Last month, the federal government’s Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) announced that emergency room visits related to PCP use shot up more than 400 percent, from 14,825 to 75,538, between 2005 and 2011, the most recent available data.
Is PCP — most commonly known as angel dust, among other street names — coming back as a scourge on American streets?
Because drugs such as ketamine or synthetic pot are streaming onto the illicit market — many of which can make a user behave as if he or she used PCP, experts say — police, doctors, and even users themselves often don’t know what’s been taken.
First created by the Parke-Davis pharmaceutical company in the 1950s as an anesthetic, and given the trade name Sernyl, PCP was soon found to cause severe psychotic side effects and taken off the human medicines market in the 1960s. By then, however, it had gained a foothold among drug experimenters who called it the “PeaCe Pill.” By the middle 1970s, it was making headlines. Today, scientists use it to mimic schizophrenia in lab animals.
DAWN data relies on reports submitted by emergency departments across the country. But University of California San Diego toxicologist and emergency room physician Dr. Richard Clark, explained that typical ER drug screens check for only a few drugs. Some routine tests include PCP, but many don’t. So doctors often rely on behavioral symptoms to decide somebody has taken PCP.
Also, since there’s no quality control agency for consumers of illegal drugs, abusers often think they’ve used PCP when, in fact, they’ve been sold synthetic cannabis (also known as Spice or K2), or bath salts or any of scores of manufactured chemical compounds created in the U.S., or in Chinese or other foreign labs, that can cause the same kind of behavior as PCP.
“There are a lot of research chemicals around now, lots of white powders, more than there has ever been,” Dr. Julie Holland, a New York City psychiatrist and expert on drugs of abuse, said.
Many of these chemicals, sometimes derived from phencyclidine, the chemical name for PCP, trigger the same brain cell receptors as PCP.
Dr. Christopher Gilbert, a pulmonologist at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania reported this year on two cases of respiratory failure at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. PCP rarely causes such respiratory failure, but both patients said they’d been smoking PCP-laced marijuana.
While use may have declined dramatically since the mid-1990s, popular awareness of PCP got a bump in August when Rolling Stone reported that NFL player Aaron Hernandez was a heavy user of PCP before being charged with murder. And in 2012, Los Angeles police busted the largest PCP lab ever discovered on U.S. soil.
Lt. Scott Fairfield of the Bell Gardens police department, part of the interagency task force that arrested the lab’s operators, said police found 130 gallons of liquid PCP, enough for 10 million doses (users often dip marijuana or tobacco cigarettes into PCP) and enough chemicals to make another 500 gallons. The lab was shipping gallon containers to addresses in Texas, Washington, D.C. and other states.
At the street level, it doesn’t much matter whether PCP alone, or PCP along with many other, newer, compounds are leading to the rise in ER visits found by DAWN. The end result is often the same.
This month, police in Allentown, Pa., found a 36-year-old woman acting bizarrely, making strange gesticulations, near an intersection. Her 6-year-old child stood nearby. She tested positive for PCP.