What Is PCP, and Is It Addictive?

What is Phencyclidine?

Originally developed for medical use as a general anesthetic, phencyclidine (commonly known as PCP) no longer has any medicinal use in the United States.

Instead, it is largely considered a recreational drug of abuse that can be found in tablets, capsules, liquid, or white powder form, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports.

The hallucinogenic drug is most commonly smoked; however, it can also be abused by snorting or swallowing it. Marijuana, mint, parsley, oregano, tobacco, or another leafy plant material can be soaked in PCP and then smoked. A marijuana cigarette that has been soaked with liquid PCP is called a “dipper.” On the street, PCP is known as:

  • Angel Dust
  • Shermans
  • Tic tac
  • Love boat
  • Supergrass
  • Zoom
  • Hog
  • Peace pill
  • Rocket fuel
  • Wack
  • Embalming fluid
  • Elephant tranquilizer
  • KJ
  • Wet
  • Crystal joint

PCP is classified as a hallucinogenic drug due to the way it alters perceptions of reality and the senses; it also alters a person’s thoughts and feelings. Hallucinogenic drugs cause a person to see, feel, or sense things, images, or sensations that are not really there.

PCP is a dissociative hallucinogen, meaning that it makes users feel detached from themselves and the environment around them. It is also addictive, and it can lead to dependence and several other long-term side effects if the drug is taken regularly. According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), as published by the NIDA, nearly 2.5 percent of the American population (aged 12 and older) have abused PCP at least once in their lifetime.

Signs of PCP Abuse

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reports that PCP is most regularly abused by teenagers and young adults as a recreational drug for the way it alters the mind and consciousness.

When snorted or smoked, the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) publishes that PCP’s effects begin within a few minutes; it takes closer to a half-hour for the effects to become noticeable if the drug is swallowed.

A PCP “trip” or “high” typically lasts about 4-6 hours for the majority of the symptoms; however, it can take up to a full day or two for the brain and body to completely return to normal.

Indicators of PCP intoxication are outlined below.

Low to moderate dosage:

  • Detachment from self
  • Slurred speech
  • Blank stare
  • Involuntary rapid eye movements
  • Loss of motor control
  • Feelings of being invincible and bouts of super strength
  • Euphoria
  • Distorted senses
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Disordered thoughts
  • Disorientation
  • Euphoria
  • Nausea
  • Elevated heart rate and blood pressure
  • Shallow and rapid breathing

Higher Doses

  • Agitation
  • Lethargy and stupor
  • Episodes of violence towards others or oneself
  • Memory loss
  • Bizarre behavior
  • Hallucinations
  • Catatonic posturing, similar to symptoms of schizophrenia
  • Rigid muscles

Toxic buildup of PCP and overdose

  • Complete lack of coordination
  • Being catatonic and unresponsive
  • Extremely high blood pressure
  • Convulsions and seizures
  • Psychosis
  • Violent, aggressive, agitated, and excitable behavior
  • Hallucinations
  • Uncontrolled movements
  • Loss of consciousness or coma

Those who are under the influence of PCP may display unpredictable behaviors that are out of character and potentially dangerous to themselves or those around them. If PCP intoxication is suspected, immediate medical help should be sought to keep everyone involved safe from accidents and violent behaviors that are associated with PCP.

The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), publishes that in 2011, more than 75,000 Americans sought medical treatment in an emergency department for a negative reaction involving PCP. Mixing PCP with other drugs or alcohol can increase the unpredictability of all substances as well as all possible hazards.

Addiction and Long-Term Health Risks

PCP is considered to be an addictive substance, as regular use of the drug can cause a person to become psychologically dependent on it and therefore lose their ability to control dosage levels and the frequency with which they take the drug. With repeated use, tolerance to PCP can develop, and a person will need to keep taking more frequent and higher doses to keep feeling the drug’s effects.

Chronic use of PCP can lead to withdrawal symptoms when the drug processes out of the body. These symptoms include lack of energy, depression, and sleep disturbances. Cravings for PCP may be significant as well. Individuals may spend much of their time determining how to get PCP, using it, and recovering from a PCP trip.

Other obligations and interests may take a backseat to PCP use, leading to troubles at work or school and interpersonal relationship difficulties. Social withdrawal, increased secrecy, and isolation as well as increased risk-taking behaviors, mood swings, and uncharacteristic actions are potential signs of addiction involving PCP.

Other consequences of long-term PCP use include memory loss, persistent difficulties with normal thought and speech abilities, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, weight loss, and significant depression, which can last up to a year or so after the drug use is stopped, NIDA warns. PCP is mainly metabolized in the liver, and repeated use of the drug can lead to liver function abnormities.

As mentioned, hallucinogenic drugs change the way users see and feel about themselves and the world around them, distorting perceptions and the senses. One of the possible side effects of abusing a hallucinogenic drug is the potential for experiencing “flashbacks” of experiences that occurred while under the influence of the drug. Individuals may even suffer from hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD), which is a serious disorder indicated by visual disturbances and hallucinations that are persistent and may crop up at any time without warning.

PCP is a dangerous illegal drug with numerous hazardous consequences associated with even one-time use, all of which are exacerbated by long-term use of the drug. Early intervention and a specialized addiction treatment program can be highly beneficial in reducing and minimizing the possible negative ramifications of addiction involving PCP.

Treatment Options for Addiction Involving PCP

The initial goal of treatment is to provide supportive care and keep everyone safe. Medical detox can help a person to safely process PCP out of the body in a secure facility where they can be monitored around the clock. Benzodiazepines or other medications may be administered to calm anxiety and agitation. Medical detox is short-term and designed to help a person become physically stable before entering into a complete addiction treatment program.

Nearly all treatment programs for addiction involving PCP will include therapeutic and supportive methods. Group and individual counseling and therapy sessions are helpful in determining potential drug use triggers and in teaching healthier methods for dealing with stress and anger. Families are often involved in recovery, and relationships that were damaged during active addiction can be repaired.

As with any addiction treatment, care should be tailored to the individual needs of each client. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to addiction treatment, so it’s important to choose a facility that takes the entire individual into account, rather than treating just the addiction. Any co-occurring disorders, such as medical or mental health issues, should be identified and treated as part of the overall treatment regime.

The Effects of PCP

PCP affects numerous neurotransmitters, including the excitatory neurotransmitter NDMA, acetylcholine, dopamine, and enkephalins and endorphins. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA):

  • When taken at low doses, PCP produces effects similar to alcohol, such as slurred speech, euphoria, giddiness, bloodshot eyes, and issues with balance and walking. Individuals may also become aggressive and experience hallucinations.
  • At moderate doses, PCP induces sedation as well as confusion.
  • At high doses, PCP is likely to produce catatonic states, comatose states, and even seizures.

Research studies have demonstrated that PCP use can result in significant damage to the brain that can lead to serious cognitive and psychiatric/psychological issues.

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  • Damage to the frontal cortex of the brain: Significant damage to the frontal areas of the brain has been demonstrated to occur as a result of PCP use and abuse. This results in significant issues with attention (especially maintaining attention and shifting attention), impulse control, emotional control, and problem-solving. Individuals with frontal brain damage are often impulsive, have violent outbursts or other emotional issues, and have issues working out even simple problems.
  • Significant issues with memory: PCP inhibits the function of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is important in memory. This may result in individuals with moderate to long-term histories of PCP abuse developing significant memory problems. Acetylcholine is involved in the consolidation and transfer of new information into long-term storage. Individuals who suffer brain damage as a result of PCP use may have significant difficulty retaining new material and remembering it.
  • Damage to the cerebellum: Research has also demonstrated that individuals who have abused PCP for a significant length of time demonstrate dysfunction in the cerebellum, a complex structure at the posterior portion of the brain. The cerebellum has numerous connections throughout other areas of the brain, but particularly to the frontal cortex. Cerebellum damage can result in issues with memory and movement, and changes in life-sustaining functions, such as heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure.
  • Depression or psychosis: Chronic use of PCP results in a massive release of neurotransmitters in the brain and, later, a massive depletion of neurotransmitters in the brain once the drug is discontinued. This can result in an increased likelihood to develop seizures or issues with emotional functioning, including depression and psychosis, even after one stops using PCP.
  • Issues with judgment: Even at low levels, use of PCP can result in significant issues with judgment that can make an individual more prone to accidents or the effects of poor decision-making that can result in serious consequences. Individuals often lack emotional control and are very impulsive under the influence of PCP, and they can potentially experience hallucinations and delusions. This can result in extremely dangerous situations. People who mix PCP with other drugs, such as alcohol, stimulants, cannabis products, etc., are even more prone to impulsivity, being accident-prone, and poor decision-making.


When individuals use PCP, they often become impulsive and are unable to monitor their own behavior. This can lead to potential issues with overdose. Of course, individuals who use PCP in conjunction with other drugs of abuse are more likely to overdose on one or more drugs due to issues with judgment and decision-making.

Potential overdose effects as a result of PCP abuse can be serious. Overdose can result in uncontrollable body movements, hallucinations, delusions, significant agitation, significant aggression, catatonic-like states, comatose states, and life-threatening seizures. PCP overdose typically presents as the person being comatose or catatonic, or as extremely agitated, delirious, and psychotic. Both situations are potentially fatal situations.

There is no specific medication that can treat the symptoms of a PCP overdose. Medical personnel can only attempt to stabilize the individual, treat the specific symptoms, and administer IV fluids. If the individual is psychotic and aggressive, antipsychotic medications may work. If the individual is catatonic or comatose, CPR and other life-sustaining techniques may be appropriate.

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