PHENCYCIDINE is a powerful synthetic drug that is legally produced and highly valued for use as an animal tranquilizer. It was not intended for use by humans. Now, however, it is being illegally manufactured for human consumption and has rapidly become a new and dangerous addition to the drug culture. It goes by the name of PCP -- or sometimes "angel dust." But its effects on people are anything but heavenly.

Part of the drug's danger is its unpredictability. Taken in various amounts, it can be either a depressant, a stimulant or an hallucinogen; no one knows what amount of the drug will cause what state of being. Nor do we know whether the drug has any lasting biological or psychological effects. What is known is that PCP is easy to produce, that it is taken largely by adolescents and young adults, that it can be combined with or "hidden" in alcohol or other drugs, and that it can cause temporary amnesia, hallucinations, acute paranoia, delusions of superhuman strength, extremely violent outbreaks and other symptoms of schizophrenia.

Usuage of the drug has risen sharply in recent years, according to officials of the National Institute for Drug Abuse, who freely acknowledge that their statistics on PCP-usage probably are very conservative. The Drug Enforcement Administration, responding to the increasing evidence of high drug usage and abuse of PCP, is about to reclassify it as a significantly dangerous drug. Drug officials also say that the Washington area is one of the centers for the illegal manufacture and sale of PCP. Montgomery County prosecutors have said that PCP is "the drug of preference" for illegal drug users there. And during the last three years over a thousand Southeast Washington youths have been treated at St. Elizabeths Hospital for schizophrenia after using the drug. Dr. Paul V. Luisada, a hospital official who's done research on the effects of PCP, has said that PCP "is the most dangerous drug there is. . . . It's in a class by itself in its ability to cause people to become violent and dangerous and otherwise act in unpredictable ways."

The growing litany of horror stories about PCP-usage argues persuasively for supporting two bills now before the Maryland General Assembly. Both the bill in the House of Delegates and a companion measure before the Senate would increase the penalties for manufacture and distribution of PCP. The House measure would increase the maximum penalties from five years in prison and a $15,000 fine to 10 years and a $20,000 fine; the Senate measure calls for a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail and a $25,000 fine. We have no strong preference for one measure over another, the get-tough stance regarding PCP is the important thing. The laws in both the District of columbia and Virginia and in most states regarding the illegal manufacture and sale of PCP basically follow the federal statutes -- relatively lenient prison sentences and fines. But we suspect that as the terrifying effects of PCP become better known, more states will want to consider the thinking behind the Maryland proposals: That is, that, given the ease with which PCP can be illegally produced and the profits that can be realized from its sale, it's important now to up the stakes for those who are either now in or considering this illegal line of work.