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PCP Addiction Explained

PCP may be most familiar to some people from certain action and thriller films of the 1980s. There, various characters, supposedly under the influence of the drug, engaged in almost superhuman feats of violence and aggression. Unfortunately, PCP is not just a fictional item, but something very real. Its abuse and addiction continue to wreak havoc today.

What Is Phencyclidine (PCP) or Angel Dust?

Phencyclidine (commonly known by its acronym PCP, or by the street name “angel dust”) is a dissociative anaesthetic in the arylcyclohexylamine class, commonly used recreationally for its potent mind-altering effects. It’s infamous for its association with the violent and psychotic behaviour it can provoke in users. Whilst PCP has never been as popular in the UK as it has in certain other markets (especially the USA), British authorities took note of its problematic nature and outlawed it in 1979 as a class-A controlled substanceunder the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Penalties for possession of PCP are up to seven years imprisonment and an unlimited fine, and up to life imprisonment and an unlimited fine for supplying the drug.

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PCP Trade Names

Before PCP was banned as both a human and veterinary medicine, it was sold under several brand names including Sernyl and Sernylan.

Synonyms and Street Names for PCP

Phencyclidine is known by the chemical synonym phenylcyclohexyl piperidine. On the black market, PCP is supplied under a wide range of street names, including:

  • angel dust
  • animal tranquilizer
  • elephant tranquilizer
  • embalming fluid
  • hog
  • ozone
  • wack
  • killer joints
  • peace pill
  • rocket fuel
  • supergrass

Routes of PCP Administration

PCP is no longer administered in medical settings, but was previously available in clinical environment in tablet form or as an intravenous injection. Today, on the street, PCP can be found in a variety of forms, variously intended for smoking, intravenous injection, insufflation (snorting) and oral consumption.

Analysing PCP Chemistry

PCP is an arylcyclohexylamine, a class of pharmaceutical, designer and experimental substances each composed of a cyclohexylamine unit with an additional aryl moiety attachment. PCP is one of several arylcyclohexylamines known to have mind-altering and/or anaesthetic and sedative properties. In terms of pharmacology, arylcyclohexylamines are typically either NMDA receptor antagonists, dopamine reuptake inhibitors or mu-opioid receptor agonists. PCP specifically is both an NMDA receptor antagonist and a dopamine reuptake inhibitor; it inhibits nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs).

Chemical formula

PCP has the chemical formula C17H25N.

Historical Perspective

Originally marketed in the 1950s as an anaesthetic medication, PCP’s strong hallucinogenic properties and the propensity of users to exhibit violent behaviour meant that by the middle of the following decade governments worldwide were beginning to outlaw its use on humans. Even veterinary use began to be restricted shortly afterwards, as efforts to remove the drug from the streets altogether were stepped up.

However, by this point PCP (and numerous analogues and derivatives, some with even greater potency) had become established and recognised on the recreational drug scene. This happens despite the clear associated dangers. In the US, PCP was described by People magazine and the influential current affairs programme 60 Minutes as being “America’s number one drug problem”. In 1979, 13% of high school students admitted to having tried PCP at least once (falling to under 3% by 1990).

The United Kingdom was largely spared the worst impact on the spread of PCP. However, a few isolated incidents involving the drug in Britain, and a clear view of the problems it had caused across the Atlantic, led it to be outlawed in 1979 as a class-A controlled substance. Though the use of the drug in the UK remains comparatively minimal, it remains a danger – especially thanks to the new routes of procurement opened up in recent years by the dark web.

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What Does PCP Look Likeand the Different Forms of PCP

PCP can take various forms, supplied on the street as either an oil or liquid (usually yellow), a tablet, or as a powder or crystals (both ranging from white to light brown, depending on purity). PCP may be supplied on the street in either liquid, crystal, tablet or powder form, or soaked into various different types of plant matter for smoking.

Because of its illegal nature and the lack of regulation, substances sold as PCP may in fact be analogues or derivatives of the drug with slightly different properties – while other substances may be spiked or cut with PCP unbeknownst to the user. The substance can also be soaked into many other substances, including tobacco, cannabis or other chopped plant matter for smoking: it may be impossible to recognise PCP in something you are taking.

What Happens in the Brain when Someone Takes PCP?

Regardless of the form in which someone takes PCP, the effects on the brain are the same. However, different forms of the drug will take different lengths of time to take effect. PCP suppresses the activity of NMDA receptors in the brain. Normally, NMDA acts as an excitatory receptor, causing nerve cell depolarisation. This means that a change of electrical charge within cells happens, altering their receptivity to information and molecular transfer.However, PCP temporarily prevents depolarisation, which causes analgesia and anaesthesia.

PCP is also thought to inhibit the reuptake of dopamine, meaning that dopamine persists for longer and in higher levels than normally, creating feelings of pleasure and well-being.

Studies in rats show that PCP can cause a kind of brain damage known as Olney’s lesions, and schizophrenia-like changes. It is not yet known whether or not this effect is reproduced in humans. Research is ongoing.

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Is It Dangerous to Take PCP?

PCP consumption is associated with various dangers, some very serious. It can lead to overdose, which can cause permanent neurological damage or even be fatal.

Taking PCP can also cause extreme psychological effects which can be dangerous. Hallucinations, delirium, paranoia and depersonalisation can cause PCP users to behave in a dangerously erratic and uncontrolled manner, including acting violently. Serious injury to oneself and to other people may result. PCP has been linked with numerous murders and suicides, as well as many particularly gruesome episodes of self-harm.

Taking PCP regularly over a period of time can lead to addiction and dependence, with a host of potentially catastrophic consequences.

Risk Factors for PCP Addiction

Research into the phenomenon of addiction has been carried out in one way or another for centuries, and it is now a comparatively well understood condition. However, science does not yet have a complete understanding of why one person may develop an addiction while another in very similar circumstances may not.

Nevertheless, various factors have been identified which, if present, are known to increase the risk of developing an addiction.

Genetic

Genes are known to play a huge role in the development of addiction; indeed, having a family history of addiction is one of the most significant risk factors for PCP addiction. Similarly, family history of mental health problems play a role in the development of various addictions, including one to PCP. Research suggests that the gene transcription factor DeltaFosB is a critical component of addiction, though how heredity affects DeltaFosB activity is currently less clearly understood.

Environmental

An array of environmental risk factors are associated with PCP addiction including: exposure to childhood abuse,trauma, stress and challenging life circumstances, associating with a peer group in which PCP consumption is widespread, easy access to PCP, and coming from a low socio-economic background.

Addictive personality

The idea of an “addictive personality” is a controversial topic, as many doctors feel that the term is inaccurate in describing the psychological foundations of addiction. Nevertheless, some personality traits which are known to be risk factors for addiction include: acting impulsively, a lack of coping skills, nonconformity, sensation- and thrill-seeking and a sense of alienation.

Brain chemistry

Addiction isa disorder of the brain. An imbalance in brain chemistry in any of a large number of ways can increase the likelihood that addiction will manifest. In particular, disorders such as depression and anxiety which can result from atypical neurochemical functioning are known frequently to drive substance abuse which may result in addiction.

Common Accompanying Disorders with PCP Addiction/Dual and Poly Diagnosis

When addiction occurs alongside another mental health disorder, the condition is known as dual diagnosis. Meanwhile, addictions to multiple substances at the same time in the same individual are described as poly-diagnosis or polydrug use disorder.

Dual diagnosis is relatively common amongst addicts, as mental health issues can both drive and result from substance abuse and addiction: individuals suffering from mental health disorders may turn to substance abuse for escapism or self-medication, while substance abuse itself, and the consequences of addiction, can in turn cause various mental health problems.

Polydrug use disorder is quite common, as people who abuse one substance are much more likely than the average to abuse another and may become addicted to multiple substances at once.

Alcohol use disorder

Alcohol use disorder is the medical term for alcohol addiction and abuse, more commonly described as alcoholism. This is a very serious condition claiming countless lives each year worldwide. Treating alcoholism alongside PCP addiction can be very complex, as medications typically prescribed for either condition may interact dangerously with each other, and withdrawal from either substance can be dangerous and exacerbate problems caused by the other addiction.

Schizophrenia

The symptoms of schizophrenia – including a disconnection from reality, erratic behaviour and hallucinations – can resemble some of those of PCP use, making diagnosis of either condition significantly more difficult. Schizophrenia can be significantly worsened by the consumption of PCP, increasing the risk of harm to the affected individual and others. Schizophrenics are much more likely than the average to engage in substance abuse.

Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder – previously more commonly known as manic depression – sees individuals oscillate between periods of depression and periods of mania. PCP usage can greatly exacerbate both states, possibly leading to extremely erratic and dangerous behaviour, and significantly increasing the risk of self-harm and suicide during depressive phases.

Substance abuse

People who take PCP are likely to go on to develop substance use disorders. Individuals who consume PCP regularly may use other substances of abuse to alleviate some of its more problematic side-effects – or to enhance its desired effects. PCP intoxication may be intensified by other substances, raising the risk of accident, while some other drugs may interact dangerously with PCP.

PCP Abuse & Addiction Signs and Symptoms

It can be difficult to identify the presence of an addiction even in someone you know very well, because addicts often make great efforts to conceal their condition as a result of the stigma associated with substance abuse and addiction. Although PCP intoxication typically causes markedly abnormal behaviour, and therefore may be readily identifiable as a mark of substance abuse, if not of PCP abuse specifically. Addicts may only engage in PCP consumption when alone or with others also taking PCP. Even if you don’t observe them intoxicated does not mean that they are not abusing the drug at other times.

On the other hand, many of the symptoms of substance abuse and addiction may also have other causes, and it is important not to jump to conclusions if you see one or more of the symptoms in someone close to you.

Behavioural symptoms

Some of the behavioural signs of PCP abuse and addiction include:

  • frequent consumption of PCP and signs of intoxication
  • preoccupation with obtaining and consuming PCP
  • using PCP in greater doses or more often than was previously the case
  • failed attempts to stop taking PCP
  • a loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • losing important relationships
  • neglect of important responsibilities including family and work
  • continuing to take PCP despite being aware that problems are resulting
  • social withdrawal and isolation
  • aggression
  • altered sexual preferences and sex drive
  • erratic and/or potentially dangerous behaviour

Psychological symptoms

PCP abuse and addiction may cause various psychological symptoms to manifest including:

  • hallucinations
  • delusions, possibly causing a complete break from reality
  • attention deficit
  • impaired decision-making
  • paranoia
  • apathy
  • amnesia
  • psychological cravings
  • psychosis
  • frequent euphoria
  • sedation
  • decreased levels of consciousness
  • mood swings
  • feelings of extreme anger
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • suicidal ideation

How to Know if Someone Is Overdosing on PCP

Some of the most prominent symptoms of PCP overdose include:

  • psychosis
  • jittery eyes
  • hypertension
  • uncontrolled movement and muscle spasms
  • catatonia
  • agitation
  • convulsions
  • hallucinations
  • unconsciousness
  • coma
  • death

Physical symptoms

Some physical signs of PCP abuse and addiction include:

  • the development of tolerance
  • physical cravings
  • hypertension
  • slurred and/or incoherent speech, stuttering and/or stammering
  • loss of sensation
  • frequent coughing and secretion from lungs
  • muscle spasms
  • blank distant stare
  • tachycardia

If you observe any of the above symptoms in someone you know to have consumed PCP, it is vital that you contact the emergency services immediately.

How PCP Affects Brain Chemistry Long-Term

Long-term PCP consumption can cause neurological change with serious ramifications for the user, even long after they have stopped taking PCP. Problems with memory, judgement, concentration and perception may all develop; they may be permanent. Some users have reported flashbacks – feeling the effects of PCP, including visual and auditory hallucinations, without having taken the drug.

Long-term depression and anxiety disorders can also manifest, as can speech impediments and tics. It is also thought that, as well as being a risk whilst the drug is being consumed, psychosis may develop in individuals who were formerly PCP users but have not taken the drug for a period of time.

Why is PCP addictive?

Though the effects of PCP may sound terrifying to many people, some users take great pleasure from many of its effects. Theoretically, any enjoyable activity can be habit-forming, as the brain’s reward centres adjust to the experience in question and begin to drive the repeated engagement in it by the production of chemicals such as dopamine. In the case of PCP, it is thought that consuming the drug inhibits the reuptake of dopamine, thus leading to higher levels of the substance acting upon the brain when it is consumed. Consequently,

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this creates the desire to repeat PCP consumption to renew the feelings of pleasure and well-being resulting from the action of dopamine.PCP abuse can also lead to the development of dependence, which occurs when the system of someone taking PCP over time adjusts to the presence of the drug and becomes reliant upon it to function normally. When a dependent individual stops taking PCP, abnormal functioning of the brain and body may result, causing various withdrawal symptoms to manifest. Withdrawal can be extremely unpleasant, and in order to stave off those symptoms, dependent individuals may resort to taking more PCP even though they may not wish to.

How PCP May Affect Relationships

Any substance abuse may have a detrimental effect upon important relationships, especially if it spirals into addiction. Someone engaging in substance abuse may neglect their relationships, becoming alienated from even close friends and family as they spend more and more time consuming drugs and being intoxicated. Likewise, those close to them may wish to distance themselves from behaviour which they find unpleasant or concerning. The impact of addiction upon an individual’s life circumstances can be extremely deleterious, limiting their ability to engage with others and leading to isolation and withdrawal.

Addiction can also be financially catastrophic, which can lead to the breakup of relationships including marriages, as the affected partner is unable to sustain financial responsibilities and may have a direct detrimental financial impact on the other person.

In the case of PCP specifically, the erratic and potentially violent behaviour which the drug can cause can be worrying and terrifying. It can be extremely unpleasant – not to mention dangerous – to be around someone who has taken PCP, even if they are a partner, other loved one or close friend. PCP usage can also lead to behavioural and psychological changes which may lead a partner to conclude that the person taking PCP is no longer the person with whom they originally fell in love. It can also impact sexuality in a manner incompatible with the sexual norms and parameters of an established relationship.

PCP Withdrawal Symptoms

PCP withdrawal occurs when someone suffering from PCP dependence stops taking the drug, and their body and brain go through a period of abnormal functioning while their system readjusts to the absence of PCP and re-normalises (returns to homeostasis). PCP withdrawal can be extremely unpleasant, as well as dangerous. It is vital that, if you have a PCP dependence, you do not attempt to go through detoxification and withdrawal without medical assistance.
Some of the more prominent symptoms of PCP withdrawal include:

  • hallucinations
  • agitation
  • depression
  • amnesia
  • anxiety
  • insomnia
  • muscle spasms
  • restlessness
  • acidosis
  • weight loss
  • impaired speech
  • confusion
  • loss of impulse control
  • behavioural irregularities
  • seizures
  • increased body temperature
  • muscle breakdown
  • impaired reflexes
  • suicidal ideation
  • coma
  • death

PCP Treatment and Therapy Options

Although PCP usage is comparatively rare in the UK, there are various facilities around the country, both public and private, which are able to provide treatment for PCP addiction and dependence. Like all addiction treatment, treating PCP addiction is typically divided into two phases: detoxification and withdrawal, followed by therapy.

Detoxification (detox) is a vital first step, as no addiction treatment is likely to be effective if the addict is still consuming PCP and/or other substances of abuse. Detox involves cleansing the addict’s system of all substances of abuse over a period of abstinence. Typically, the withdrawal syndrome will develop during detox. Because of the associated dangers it is vital that anyone suffering from PCP dependence should get medical assistance during withdrawal. PCP withdrawal symptoms may be alleviated to a certain degree by medication.

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Therapy forms the centre of addiction treatment. While detox can address the immediate problems associated with dependence, only therapy can get to the bottom of the psychological causes of the addiction. The various therapies included in the rehabilitation process allowthe addict to understand and to address the problematic behaviours which have caused their addiction. Therapy in addiction treatment comes in a broad range of models and methodologies, and in settings including one-to-one and group environments.

Residential rehabilitation (rehab) facilities may provide treatment for PCP addiction on either an inpatient or an outpatient basis. Inpatient stays are typically for between one and three months,with both detox and therapy being provided in confidential, secure and relaxing environments where addicts can focus wholly on their recovery. Quality rehab treatment programmes will also include bespoke fitness and dietary plans, along with other elements varying from one rehab to the next.

Outpatient treatment may be beneficial for individuals who do not feel they can afford the time out from daily responsibilities (including family and work) which inpatient treatment would entail. However, outpatient treatment can be problematic in the sense that it does not remove the addict from the environment of substance abuse in which their addiction has developed.

Medication Use in PCP Treatment

At present, there are no medicines available which tackle PCP addiction and dependence specifically. The use of medicine in the treatment of PCP addiction is typically focused upon addressing particular withdrawal symptoms, as well as the psychological and behavioural symptoms of long-term PCP use and abuse.

Various different antipsychotics may be prescribed to deal with psychosis brought on by PCP use and/or withdrawal. Similarly, antidepressants and anxiolytics can be provided to address depression and anxiety respectively.

For individuals suffering from muscle spasms and restlessness, sedatives can play a role in their treatment. Acute problems such as seizures will require more urgent medical attention, possibly involving a broad range of medication. Because of the potential for PCP to interact dangerously with other drugs and its very potent qualities of some medications used in the treatment of PCP withdrawal, it is imperative that such medication should only be prescribed by a qualified medical professional as part of a well-managed and monitored treatment process. Attempting to self-medicate – including through the use of withdrawal medication packs procured from the internet – can be extremely dangerous and even deadly.
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Steps in PCP Rehab Treatment

The precise structure of a PCP rehab programme may vary considerably from one organisation facility to the next. It is important to familiarise yourself with any treatment programme you are considering engaging in so you do not encounter any challenging surprises.

The first step, of course, is to acknowledge your addiction and to request help. If you are suffering from a PCP addiction and wish to overcome it, speak with your GP and/or an addiction specialist about your situation. Be completely candid about the severity and duration of your substance abuse and find out about what treatment options are available to you.

If you are engaging in residential rehab, upon being admitted you will undergo a full medical assessment, possibly including a psychiatric assessment. Following this, a treatment programme will be drawn up for you based on your situation and needs.

The first phase following admission will be detox, during which withdrawal may be tackled with medical assistance. During detox withdrawal you will be monitored for your own safety by medical professionals. Experienced therapists will be on hand to help you through any psychological difficulties you may encounter.

Once your system has been cleansed of substances of abuse, you will be provided with therapy in any of a variety of therapeutic models, depending on your own needs and the type facility you have entered.

Regularly throughout the rest of your stay, you will be working through the issues which have caused and resulted from your PCP abuse and addiction. Throughout this time, you should also be given bespoke dietary and fitness plans, on the basis of “healthy body, healthy mind”. Look for centres which provide a wholesome care and treatment during your stay. You will also have plenty of time for healing and quiet contemplation during which you can come to terms with the impact of your addiction and begin to make plans for life after substance abuse.

Recovery does not end when you leave rehab or finish an addiction treatment programme: it is a long-term, even lifelong, process, with plenty of potential pitfalls along the way. Therapy will have provided you with psychological defence mechanisms against relapse, but you will need to pay constant attention to the challenges you will face during your recovery, including the triggers which you will need to avoid or manage. Many people who have gone through addiction treatment find great value in self-help groups or individual counselling, even long after that treatment has finished and they have stopped taking substances of abuse.

UK’s better rehab centres provide aftercare treatment, which usually includes counselling sessions for up to a year after the successful completion of the treatment programme.

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Statistics for PCP Abuse

  • Between 2005 and 2011, the emergency room visits related to PCP rose with 400%
  • Typically, a PCP dose is 5 to 10 mg; 10 mg reportedly causes stupor [16].
  • In the US, in 2015, 0.2% of those aged 12 to 17 had admitted to have tried PCP at some time in their life (National Survey on Drug Use and Health, published by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)) [17]

Finding Help for PCP Addiction

If you are struggling with a PCP addiction, you may feel a sense of despair at your condition. There is a way out. Help is available in the form of numerous high-quality treatment facilities across the country. If you’re ready to reach out for that help, get in touch with your GP and/or an addiction specialist to find out what treatment options may be available to and appropriate for you.

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PCP is a very strong and dangerous substance. Abusing it even in the short term can cause life-changing damage, while the consequences of long-term abuse can be even more pronounced. If you are addicted to PCP the sooner you can ask for help, the smaller the chance of permanent damage to health and life prospects.

Related FAQ’s

Why are the effects of PCP pleasurable?
To some people, the dissociative hallucinogenic effects of PCP may sound terrifying, but to others, they can be fascinating and enjoyable. The euphoric effects created by the drug can also be intense and pleasurable. PCP is certainly not considered a “soft” drug and the experience of its effects can be horrific for many users.
Is PCP very addictive?
PCP is considered psychologically and physically addictive. Exactly how addictive it is will differ from one individual to another depending on a number of factors. However, it is known that many users who have gone on to develop addiction have done so after comparatively few instances of PCP consumption. The only way to ensure that you never develop an addiction to PCP is never to take it at all.
How do I know I am addicted?
As a rule of thumb, if you have to ask yourself if you are addicted to a substance of abuse, you probably are. being concerned about your levels of consumption is typically prompted by signs such as cravings which betray the manifestation of at least the beginning of addiction. Certainly, if you have tried and failed to stop taking PCP, or if you experience symptoms of withdrawal a while after your last dose, you are already in the throes of an addiction and need to seek medical help.
Can PCP be combined with other drugs?
Many people who take PCP also take other substances including recreational drugs and medication, while PCP can also be found sprayed onto or soaked into cannabis and other more common substances of abuse. This can be extremely dangerous as PCP can interact negatively with other drugs. Meanwhile, its intoxicating effects can be made much more intense and problematic if you are also consuming other substances.
Can I die from PCP use?
Yes: PCP can be directly fatal, whilst intoxication from PCP can cause fatal accidents and violent behaviour which can cause the death of the user and/or others. Some cases of PCP withdrawal have also proven fatal.
What is PCP used for in the medical field?
PCP was originally designed as an anaesthetic and analgesic, and was provided on that basis to human recipients until its more problematic properties were discovered. After it was banned for human use, it continued to be used as an animal tranquilliser until that used to was removed as a means of attempting to remove PCP from the black market. It now has no approved medical use.
How can I help someone who has overdosed on PCP?
PCP overdose can be fatal, and can cause life-changing damage even to individuals who survive. If you observe overdose symptoms in anyone you know to have taken PCP, contact the emergency services immediately and apply first-aid if you are capable.
Does stopping PCP cause withdrawal symptoms?
If you have developed PCP dependence, stopping taking PCP may well cause unpleasant and potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms. Every case of addiction and dependence is unique, and some users may not develop withdrawal syndrome, but you should expect it if you have been taking PCP long enough to develop dependence.
How long does the withdrawal phase last with PCP?
How long PCP withdrawal lasts depends very much on the duration and severity of the PCP abuse in question, and the physiology of the user. Typically, PCP withdrawal will last between a week and a month, but some symptoms may persist for far longer.

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