The horror stories about PCP users in the Maryland suburbs have been circulating quietly among emergency room nurses, police officers and drug counselors for the last year or two.
One case concerned the girl who, thinking her face was covered with flies, tried to slice them off with a razor and ended up in Prince George's General Hospital. Then there was the man who, displaying the almost superhuman strength PCP can give its users, snapped the plastic manacles restraining his feet and wrists--slashing them in the process. Then he bounced several police officers off the walls of a Montgomery County emergency room.
But the special problem of PCP, the powerful homemade drug that can cause a "high" tinged with schizophrenia, came home last month on an unlit corner in Prince George's County, where half the metropolitan area's supply of PCP is produced.
Two police officers stopped a driver who was high on "angel dust," one of the dozen names by which PCP is known on the street. In the course of arresting the man, Curtis Pearson, for allegedly assaulting an officer, they administered a nightstick beating that proved fatal.
Pearson, depressed and despondent over money and marital problems, had smoked a lot of "green" on the night of Feb. 23, according to his wife. Police say they were forced to use their sticks when he tried to attack them. He died of his injuries a month later.
Pearson's widow, who witnessed the incident, insists that her husband was unnecessarily beaten and, according to her attorney, is preparing a multimillion dollar lawsuit against the officers and either the county or the state government.
Prince George's Police Chief John E. McHale defended the police action, saying Pearson "was so violent and uncontrollable, nothing less would suffice. Obviously no police officer wants to kill anybody." So powerful are the effects of the drug, said the chief, that "there are cases where people have been shot on PCP and not felt a thing."
The Washington area led the nation in the manufacture of PCP last year and about half the area's production took place in Prince George's County. Of the 35 "labs"--the chemicals, jars and a few basic tools used to make the drug--seized by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency last year, 15 were in the metropolitan area. Eight of the 15 busts were in Prince George's.
And though the statistics compiled by state and federal authorities are sketchy, they indicate that federally funded drug abuse clinics here are treating PCP abusers in the suburbs, primarily in Maryland, at three times the national rate.
The users are concentrated between the ages of 16 and 25. A 1980 survey conducted by the Maryland Drug Abuse Administration estimated that 5.4 percent of high school seniors that year were current users, compared with 1.4 percent nationally. But the incidence shows a wide variation among counties. That study found rates as high as 10 percent in some rural southern counties like Charles, Anne Arundel, Calvert and St. Mary's, while black and urban areas like Baltimore showed a much lower incidence. Prince George's County schools did not participate in the survey.
Recent state and national statistics show a steady downward trend in laboratory seizures, treatment percentages and emergency room incidents, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. But the Maryland suburbs of Washington and the outlying exurbs just beyond still show relatively higher incidences of PCP use than the national average--higher than such traditionally high drug-use areas as New York City.
Authorities can relate only seven deaths in 1980 and five in 1981 to PCP, but caution that the actual number may be much higher. Medical examiners say they do not routinely examine bodies sent to them for evidence of PCP.
PCP is easy to make, cheaper than drugs like heroin, cocaine and marijuana, and produces an extremely powerful high. With $600 dollars worth of chemicals and a knowledge of high school chemistry, an enterprising dealer can make $100,000 worth of PCP.
In 1978, Dr. Paul Luisada, a psychiatrist at Washington's St. Elizabeths Hospital, became the first expert in the metropolitan area to detect the long-term dangers of PCP. He noticed an unusual increase in young patients displaying the symptoms of schizophrenia and began a study which found that of 107 patients diagnosed as acute schizophrenics, 97 had a history of PCP abuse, according to Richard Hamilton, director of the state drug abuse administration.
George Kolerick, head of the state-funded DICAP drug treatment centers in Maryland, said gaining knowledge of PCP's effects has been "an evolutionary kind of thing. You have to keep up day by day. There's an awful lot of research coming out now.
Jimmy Hendricks, regional director of the Second Genesis drug rehabilitation program, which has facilities in Prince George's, Montgomery and Fairfax counties and the District of Columbia, and Tom Browne, chairman of the Prince George's Drug Advisory Council, have made a personal crusade of providing treatment for PCP users and informing law enforcement authorities and the public about the drug.
Hendricks and Browne contend that PCP addiction is often the undetected culprit behind bizarre crimes and violent incidents in the metropolitan area.
Users of PCP, which is not physically addictive, "will act out a lot more" than addicts of other drugs and are "more likely to break into a house with the police car right out in front," said Browne. "Risk doesn't mean anything to a PCP user."
PCP is generally smoked, either dusted in crystalline form over marijuana or soaked into dried parsley which is then rolled into joints. The first reaction is numbness that creates the legendary indifference to pain. It is followed by a surge of extraordinary energy and a feeling of power and superhuman confidence. But sometimes paranoid, aggressive and violent behavior is triggered by the drug.
The substance was developed originally as a general anesthetic but its use was discontinued because of the powerful side effects. It then was used as an animal tranquilizer until the manufacturer ceased production about two years ago because of the unfavorable publicity surrounding the illegal production and abuse of the drug.
"For me pot wasn't strong enough, but acid (LSD) was too strong," said Christian, one of three Second Genesis patients interviewed, whose full names are not being used because they are under treatment. "But the feeling I got from PCP was wonderful. I wasn't afraid of anything when I was on it.
"I'd get really violent--it made me feel like a man," continued Christian, the 21-year-old son of a middle-class Montgomery County family. "One time I stabbed one of my friends pretty bad, and I don't even know why."
He started smoking PCP at 15 and by the time he was 19 was paying about $100 per week for two "cans" (the plastic containers normally used for 35mm film) of "KW" (killer weed). He burglarized houses and stole cars to support himself and his habit, but landed in jail for 14 months before he was sent to Second Genesis on probation last February.
John, a baby-faced 17-year-old, began stealing high-grade PCP from his father, a manufacturer, when he was 15. The drug took so much of his time that he never made it to high school. His father is currently on probation after a drug conviction last year.
One day, while stoned on PCP, John got lost only one block from the Frederick house he rented at the time. "I stole a car--I was lost. I got all blitzed and ran the car through a house," he recalled, blue eyes wide open. "I slammed on the brakes but it slid all the way across the road. The whole front of the car was in the house."
He went to jail and then to Second Genesis after the accident.
Gary, a 28-year-old patient, said he worked as a chemist at a Maryland Army base, and made a good income manufacturing and selling PCP on the side. He also smoked it. But slowly, said the articulate, softspoken man, he "went crazy on PCP."
Near the beginning of a four-month stay in a state mental hospital in Sykesville, Gary remained in what he called a psychotic state for nearly two weeks after he smoked his last batch of PCP. He remembered pulling the muscles in his chest trying to break his fabric restraints. And once, after breaking loose, he tried to commit suicide.
"I started bouncing my head off the floor," said Gary, who has been off PCP ever since.
A small part of the drug remains in the system of the chronic user for up to three years after the last high. PCP often is stored in fatty tissues, including those of the brain, and is not easily metabolized from the system, according to Hendricks. As a result, a user can exhibit what he called "mood aggravations" characterized by nervousness, loss of memory or aggressive behavior for no apparent reason.
Kolerick said a Saturday night smoker might refrain from driving that night, "but on Wednesday, because he doesn't have breakfast, all of a sudden it metabolizes. He's driving down the Beltway and he loses control--and he doesn't know why."
"What makes this drug more dangerous than anything else is the long-term effects," added Browne. "You could wipe it off the street today and we'll still have the problem two or three years down the road."