with or without an attached needle, cotton balls for filtration, and a large band or belt to help locate veins.
Snorting PCP requires a plastic or metal straw and a razor blade and mirror may be used to cut and present the powder.
Oral PCP may be placed into a capsule but is more often mixed with other drugs and pressed into a tablet.
Physical symptoms of addiction may include the following:
- Bizarre postures (body positions)
- Decreased sensitivity to pain
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- High temperature or fever
- Muscle contractions
- Stupor (appearing almost asleep)
PCP has an enormous impact on behavior. The most common symptoms are:
- Euphoria, or extreme happiness
- Loss of awareness (anesthesia)
Psychosis describes a set of symptoms that emerge when people lose touch with reality.
People with PCP-induced psychosis may hear voices or see things that are not there. They may experience feelings of paranoia without knowing why. They may also have delusions, which are false beliefs, such as an announcer on a TV directly talking to them.
PCP-induced psychosis usually resolves on its own within a few hours, but it can re-occur days later because of how long PCP stays in the body.
PCP Side Effects
Over 50% of patients that go to a hospital with PCP intoxication present with the following symptoms:
- Fast heart rate (tachycardia)
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Loss of awareness (anesthesia)
- Reduced feelings of pain (analgesia)
- Uncontrolled and repetitive eye movements (nystagmus)
- Violent behavior
These symptoms are the “classic” presentation of someone who is using PCP. It is possible for blood vessels in the brain to burst for some people, which cause can cause permanent cognitive impairment.
PCP intoxication has been known to induce seizures in some people.
A large number of people who use PCP also cause self-harm because of their reduced sensitivity to pain. People on PCP often cannot feel pain and become combative with bizarre movements. This is a recipe for self-injury.
PCP induces schizophrenia in some people, which is a mental health disorder characterized by troubled thoughts. Symptoms of schizophrenia include hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that are not there), delusions (believing things that are not true) and thinking/memory impairment.
See Related: Can alcohol trigger schizophrenia?
Long-term effects of PCP abuse also include rhabdomyolysis or the abnormal breakdown of muscle tissue. When muscle cells break down and die, they spill contents of the cells into the bloodstream. The kidneys have a difficult time processing the extra cell material. Therefore, PCP can cause permanent kidney damage.
Side Effects of Polysubstance Abuse
Polysubstance abuse is common among people using PCP since they often misuse other substances. PCP may also be an ingredient in ecstasy pills as well, and many people are unaware of it.
The side effects of misusing multiple drugs will vary, depending upon the combination that one uses. Regardless, polysubstance abuse can make detox and treatment more complicated and can increase the potential for addiction.
What Causes PCP Addiction?
The causes of addiction are complicated. PCP is usually combined with other drugs, so most people do not develop an addiction to PCP alone. PCP use typically starts with other drugs (i.e., dippers) or someone may try PCP because they let their friend drip it onto a cigarette.
Stressful social situations can trigger drug use and lead to addiction, and mental and behavioral health diagnoses can worsen or trigger it as well. Regardless of how the drug use began, repeated exposure to addictive substances can trigger addiction and dependence in anyone.
PCP Withdrawal Symptoms
The pharmacology of PCP makes it hard to determine if it even causes withdrawal symptoms. In other words, since PCP is present in the body for 15 days, it might produce symptoms of withdrawal but these might also be drug effects. It may be difficult to tell the difference.
After the initial detox, the most prominent withdrawal symptoms are:
PCP Abuse Facts and Statistics
Between the years of 2005 and 2011, the number of PCP-related visits to the emergency room (ER) increased by 400%.
Almost half of the ER visits in 2011 were someone between the ages of 25–34 and about two-thirds were male.
PCP Abuse and Treatment Trends in South Florida
Fortunately, PCP use is not widespread in Florida.
In 2015, two people died due to PCP overdose and, in 2016, that number fell to zero.
If you suspect a PCP overdose, call 911 immediately. PCP can cause many severe and permanent side effects related to the effects it has on the nervous system.
PCP overdose can cause permanent damage to the heart, brain and kidneys.
PCP overdose signs include:
- Agitation (overly excited, violent behavior)
- An altered state of consciousness
- Catatonic trance (the person does not talk, move, or react)
- High blood pressure
- Side-to-side eye movements
- Psychosis (loss of contact with reality)
- Uncontrolled movement
- Lack of coordination
PCP Addiction Treatment Options
There are many different addiction treatment options that can work for individuals throughout various stages of recovery.
- Detox: PCP medical detox usually happens in an inpatient treatment facility, but PCP detox can also happen at a general hospital. There is a potential for a number of medical complications with PCP use that require careful monitoring that is not available in a rehab facility.
- Residential: After initial detox, addiction treatment may continue in a residential treatment facility. Residential treatment is a hybrid between inpatient and outpatient treatment. Patients live in a residential facility but can leave for school and work obligations.
- Outpatient: Patients in outpatient care still live at home but commute to a treatment facility for therapy and classes.
- Dual Diagnosis: People with a dual diagnosis should be treated for both their substance use disorder (SUD) and mental health condition. Addiction specialists trained to treat patients with a dual diagnosis are specially trained to determine whether symptoms stem from the drug or the mental health condition.
Bey, Tareg, and Anar Patel. “Phencyclidine Intoxication and Adverse Effects: A Clinical and Pharmacological Review of an Illicit Drug.” 2007, Accessed July 22, 2019.
DEA Office of Diversion Control. “Phencyclidine.” 2013. Accessed July 22, 2019.
Drug Abuse Warning Network “The DAWN Report Emergency Department Visits Involving Phencyclidine (PCP)”. 2013. Accessed July 22, 2019.
MedlinePlus. “Substance Use – Phencyclidine (PCP): MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” 2018. Accessed July 22, 2019.