PCP Is Rearing Its Head in the US Again
Published by Insight – Monday 4 February, 2003
Nearly two decades ago a Baltimore father on Christmas Eve experienced a bizarre hallucination as he gazed into the eyes of his year-old son. What the father saw terrified him. He told police that shortly after he had smoked PCP, he became convinced the boy was possessed by Satan. He grabbed a knife and cut off his son’s head. Other such horrors began to surface in the 1980s when a killer was under the influence of PCP, or phencyclidine, a mind-altering drug.
“But that was the worst drug case I ever saw,” recalls Michael M. Gimbel, director of the Baltimore County Department of Health’s Bureau of Substance Abuse. “It’s been stuck in my head for 20 years.” Gimbel was greatly relieved in the 1990s when PCP all but disappeared. It had delivered so many “bad trips” that it drove its users nearly into extinction, he says. Side effects included some lasting health problems such as respiratory difficulties, slurred speech, severe agitation, flashbacks, hallucinations, lost coordination and convulsions. In some cases, PCP sent users into terrifying flashbacks or hallucinations long after even a first smoking, snorting or swallowing of the drug.
PCP first made its appearance in the 1950s as an anesthetic for medical procedures, but it didn’t last long. So many patients experienced such severe confusion and delirium that its development for human use was discontinued. In the 1960s, it became commercially available as a veterinary anesthetic under the trade name Sernylan. It burst into the counterculture in 1967 during the heyday of the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco when it was sprayed onto cigarettes or marijuana. Black-market dealers called it the “Peace Pill,” but users soon learned it was anything but peaceful. In 1978, due to widespread abuse of Sernylan, it was discontinued even as a veterinary anesthetic.
Incredibly, today PCP is back, bringing with it a torrent of violence and filling courtrooms with horror stories. In Washington alone there were 203 crime-related PCP cases in 2002 compared to just 31 in 1999. Nationwide, there were more than 6,000 PCP-related emergency-room visits in 2001 compared to about half that number in 1996.
“For some reason, people really fall in love with the drug,” Gimbel says. “They like the feeling. It makes them feel godlike. But there’s a saying on the street that sums up the drug: ‘PCP will put a horse on its ass. Imagine what it will do to you.'”
“Michael,” a former PCP user and dealer, calls it a drug for people who want to escape reality. “It has an all-numbing feeling,” he tells Insight. “You can punch your hand through a window and you feel no pain. But you feel so awful when coming off of it that you are inclined to do more. It’s not a high; it makes you forget so you don’t have to deal with issues. It’s a big forget-me pill.”
According to Michael, he started smoking PCP at age 17 in the mid-1980s and stopped five years later when he landed in prison on robbery and murder charges, although he says PCP was obtained easily by inmates. Peer pressure led him down the PCP path, he says. “All the kids were smoking it in high school, particularly girls. They really love this drug.”
Some called it the “love boat” or “buck naked” because users tend to strip their clothes off while under the influence. Others called it “angel dust,” “supergrass,” “killer weed,” “embalming fluid” and “rocket fuel.” Today it is referred to as “dippers” because users dip a cigarette or marijuana joint into a PCP-laced liquid they call “water,” says Washington-based private investigator Sharon Weidenfeld, who studies about 30 murder cases a year.
“I first noticed the comeback of PCP in 2000 when I investigated a murder case in Rockville, Md.,” she says. “The victim was a heavy PCP user. He had just gotten a jar of [PCP-laced] water shortly before he was murdered. The victim and the people involved in smoking and selling PCP all lived about a mile away from the courthouse [in] one of the wealthiest counties in the country. Since then, PCP has played a part in most of the murder cases that I have worked on.”
However, PCP now is being trafficked differently and with a new urban myth. No longer is it confined to the metropolitan underbelly — it has become the latest club drug at suburban “rave” parties. “The comeback of PCP has given new meaning to the ad, ‘Got Milk?'” Weidenfeld says. “When people smoke dippers, they often are unable to move. The common belief is that the user has only to drink some milk to become unstuck. A conscientious PCP smoker simply makes sure to have some milk on hand in case of an emergency.”
The milk myth makes little sense but then neither do the PCP murders, Weidenfeld says. “The mentality of these killings is different from those that occurred as a result of using crack,” she reports. “A lot of that [killing] was over who was going to be allowed to hustle and where they could do it. The PCP murders don’t even have a motive much of the time, and they seldom seem to so much as trouble the killer. I had one case where the user killed his close friend, went and smoked some dippers, got a hooker and then called it a night.”
What worries authorities is that teen-agers attending rave parties may have no idea that they have been slipped a hit of PCP. Many have been led to believe they are taking a hit of ecstasy, another dangerous club drug, but in reality they have been given PCP. In fact, authorities are warning that frequently drugs sold as ecstasy now have traces of PCP.
The re-emergence of the drug has sent chills through the law-enforcement community, especially in light of a recent Maryland case that police say may have been the single largest such bust in the United States, if not the world. The news barely hit the radar screen of a jaded public and appears to have been all but ignored by both major Washington dailies and local news bureaus. The Baltimore Sun was the only newspaper to report on the raid, and it was all but cursory.
The bust capped a two-month undercover operation involving the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Baltimore City Police Firearms Apprehension Strike Team. Authorities fear this may be only the beginning of a long nightmare to come as production facilities that formerly provided the drug operated only on the West Coast. Phencyclidine production was believed to be centered in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area and to be controlled by the Crips, a Los Angeles-based street gang. They allegedly distribute PCP to many cities in the United States using their cocaine network. But the recent East Coast PCP bust seems to center around a biker gang that police have yet publicly to identify.
Authorities discovered the huge PCP lab in Baltimore shortly after an undercover detective purchased PCP on a local street. They made one arrest, but more are pending. Police seized at least 30 gallons of PCP and the production lab found in a basement of a Baltimore home. The estimated street value of the drugs is between $50 million and $100 million. “It was one of the biggest PCP labs of its kind on the East Coast,” said Edward T. Norris, then Baltimore Police Commissioner.
In addition to a south Baltimore motorcycle gang, police are investigating a Jessup, Md., business for providing chemicals to make PCP. But it is the biker gang that reportedly is responsible for distributing PCP throughout the Washington/Baltimore metropolitan area, police say. The Jessup business has been identified as Marlo Industries, which processes a series of cleaning chemicals and packages them there. The company’s clients include the White House, the federal Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Amtrak, Andrews Air Force Base and both Baltimore and Philadelphia housing authorities. Owners of the company have declined to comment on the pending investigation.
The bust should have been a wake-up call to parents and a nation that believed PCP had been fought to a standstill. Even so, earlier signs appear to have been ignored. Two years ago, Fairfax County, Va., police encountered PCP-laced tablets during an undercover drug operation where traffickers were marketing it as a superpowerful drug that could be taken in pill form. But perhaps the scariest part of the latest bust involves the age of the customers the drug dealers were targeting. In an effort to attract younger children to the drug, small PCP tablets were embossed with a Pokemon cartoon character known as Pikachu. These confiscated PCP pills were orange in color and sold for $15 a piece.
Why is PCP making a comeback? Some users claim it’s because the drug is so cheap compared even to marijuana. Amazingly, it also might be more accepted. For example, when a prankster on the set of James Cameron’s Titanic spiked the clam chowder with PCP, it was made out to be a joke. Former president Bill Clinton pardoned at least three big-time PCP dealers during his final days in office. And still there has been no public campaign to tackle this problem that has produced so many nightmares and unspeakable crimes.