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Return of angel dust? ERs see spike in PCP, synthetic drugs

A synthetic cannabis product named 'Kronic' which is legal to buy in Australia, on sale at the 'Fulfillment Adult Shop' in Newcastle, costing $50 for ...
A synthetic cannabis product named 'Kronic.' Synthetic marijuana can mimic the effects of PCP in some users.Rex Features via AP file

It was about 1:15 a.m. when Jarees Robinson, 32, was arrested while standing on a street corner in Manchester, Conn. He was naked. Police drove him to a local hospital where he became agitated and combative — digging his fingernails into an officer's hand, biting another on the leg — despite being pepper sprayed and tasered. 

“He didn’t remember much” afterwards, Capt. Christopher Davis, a spokesman for the Manchester police department told “He said he had purchased PCP in Hartford, that he has an ongoing issue with PCP, and that he was sorry for his actions.”

If you’re over the age of 40, you could be excused for thinking this is an incident from the 1980s when PCP, an illegal drug notorious for causing violent, bizarre behavior when smoked, caused public panic and then faded away. But Robinson’s run-in with the law took place two weeks ago.

In fact, last month, the federal government's Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) announced that emergency room visits related to PCP use shot up more than 400 percent, from 14,825 to 75,538, between 2005 and 2011, the most recent available data. 

Is PCP — most commonly known as angel dust, among other street names — coming back as a scourge on American streets? In reality, it's not PCP that worries drug abuse experts, but the rising popularity and availability of newer, hallucinogenic chemical compounds. 

A synthetic cannabis product named 'Kronic' which is legal to buy in Australia, on sale at the 'Fulfillment Adult Shop' in Newcastle, costing $50 for ...
A synthetic cannabis product named 'Kronic.' Synthetic marijuana can mimic the effects of PCP in some users.Rex Features via AP file

Because drugs such as ketamine or synthetic pot are streaming onto the illicit market — many of which can make a user behave as if he or she used PCP, experts say — police, doctors, and even users themselves often don’t know what’s been taken.

“I haven’t dealt much with PCP lately,” Drug Enforcement Administration spokesperson Rusty Payne said in an interview. Payne suggested what looks solely like PCP may be some PCP, along with hundreds of other new hallucinogenic chemicals.

First created by the Parke-Davis pharmaceutical company in the 1950s as an anesthetic, and given the trade name Sernyl, PCP was soon found to cause severe psychotic side effects and taken off the human medicines market in the 1960s. By then, however, it had gained a foothold among drug experimenters who called it the “PeaCe Pill.” By the middle 1970s, it was making headlines. Today, scientists use it to mimic schizophrenia in lab animals. 

DAWN data relies on reports submitted by emergency departments across the country. But University of California San Diego toxicologist and emergency room physician Dr. Richard Clark, explained that typical ER drug screens check for only a few drugs. Some routine tests include PCP, but many don’t. So doctors often rely on behavioral symptoms to decide somebody has taken PCP.

If an ER patient self-reports using a particular drug, there’ll usually be no screening at all. And even when a test is ordered, and includes PCP, a number of abused drugs, like ketamine and DXM (dextromethorphan, an ingredient in some cough medications), can generate false positives for PCP.  

Also, since there’s no quality control agency for consumers of illegal drugs, abusers often think they’ve used PCP when, in fact, they’ve been sold synthetic cannabis (also known as Spice or K2), or bath salts or any of scores of manufactured chemical compounds created in the U.S., or in Chinese or other foreign labs, that can cause the same kind of behavior as PCP.

“There are a lot of research chemicals around now, lots of white powders, more than there has ever been,” Dr. Julie Holland, a New York City psychiatrist and expert on drugs of abuse, said.

Many of these chemicals, sometimes derived from phencyclidine, the chemical name for PCP, trigger the same brain cell receptors as PCP.

“The truth is, it’s probably not just PCP that emergency rooms are seeing,” Holland said.

Dr. Christopher Gilbert, a pulmonologist at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania reported this year on two cases of respiratory failure at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. PCP rarely causes such respiratory failure, but both patients said they’d been smoking PCP-laced marijuana.

One likely explanation, Gilbert said in an interview, is that PCP was often called “embalming fluid” and that actual embalming fluid — mostly formaldehyde, which can cause lung damage — was used to treat the joints.

While use may have declined dramatically since the mid-1990s, popular awareness of PCP got a bump in August when Rolling Stone reported that NFL player Aaron Hernandez was a heavy user of PCP before being charged with murder. And in 2012, Los Angeles police busted the largest PCP lab ever discovered on U.S. soil.

Lt. Scott Fairfield of the Bell Gardens police department, part of the interagency task force that arrested the lab’s operators, said police found 130 gallons of liquid PCP, enough for 10 million doses (users often dip marijuana or tobacco cigarettes into PCP) and enough chemicals to make another 500 gallons. The lab was shipping gallon containers to addresses in Texas, Washington, D.C. and other states.

At the street level, it doesn’t much matter whether PCP alone, or PCP along with many other, newer, compounds are leading to the rise in ER visits found by DAWN. The end result is often the same.

This month, police in Allentown, Pa., found a 36-year-old woman acting bizarrely, making strange gesticulations, near an intersection. Her 6-year-old child stood nearby. She tested positive for PCP. However, chief Joseph Hanna told, his department hasn’t seen any spike in PCP use.

While Dr. Robert Shesser, chair of the department of emergency medicine at George Washington University in Washington D.C., hasn’t noticed any uptick in PCP use though the district is thought to be the nation’s PCP epicenter, he agreed with other experts about the dangers of new synthetics.

“There is this whole new category of [hallucinogens] that never existed before, and synthetic cannibinoids. They do produce psychosis and there is more of that now.”

Brian Alexander is a frequent contributor to NBC News and a co-author of “The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction.”