The Washington metropolitan area has become the focal point of a nationwide crackdown on PCP manufacturing and distribution staged in recent months by federal drug agents.
Since the formation of special PCP task force units across the country in January and the formation in June of a Special Action Office of the DEA, an office devoted entirely to PCP investigations, 10 PCP labs have been uncovered in the Washington area, more than any place else in the country.
Executing search warrants along with local police, Washington area agents have recovered PCP, a hallucinogenic drug, and PCP manufacturing materials valued at about $2 million on the street.
In the course of these raids, they have also recovered 39 firearms, including pistols, shotguns and knives, most of them registered legally, and arrested 26 suspects in connection with the labs.
"I think it is fair to say that PCP is now more widely used across the country and in Washington than LSD," said David G. Canaday, special agent in charge of the Washington field office. "It's easier to make and easier to get than LSD.
"The PCP thing right now seems to be more of an East Coast phenomenon," he added. "We've discovered 10 labs here partly because the men are doing a good job partly because there are probably more of them to be discovered here."
Because of the marked rise in the manufacture and use of PCP across the country during the past three years, DEA administrator Peter B. Bensinger had labeled it "a No. 1 priority" for his agency in the coming months.
PCP, known to chemists as phencyclidine and known on the streets as "angel dust," in some forms and "killer weed," in others, in an animal tranquilizer which first began appearing on the streets in about 1967. It has come into vogue only during the last three years, however.
PCP can be ingested as a liquid or taken as a tablet but is most commonly sprayed on parsley and smoked like marijuana.
A PCP high is often accompanied by feelings of weightlessness, diminishing body size, loss of comprehension and feelings of dying or being dead, according to drug officials.
"One of the things that is attractive about it to people is that the profits involved in making and distributing it can be so enormous," Canaday said. "It doesn't take much money or much room to set up a PCP lab and it can be moved easily if necessary."
Because the drug gives off an etherlike smell when being manufactured, Canaday said, most of the labs seem to be in rural areas where there is more open space.
DEA officials estimate the street value of the drug at about $700 an ounce. They also estimate that more than seven million Americans have used PCP, most during the past three years.
But the agents have been frustrated because, in most cases those arrested in raids are either freed from jail shortly after their arrest on a personal recognizance bond or a minimal cash bond.
In addition, first time offenders convicted of manufacturing or distributing the drug often receive suspended sentences or probation, DEA officials said.
Because of this, Bensinger, testifying before the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control on Aug. 8, asked Congress to consider legislation which would stiffen the penalties against PCP distributors.
He pointed out that even though arrests for PCP violations doubled in 1977, the average prison sentences imposed dropped from about three years to two years.
"I believe that the sentencing structure for PCP violators should reflect the emphasis we are placing on the PCP abuse problem," Bensinger told the committee.
Canaday labeled PCP a "fad drug," saying it was in fashion with the "in" and would probably continue to be in vogue for a while.