PCP is a relatively popular psychedelic drug, but not as much as other drugs like LSD, magic mushrooms, or its close cousin ketamine. PCP’s association with strange and sometimes violent behavior, is the reason its no longer used much medically. One of the oft-mentioned aspects of PCP is the ability to give users superhuman strength. Is this true, or just a misconception of the drug?
Does PCP give a user superhuman strength? Not exactly, but it can sure seem like it, and there are many stories of PCP use instigating strange behaviors and occurrences. We’re an independent news publication covering topics in the cannabis and psychedelics fields. Follow along by signing up for The Cannadelics Weekly Newsletter, and make sure you’re first in line for all new product promotions, as they become available.
What is PCP?
PCP – Phencyclidine, aka phenylcyclohexyl piperidine, aka angel dust, is a synthetically made, dissociative anesthetic and hallucinogen. It is a member of the arylcyclohexylamine class of drugs, and works mainly as an NMDA receptor antagonist, which is true of dissociative anesthetics in general. Though it’s often considered a psychedelic, in actuality, PCP is a different form of hallucinogen from psychedelics, though if you ask most people, they’re one and the same. Beyond causing hallucinations, the compound is known to distort sound perception and reality, cause euphoria, work as a powerful analgesic, and is associated with strange, and sometimes violent behavior. Though it can be snorted or injected, PCP is generally smoked as a recreational drug.
PCP was originally synthesized way back in 1926, in Germany, for use as an anesthetic. Not much is written about what was done, or what was found at that time. For all intents and purposes, PCP came into being in the 1950’s, when it was re-synthesized by researchers at Parke Davis in 1956, and tested for use in surgery. At that time, it was manufactured under the name Sernyl.
As a recreational drug, PCP came into prominence in the 1970s, with a reemergence in the late 2000’s. It is significantly less popular than other psychedelic drugs like LSD or magic mushrooms, and way less popular than its successor ketamine, which currently enjoys growing popularity as an off label drug for psychological issues and pain. PCP never made it that far because of the adverse reactions and violent behaviors it causes.
The chemical formula for PCP is C17H25N, and it comes with a long half-life of approximately 20 hours. To give an idea of how much PCP use has fallen since its heyday in the 1970’s, about 13% of high school kids said they used PCP in 1979, vs less than 3% in 1990. In the latter year, between four jails in LA where hundreds of urine samples were taken from inmates, only 5% showed PCP.
The fall of PCP
When used as an anesthetic, it was found that patients remained conscious, though rigid, and just staring out. It did not depress respiratory or cardiovascular function. This was fine for conducting surgery, however, after procedures, it was found that patients exhibited delirium and disorientation, and became unmanageable to deal with. As many as 20-30% of subjects showed signs of agitation and hallucinations.
Beyond that, patients exhibited often strange behavior, and of more concern, the agitation, and violence. Though fellow dissociative drug ketamine is similar to PCP in many ways, this is one instance in which they differ, in that ketamine is not associated with such agitation and violence, making it the preferable choice in the end, over PCP.
PCP was banned from use with humans in the US in 1965, though it remains a Schedule II drug, which means it is legal for medical use, but in a highly restricted way. In 1978, its general use in animals also stopped. Despite whatever negative effects there might be, PCP still remains a well-known black market drug today.
Along with getting a rap as a drug that promotes aggression, PCP is known for something else. One of the oft repeated assertions of PCP is that it can give the user superhuman strength. Think of a guy popping handcuffs off, or lifting up a car, or taking a beating that should keep him down, but repeatedly getting up.
While medically its understood that users aren’t all of a sudden increasing their muscle mass (and then losing it upon the drug leaving the system), it does present an interesting situation. People on PCP have indeed been known to do things that they could not physically do without the drug, and these feats of strength often greatly hurt the user, though damage is not felt at the time.
What allows this, if it’s not directly related to an increase in muscle? Realistically, each person does have a physical limit, that drugs or not, they can’t pass. PCP is a powerful anesthetic and therefore powerful analgesic, and has powerful dissociative properties that make connections between parts of the brain difficult, or temporarily non-existent. When we’re exerting our bodies to the point of destruction, there are usually signs. Like pain. If you go far enough, you’ll start to tear muscles, and pull tendons, and these things should hurt. And your brain should get that message.
Think about how much further you could go if that pain wasn’t felt. There still exists a final limit for each individual that can’t be crossed, but that level, when muscles rip and tear, can’t be felt on a drug like PCP. And this enables a person to reach that final limit whereby their body is literally going to start to break down, and they essentially won’t know. This gives the illusion that PCP endows a person with superhuman strength, when in reality, users simply can’t feel the pain of tearing their bodies apart, and can push themselves to their ultimate limit.
Think of what an anesthetic technically does. It allows a person to go through surgery without feeling pain. As in, it allows a person to be cut into and cup up, and not feel a thing, even if they’re awake. That a user might feel a greater amount of strength on PCP, is because they just can’t feel that they’re actually in pain from what they’re doing.
Is PCP dangerous?
Seems like it, but realistically, not as much as other more common substances. Much like with ketamine, and quaaludes, PCP doesn’t have much death count, especially when compared to medications of today, like opioids, which are now taking out upwards of 70,000+ people a year. In comparison, to give an idea of PCP, in 1980, there were 104 deaths in Los Angeles County where PCP was involved. That doesn’t mean that 104 people died in Los Angeles that year from PCP, it means that of all the recorded deaths, 104 involved PCP. They also could have involved heroin, or alcohol, or accidents unrelated to drug use. They are not written as deaths directly related to PCP.
On the other hand, according to lacountry.gov, between the years of 2011-2017, there were yearly approximately 464 opioid overdose deaths. These deaths are attributed to the actual overdosing of an opioid, and do not imply other causes. This is very different from saying a drug was simply ‘involved’ in a death. In terms of more recent numbers, from just March-July 2019, LA saw 347 opioid overdose deaths, and from March-July 2020, there were 611. Is a drug like PCP dangerous in comparison? Not really.
There is a much higher incidence of opioid use today, than PCP use in 1980, and that says something. Even in its heyday, PCP didn’t garner the same kind of attention, or cause addictions, like today’s opioids. This also points to it being a far less dangerous drug. Why the comparison between opioids and PCP? Because the US government is completely cool with allowing the continued sale of opioids, and even wants to lower guidelines for opioid prescribing. So if the US government is telling you PCP is dangerous, and was nearly banned for that reason, it begs the question of how and why it still allows opioids.
What PCP can do
This isn’t to say that PCP can’t cause some issues, and the main concern is aggression, or other aberrant behaviors, like, superhuman seeming strength. Dr. Margaret McCarron, the professor of emergency medicine at County-USC Medical Center back in the early 80’s, authored a paper about her studies of PCP cases. In the study Acute phencyclidine intoxication: incidence of clinical findings in 1,000 cases, from 1981, she explains that “The incidence of violence was 35%; bizarre behavior, 29%; and agitation, 34%.”
She said about 130 of the 1000 were involved in fights of some kind, and that 19 users were seriously injured in this way. 43 used a weapon (gun or knife) to threaten or hurt someone else. These included several one-off cases of weird behavior or violence in specific cases, like shooting into the windows of a home, taking people hostage, chasing a partner with a machete, and attempting to set a bus full of people on fire, purportedly at the behest of god.
Interestingly, there were 29 cases of extreme self-injury as well. This included a guy who pulled his own teeth out, another that set himself on fire, and one that broke glass and then ate it. This is similar to the idea that PCP causes superhuman strength, in that it relates to a person simply not feeling the sensations of pain that such acts would -without a drug like PCP – certainly incite.
Truth is, ketamine is also a dissociative anesthetic, but it isn’t associated with the aggression and wild behavior of PCP. It seems what separates the two, and what leads to PCP users getting violent, or accessing what looks like superhuman strength, isn’t exactly known. PCP certainly isn’t as dangerous as opioids, including all deaths, (whether of the person taking the drug, or from an act they committed), but of the major hallucinogen drugs, it definitely is one to be more careful of.
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