PCP is a hallucinogenic and dissociative drug that can lead to addiction if taken for long enough in significant doses [1]. PCP dependence can cause paranoia, euphoria, hallucinations, and severe changes in body image [2]. Unfortunately, there is currently no FDA-approved medication for PCP addiction, although healthcare providers can usually treated it through therapeutic methods.

What is PCP?

Phencyclidine is a hallucinogenic drug with mind-altering effects on your body. Psychological effects take as little as 30 minutes to kick in and can sometimes last up to 12 hours. [1]

PCP can be taken in many different ways:

  • Injecting it straight into a vein, sometimes referred to as ‘shooting up’
  • Smoking
  • Swallowing

Some street names for PCP include angel dust, rocket fuel, supergrass, lethal weapon, DOA (dead on arrival), and horse tranquilizer.

PCP works by disrupting the nerve cells in your brain from being able to receive a chemical called glutamate. This chemical is responsible for things like emotion and response to pain, hence the hallucinogenic effects of the drug. PCP also disrupts normal dopamine production in your blood [1].

Effects of PCP

Short-term effects

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the effects of PCP abuse depend on the dosage used [1].

Low-dose effects include:

  • Numbness
  • Disorientation and confusion
  • Dizziness and nausea
  • Sensory issues, such as changes in perception of body image, sound and time
  • Hallucinations
  • Feelings of detachment from your body
  • Physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, blood pressure and temperature

Higher dosages can cause:

  • More severe hallucinations
  • Dangerously high blood pressure and heart rate
  • Very high psychological distress, including extreme panic and aggression
  • If taken with alcohol or another nervous system depressant, then it can cause respiratory issues or respiratory arrest and death in extreme cases

Long-term effects

Consistent long-term use of PCP can cause: [1]

  • Substance use disorder, where you feel like you can’t stop taking the drug
  • Speech difficulties
  • Memory loss
  • Depression

Some people may experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking PCP, including depression, headaches, and chills.

Symptoms of PCP dependence

PCP dependence symptoms are similar to other substance use disorders and addictions. The DSM-5 states that PCP dependence is characterized by showing two or more of the following symptoms over 12 months: [3]

  • Taking more PCP than you originally intended
  • Spending a lot of your time finding, taking and recovering from PCP
  • Building a tolerance to it and having to use more to feel the same effects
  • Unable to control or reduce the amount that you use willingly
  • Craving PCP and planning on when you are next going to use it
  • PCP is disrupting important events such as work or school
  • It is causing relationship problems with friends and family
  • Not doing activities that you used to enjoy
  • Using PCP despite it causing noticeable harmful side effects
  • Using PCP in situations where it would be dangerous to you or others, such as when driving

Experiencing withdrawal symptoms is also a major sign of PCP dependence. Withdrawal symptoms occur because of the damage substances such as PCP do to your brain and the regulation of normal chemical balances in your blood. Withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • Tremors
  • Chills
  • Cravings for the drug
  • Headaches
  • Depression

Complications of PCP abuse

As well as the intended recreational side effects of PCP use, there are some major complications it can cause. [1] It is not guaranteed that taking a low dose will stop any major complications, as you do not know how your body will react. Potential complications of PCP abuse include:

  • Seizures and uncontrollable muscle spasms
  • Violent behavior
  • Severe psychotic symptoms
  • Extremely high blood pressure

Due to people building up a tolerance to PCP, overdoses can be common. Severe overdoses can cause you to enter a coma [4] and even lead to death.

How to stay safe with PCP

  • Do not take it with other substances, such as alcohol, as this can worsen the side effects and put additional stress on your body.
  • As with other hallucinogens and addictive substances, do it with friends you trust and who will remain sober if you experience adverse effects that need medical attention.
  • Only take low doses. Even if you did not experience many negative side effects the last time you took it, increasing your dose may lead to phencyclidine use disorder as you become more tolerant and need larger doses.

Diagnosing PCP dependence

If you think you or a loved one are experiencing PCP dependence or addiction, speak to a healthcare professional as soon as possible. They may ask you questions about what symptoms you are experiencing, how much PCP you have been taking and over what period, and any family history of addiction. They may also do a blood test to determine exactly how much you have taken.

PCP dependence falls under a substance use disorder according to the DSM-5 [3]. Your doctor may use the DSM-5 criteria of at least two symptoms over the last 12 months to refer you for treatment. (See the signs and symptoms of PCP dependence for the full list)

Treatment for PCP abuse and dependence

Treatment for PCP abuse and dependence depends on how well you manage your addiction. There are inpatient options if you tend to take high doses and feel like you cannot control your addiction. Outpatient options include therapies and rehabilitation.[5] There is currently no approved medication for PCP dependence.

Inpatient:

  • Inpatient treatment can be most effective if you experience severe withdrawal symptoms or take high doses and need more supervision during recovery.
  • This will be an environment with no possible access to PCP, allowing you to stay fully on track with recovery.
  • You will have access to therapy methods such as family, group and individual to aid your recovery.
  • Inpatient treatment programs last between 60 and 90 days.

Outpatient:

  • Outpatient methods may be more suitable if your addiction is not as severe or you cannot take the time away from work, school or home.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you establish what triggers your use of PCP and develop coping mechanisms to deal with those triggers.
  • Contingency management uses rewards to help you stay on track with recovery if you struggle for motivation.
  • Family therapies can help if your drug use has harmed your relationships. It can also help your family members understand your addiction more and give them ways to help you.

Helping someone with PCP dependence

When helping someone with PCP dependence, it is important to be considerate of what you are saying to them. Make sure they know that intervention is out of love and concern.

  • Make it clear that you will be there throughout the whole process. You can help them by setting reminders for their therapy sessions and taking them if they do not have transport.
  • As PCP dependence is an addiction, they will need to be willing to give it up. Give them time to realize that they have a problem, and do not initially make them do something they don’t want to unless there is a danger to their life, like continued overdoses.
  • Make sure that you support yourself. Seeing a loved one going through addiction can be a challenging experience, and you shouldn’t blame yourself. Community Reinforcement And Family Training (CRAFT) is a useful service to help develop a confrontation plan [6].
  • Don’t be confrontational. Treat the addiction like any other disease or disorder. Blaming or stigmatizing them for what they have done will not help.

Resources:

  1. What Are the Effects of Common Dissociative Drugs on the Brain and Body? (2022, September 29). National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved on 2022, October 9, from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/hallucinogens-dissociative-drugs/what-are-effects-common-dissociative-drugs-brain-body
  2. Bey T & Patel A (2007). Phencyclidine intoxication and adverse effects: a clinical and pharmacological review of an illicit drug. The California Journal of Emergency Medicine, 8(1), 9-14.
  3. American Psychiatric Association. (2013d). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition: DSM-5 (5th ed.). American Psychiatric Publishing.
  4. Phencyclidine overdose. (n.d.). Retrieved October 24, 2022, from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002526.htm
  5. Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment [Internet]. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2006. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 45.) Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64115/ 
  6. Meyers, R. J., Smith, J. E., & Lash, D. N. (2005). A program for engaging treatment-refusing substance abusers into treatment: CRAFT. International Journal of Behavioral and Consultation Therapy, 1(2), 90-100. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0100737