Phencyclidine, the mind-bending drug known on the street as PCP, "angel dust" and "killer weed," is now one of the most widely used illegal drugs in the Washington metropolitan area, according to federal authorities and a psychiatrist who has studied the drug's effects.
What makes this particularly disturbing is that PCP is perhaps more of a danger to those who come in contact with its temporily psychotic users than it is to the users themselves, according to Dr. Paul V. Luisada.
Luisada, deputy medical director of the city Community Mental Health Center serving most of Southeast Washington, said the city is no longer in the midst of a PCP epidemic, as it was between 1974 and 1976.
However, he said, usedof the drug is now endemic. It's here being heavily used in our community. But the number of people coming in with severe symptoms has dropped off dramatically."
Richard Simmonds, a Washington police captain in charge of a joint police department federal Drug Enforcement Administration task force in PCP, said the drug is "abused more in the suburban areas than it is in the District itself. I think that's caused by the availability of other drugs (in the city) such as heroin...They're much more available to the (city) users then they would be in the suburbs."
"Ithink that what has happened it that PCP is still around," said Luisada. "It's just that those people who are (particularly) sensitive to it and have had bad reactions are avoiding it. But we're still getting three or four a week.
"There were times when, from a community of 50,000 persons served by the Area D Community Mental Center, we were seeing seven a week. In one day we had four patients come in" suffering from the schizophrenia caused by PCP, "a fairly large number if you usually see one or two new schizophrenics a month.
"What was also unusual was how dangerous they were," said Luisada, who at first thought the city was suffering from some sort of schizophrenia epidemic, rather than from a drug abuse problem.
"We now understand these patients are extremely suspicious and paranoid. Anything they see they often observe as a threat to themselves. They think they have superhuman strength" and because PCP can be numbing, they are not as bothered by pain as they would normally be and thus are extremely difficult to subdue, said Luisada.
The psychiatrist said a study of PCP patients between 1973 and 1974 indicated that certain individuals are more affected by the drug than others. Persons who already suffer from schizophrenia, the most common form of mental illness, are particularly disturbed by using PCP, said Luisada.
Phencyclidine, which is most commonly sold mixed with parsley and packed into 35mm film canisters, was originally developed during the 1940s as a general anesthetic.
However, the developers of the drug, which is now used as an animal tranquilizer, discovered that it had a major drawback as an anesthetic: one sixth of those put to sleep with the drug awoke severely psychotic.