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What Is PCP?

PCP, or phencyclidine, is a dangerous drug that was originally developed as an anesthetic. Its use was discontinued in humans in 1965 because of the troubling side effects. It is now illegal in the United States.

A couple of decades ago, PCP use was common. It's pretty rare these days, but PCP still might be added to other drugs, like marijuana. People who take PCP do so because the drug can cause hallucinations and an "out-of-body" sensation. Larger doses of PCP can be life-threatening and may lead to serious mental health issues.

In its pure form, PCP is a white crystalline powder. It dissolves quickly in liquids but has a distinctive, bitter chemical taste. Most PCP sold in the United States comes as a white or colored powder or liquid and is added to leafy substances (such as oregano, mint, or marijuana) and smoked. PCP also can be sold in pill, tablet, or capsule form to be swallowed. In some cases, PCP users snort the drug or mix it with a liquid and inject it with a syringe.

Short-Term Effects

PCP acts on the neurotransmitters dopamine and glutamate in the brain. It affects the user's memory, ability to process emotion, and learning ability. At lower doses, the effects of PCP can be similar to alcohol intoxication.

PCP can make users feel detached from their bodies and their surroundings. It can also distort a user's perceptions of sight, sound, and reality — the drug is known for giving users a false sense of strength, power, and invincibility.

Higher doses of PCP can cause hallucinations and symptoms similar to the effects of mental illnesses like schizophrenia. These include anxiety, delusions, paranoia, trouble forming coherent thoughts, suicidal thoughts, and bizarre behavior. PCP users can get violent.

Depending on the dose and way the PCP was taken (injected, smoked, or swallowed), the drug's effects can be felt in 2-5 minutes and last anywhere from 6-24 hrs.

In addition to hallucinations and symptoms of mental illness, PCP use can cause a number of physical side effects, including:

  • body numbness
  • dizziness
  • drooling
  • slurred or garbled speech
  • loss of muscle coordination and balance
  • profuse sweating
  • rapid, involuntary eye movements or a blank stare
  • nausea and vomiting

Initially, a small-to-moderate dose of PCP will cause a dramatic increase in blood pressure, body temperature, and heart rate. Larger doses have the reverse effect, causing a user's blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate to decrease. Too large a dose can lead to seizures, coma, and even death.

Long-Term Effects

PCP is addictive. Long-term use can lead to mental and physical cravings for the drug and compulsive behavior to get and take it. Because the drug is so addictive, users keep taking it even when they know from experience the health problems PCP causes.

Long-term abuse of PCP can lead to memory loss, problems forming thoughts, speech problems, depression, anxiety, and unhealthy weight loss. Many users have flashbacks from previous highs. Even after someone quits using PCP, the long-term effects can go on for up to year.

Other Possible Problems

PCP use alone can be enough to kill. But most people who die while under the influence of PCP commit suicide or have a fatal accident. The feelings of invincibility that PCP creates can alter thoughts and judgment so much that people die after doing things like jumping off a bridge because they thought they could fly.

PCP can have sedative effects. If it's mixed with other sedatives, such as alcohol or depressants, it can put a user in a coma and cause serious, life-threatening consequences.

Almost all PCP is created in illegal laboratories, meaning there's no way to know how potent it is or what other chemicals have been mixed with it. This greatly increases the dangers of using PCP.

Some PCP users suffer frequent hallucination flashbacks and other mental disorders over a long period of time. This is a condition known as hallucinogen-induced persisting perceptual disorder(HPPD). HPPD can cause users to have trouble with work or their personal life. Toxic psychosis, another mental problem caused by PCP, makes users hostile, paranoid, and delusional.

PCP is an illegal drug listed as a Schedule II substance in the United States. Possession or use is punishable by fines and jail time.

How Can Someone Quit?

There are no specific treatments available for PCP addiction. Doctors believe the best way to treat a PCP problem is through behavioral therapies and inpatient treatment in a rehab facility.

Avoiding PCP

PCP is hard to find these days. When it first emerged as a street drug in the 1960s, it was more readily available, but most people stopped doing it because they were scared of the negative effects.

There's still a risk that PCP can show up in other drugs, though. This is one reason to turn down drugs at parties or clubs: You just don't know what's in them.

Reviewed by: Julia Brown Lancaster, MSN, WHNP-BC
Date reviewed: February 2014