Behavior: PCP: A Terror Of a Drug

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Snorted, swallowed or injected, angel dust can kill

Angel dust is the most common name. It is also known as goon, busy bee, crystal, hog, elephant tranquilizer and superjoint. By any name, phencyclidine (PCP) is the most dangerous drug to hit the streets since LSD became widely available a decade ago. Its use is growing rapidly; a National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) study found that nearly a third of the young patients reporting to drug-treatment centers have tried PCP and one-fifth used it regularly. Angel dust has been linked to hundreds of murders, suicides and accidental deaths—214 last year in the Detroit area alone. Says a Boston drug hotline worker about new PCP users: "They don't know what they're getting into. They think it's just some easy high. Man, are they surprised!"

A user in California walked into a house that he had picked at random, killed a baby and stabbed a pregnant woman in the stomach. Under influence of the drug, a man in San Jose, Calif., tore out both his eyes with his bare hands. In the Chicago area, more than a dozen cases of drownings have been attributed to PCP use: victims lose a sense of direction and space and cannot fight their way out of the water.

The effects of the drug are so unpredictable that users call it "heaven and hell." Irrational or violent action is typical of chronic users, but even dabblers are not immune to sudden rages. A small dosage of PCP can produce a high that resembles drunkenness and can lead to anything from euphoria and a sense of bouncing to depression and hallucinations. Larger doses can bring convulsions, psychosis, uncontrollable rage, coma and death. "It's a real terror of a drug," says NIDA Director Robert DuPont. "Everything people used to say about marijuana is true about angel dust."

Developed in the 1950s as an anesthetic, PCP was banned for human use after tests showed erratic side effects, and it is now legal only as a tranquilizer for monkeys and apes. It can be snorted as a powder, injected as a fluid or swallowed as a pill. But usually the drug is dusted or sprayed over parsley, mint leaves or marijuana and smoked. Some dealers doctor low-quality marijuana with it. Others simply sell it to naive youngsters as LSD, THC (the active ingredient in marijuana), mescaline or even cocaine.

One reason for the rapid proliferation of PCP is that the drug is cheap and available. For $100, a handy amateur can manufacture PCP worth $100,000 on the street.

"It's a terribly easy thing to do," says Hugh Shanahan, a federal Drug Enforcement Agency official in Los Angeles. "It requires no sophisticated equipment. Even someone without a chemistry background can do it." Thus PCP is churned out in hundreds, possibly thousands of makeshift labs around the country, often in remote areas, where there is less chance that its telltale ether odor will be detected.

Though police often track down these producers through tips from shocked and disgruntled PCP users, they have another way of finding the labs. Some solvents used in turning out PCP are so volatile that L.A. police have zeroed in on several labs simply by following up fire-department reports of suspicious explosions.

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