The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Substances
by Richard Rudgley
Little, Brown and Company (1998)

Phencyclidine (commonly known as PCP) was first synthesised in 1926. In the mid-1950s the pharmaceutical organisation Parke, Davis and Company began to investigate its potential as a human anaesthetic. The drug, in expectation, was given the trade name Sernyl (the name is said to be derived from serenity), but this was an epithet that was to become wildly inappropriate. Initial researches with the drug's effects on animals demonstrated its action on the CNS (central nervous system). In low to moderate doses it acted as a stimulant whilst higher doses had a depressant effect. The company ran into problems in 1957 when it was tested for the first time on human subjects. Worrying side effects such as hallucinations, mania, delirium and disorientation made them realise that it was inappropriate for use as a human anaesthetic and they finally abandoned their goal in 1965. As an anaesthetic agent phencyclidine was then relegated to the realm of veterinary medicine. Its psychoactive effects were investigated for their use in treating psychiatric disorders and, in the process, its properties became clearer. The human guinea-pigs consistently reported radical transformations in the perception of their own bodies. The tests revealed that the subjects experienced altered consciousness of the boundaries of the body and the dissociation of body parts, both sensations reported in cases of sensory deprivation. PCP was shown to interfere with the normal discrimination of internal stimuli in the body.

        Only two years after PCP was dropped by Parke, David and Company it began its career as a street drug in the 1967 'Summer of Love' under a variety of local names, and was often sold under the pretence that it was cocaine, LSD or THC (THC is the psychoactive principle of cannabis). By 1968 it was available in the form of pills in a number of major American cities, including New York (as 'hog'), Philadelphia (as 't-tabs'), Chicago (as 'THC') and Miami (initially as 'PeaCe pills' and later as 'THC tabs'). Use of the drug seems to have spread significantly in the years 1973 to 1975, partly because of its availability in forms suitable for smoking and snorting; both methods allowing users to control the dose more efficiently than the pills had permitted. PCP can also be taken intravenously, vaginally and rectally. In the mid-1970s PCP was still something of an unknown quantity in the drug scene and, as such, a negative mystique grew up around it, giving its users a reputation for daring.

        By the mid to late seventies PCP use was sufficiently common for it to attract the interest of the media and government agencies. When a relatively unknown drug suddenly gains prominence the initial reactions to it are often highly distorted and even hysterical. The PCP case is no exception. Through media hype and a lurid concentration on exceptional reports of its use by aberrant individuals PCP became inextricably linked with extreme violence. The myth was thus born that simply by taking PCP an individual would become prone to commit all kinds of monstrous attacks. In 1978 at special hearings organised by the Select Committee on Narcotic Abuse and Control of the US House of Representatives one senator called PCP: 'one of the most dangerous and insidious drugs known to mankind.' Whatever the dangers of the drug, violent behaviour does not appear to be among them. Ethnographic and sociological studies of PCP users do not support such a view. Most of the users interviewed expressed surprise that PCP was associated with violence at all.

        The use of PCP is particularly common among young adolescents, many of whom leave it behind them by the age of seventeen or eighteen. A user from Miami makes an analogy between the recreational use of the drug and watching television (which Terence McKenna has, not without some justification, described as one of the most dangerous drugs known to man!): 'It's as though life is like television and you're going through it on one channel and you suddenly discover that you can change the channels. Kind of like watching the 11.00 o'clock news and switching back and forth.' Based on information obtained in numerous interviews with 'dusters' (regular PCP users; the name comes from the street name 'angel dust'), researchers have produced a four-fold classification of dose levels and stages of the altered states of consciousness induced by the drug. When a user is 'buzzed' they have taken a stimulant dose which does not interfere with everyday tasks or the ability to work whilst under its influence. Being 'wasted' means that body co-ordination is affected, out-of-body experiences are frequent, as is the sensation of walking on a spongy surface. When a user has taken a higher dose and is incoherent and basically immobile but still conscious they are said to be 'ozoned'. An overdose is the final stage and involves loss of consciousness, according to most users not considered to be life-threatening. Taking Valium is a commonly used way of counteracting the effects of PCP. Like amphetamines regular overindulgence with PCP can have debilitating effects, such as loss of appetite, weight loss and constipation. It can also be dangerous if taken during pregnancy; studies show that such use may result in premature birth to under-weight and under-size babies. PCP does not appear to result in permanent damage to the cells or internal organs of the user's body.

        There are numerous varieties of PCP, ranging from purer crystalline forms (white in appearance and known simply as 'crystal') to adulterated low-quality products (such as 'rocket fuel': moist, yellowish and said to increase the likelihood of a bad trip). From Chicago it is reported that a green form of PCP was sold especially for St Patrick's Day! PCP is also smoked in marijuana joints (known as Krystal Joints or simply KJs). In addition to all these kinds of PCP there are some thirty PCP analogues on the street.

NMDA antagonists
Drug-induced mania
Phencyclidine (PCP, Sernyl) : structure

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