In this article
Phencyclidine, commonly known by its acronym PCP, or by the street name ‘angel dust’, is a dissociative anaesthetic, now more often used as a recreational drug. PCP has never been as popular in the UK as it has in the USA, where it is a commonly used recreational drug.
The drug is known for its association with the violent and psychotic behaviour it can provoke in people when using it. PCP has been illegal in the UK since 1979 as a Class A controlled substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Penalties for possession of PCP are up to seven years’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine, and up to life imprisonment and an unlimited fine for supplying the drug.
For further reading about Class A drugs, please see our knowledge base.
What is Phencyclidine?
PCP is a dissociative anaesthetic. Dissociative drugs are a subclass of hallucinogens which change the perception of sight and sound and produce feelings of detachment from the environment. They also cause hallucinations and a dream-like state to occur.
An anaesthetic is a medicine commonly used that results in a temporary loss of sensation or awareness. The word ‘anaesthesia’ means ‘loss of sensation’. Anaesthetics are used during tests and surgical operations in order to numb sensations in certain areas of the body or induce sleep. It prevents pain and discomfort and enables various medical procedures to be carried out.
Phencyclidine was used as an anaesthetic up until 1965, when it was discontinued due to its concerning side effects. PCP was first used in the 1950s as an anaesthetic and became popular in the 1960s and 1970s as a recreational drug. Phencyclidine is mainly used now recreationally for its mind-altering effects.
In its pure form, PCP is a white crystalline powder. It is sold in a pill, tablet or capsule form and users either swallow, snort, smoke or mix it with a liquid and inject it. PCP can make people feel detached from their bodies, and can distort their perception of reality, including what they can see and hear.
Can Phencyclidine be addictive?
Phencyclidine is an addictive drug as it impacts the brain’s chemical composition. As there is such a significant change in the state of consciousness after taking PCP, this makes it likely that someone can become dependent on the drug after long-term use which means it can cause physical and mental cravings.
Common symptoms of PCP addiction are:
- Muscle cramps.
- Being sick/nausea.
- Increased blood pressure.
- Increased heart rate.
- Loss of coordination.
- Physical or psychological distress.
- Extreme fear or panic.
The experience that someone has after taking PCP can vary greatly and unpredictably depending upon the person taking the drug and their mental state before taking the drug, and it is impossible to predict which symptoms will occur.
Drug addiction is a disease that affects a person’s brain and makes them unable to control the use of a legal, or illegal, drug or medicine. When someone is addicted to drugs, they may continue to use the substance even though it is causing them harm. Drug addiction is also called substance use disorder and it affects a person’s brain and behaviour.
Substances such as alcohol, cannabis and nicotine are also drugs. The risk of becoming addicted to a drug will vary depending on the type of drug. Some drugs carry a higher risk of addiction than other drugs.
For example, opioid painkillers can cause addiction more quickly than other drugs. People become addicted to drugs for many reasons including family history, social problems, to escape past trauma or simply because they initially enjoy the experience of taking drugs.
Drug use becomes an addiction when you are no longer in control of your drug use or your decision to take drugs.
Most users of PCP use the drug intermittently; however, some people can build up a tolerance and become addicted.
For further reading about addiction, please see our knowledge base.
What is Phencyclidine used for?
Phencyclidine was developed in the 1950s as an intravenous anaesthetic; however, its use in humans was discontinued due to its side effects, including it causing patients to become agitated, delusional and irrational. It was banned as both a human and veterinary medicine. Today, people use PCP recreationally because of its mind-altering, hallucinogenic effects.
How is Phencyclidine abused?
PCP is a powerful hallucinogen and anaesthetic that is known to cause erratic and violent behaviour in its users. Although it is less addictive than some other substances, it is illegal and considered to be highly dangerous. People who have experimented with hallucinogens have not only committed erratic, violent acts against themselves and others, but have also made extreme life changes after going through the experience.
In its purest form, it is a white powder but can also be an oil, liquid, crystal or pill. PCP can be taken in various ways. The colour depends on what form the PCP is in and how pure it is. PCP oil is yellow, and PCP powder can range from white to light brown.
It can be snorted as a powder, taken intravenously as a liquid and is also commonly smoked. PCP in liquid form can be sprayed over plant matter, for example tobacco or marijuana. If a cigarette has been dipped into liquid PCP, this is called embalming fluid.
How does Phencyclidine affect the body?
The psychological effects of PCP include:
- Loss of coordination.
- Distorted sensory perceptions including sound, vision and reality.
- Sense of detachment.
- Lack of concentration.
- Bizarre behaviour.
- Memory loss.
- Suicidal thoughts.
- Difficulty forming coherent thoughts.
The drug also causes a wide range of physiological effects, including:
- High blood pressure.
- Elevated heart rate.
- Flushed skin.
- Excessive sweating.
- Uncontrolled eye movement.
- Inability to feel pain.
- Lack of body control.
- Difficulty speaking.
- Blurred vision.
- Involuntary eye movement.
- Numbness in body.
- Slurred speech.
- Nausea and vomiting.
PCP can affect the person’s memory, and ability to process emotion or learn new information. If PCP is used at lower levels, it can have a similar effect to alcohol.
It is known to give users a false sense of power, strength and invincibility. If used in higher doses, PCP can cause symptoms similar to having schizophrenia, psychosis and other mental illnesses which cause hallucinations. Some PCP users suffer frequent and intense hallucination flashbacks and other mental disorders can occur as a result of its long-term use.
The onset of the effects of PCP is rapid, usually within 1-5 minutes when PCP is smoked or injected, and within 30 minutes if taken orally or snorted. The effects of PCP will usually begin to decrease after 4-6 hours; however, a person may not fully return to their normal state until after 24 hours.
What are the risks of Phencyclidine?
The concentration of PCP can vary greatly when sold on the street. Many illicit samples contain other dangerous chemicals and, as with other illegal drugs, this is an additional risk. You can never be sure exactly what you are taking or how you will react to it. PCP has been found to be mixed with other drugs such as cocaine, ecstasy and ketamine. For further reading about ecstasy, please see our knowledge base.
Phencyclidine can be an addictive drug.
Common drug addiction symptoms can include:
- Feeling like you have to use the drugs regularly. This may be daily or several times a day.
- Experiencing intense urges to use the drug.
- Needing to take more of the drug to feel the same effect.
- Ensuring that you always have a supply of the drug.
- Spending a lot of money on the drug even though you may not be able to afford it.
- Your drug use impacting on your work or personal responsibilities.
- Continuing to use the drug even though it is causing you problems. This could be financially, personally or even health problems.
- Going to extraordinary lengths in order to get the drug, for example stealing.
- Being involved in risky activities while being under the influence of drugs.
- Spending significant amounts of time getting the drug, taking the drug or recovering from the drug.
- Attempting to stop using the drug and failing at doing so.
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not using the drug.
Taking PCP can also cause extreme psychological effects which can be dangerous. Hallucinations, delirium, paranoia and depersonalisation can cause PCP users to behave in an erratic and uncontrolled way which can be dangerous to both themselves and other people, including acting aggressively and violently. PCP has been linked with numerous murders and suicides, as well as many episodes of self-harm. Taking PCP regularly over a period of time can lead to addiction and dependence.
People who use PCP regularly may use other substances as well in order to alleviate some of its more problematic side effects, or to enhance the effects of PCP. The effects of PCP may be intensified by other substances, which raises the risk of accidents occurring, while some other drugs may interact dangerously with PCP. Alcohol should also be avoided as mixing alcohol with any other drug increases the risks of the effects of the drug.
As with any other drug, taking drugs and driving is extremely dangerous and it is illegal. If you are caught driving while under the influence of either drugs or alcohol, you may receive a large fine, a driving ban or a prison sentence.
Short-term and long-term effects of Phencyclidine
The immediate, short-term effects of PCP use can include:
If taken in high doses, PCP use can result in:
- Life-threatening seizures.
Phencyclidine is psychologically addicting. If you stop using a drug that you are addicted to, this will result in you experiencing withdrawal symptoms.
The first stage of a drug withdrawal is known as a comedown.
This is where your brain chemistry gradually returns to normal as the drug begins to wear off. If you don’t take any more drugs, the withdrawal symptoms will continue. Drug withdrawal symptoms can be both mental and physical.
Drug withdrawal symptoms may include:
- Intense headaches.
- Nausea or vomiting.
- Shaking and shivering.
- Heart palpitations.
- Feeling restless.
- Irritability or agitation.
- Inability to concentrate.
- Sweating excessively.
- Extreme mood swings.
- Panic attacks.
- An intense craving to take the drug.
The long-term effects of PCP use could result in:
- Memory loss.
- Weight loss.
- Problems speaking.
- Inability to think clearly.
- Suicidal thoughts.
- Social withdrawal.
These problems can continue long after the drug use has stopped. In young people, PCP use can interfere with the hormones related to growth and development and affect learning.
What are the different forms of Phencyclidine?
PCP is available in powder, tablet, crystal, capsule and liquid forms. It is most commonly sold in powder and liquid forms.
Getting support for your drug addiction
If you need treatment for drug addiction, you are entitled to be treated for this by the NHS. You can make an appointment with your GP or contact your local drug service. Your GP will carry out an assessment of your needs and can refer you for treatment.
There are also various charities and drug treatment programmes that can offer you support. There are also private drug treatment programmes. These can be very expensive; however, occasionally referrals can be made through the NHS.
If you or someone else needs urgent help after taking drugs or drinking, call 999 for an ambulance. Someone will need an ambulance if they are unconscious or having difficulty breathing.
You should also:
- Place them in the recovery position.
- Stay with them until the ambulance arrives.
- If you know which drug they have taken, tell the ambulance crew as it may help when they are treating them.
Government statistics show that 275,896 were in contact with drug and alcohol treatment services between March 2020 and April 2021 with 130,490 people entering treatment for their drug or alcohol use between 2020 and 2021.
If you want to find out how you can access support for your drug addiction, you can visit the FRANK website or call 0300 123 6600 where they will support you to find local treatment services near you.
For further reading about addictive drugs, please see our knowledge base.