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"Wet" and Wild: PCP's Horror Show

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Osvaldo Rivera arraigned for murder photo via

By Jeff Deeney

02/05/13

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But Bohrman is quick to stress that police sometimes need to use force in violent situations to restore order and protect the public. “The police are the last line—they can’t hand off a mental health crisis to somebody else, like we social workers can,” she says. “A police officer’s number one priority is for his or her own safety and the safety of fellow officers. Subduing force can be necessary to get control over a violent person, and it’s important to remember that PCP is an analgesic. The amount of pain that would cause a normal person to relent and give officers control is not the same as that of someone on PCP.”

The worst part about media-driven hype is that it demonizes all PCP users, while only a very small number engage in violent or bizarre behavior. The result is that little reliable information is available about how to safely use the drug. “One of the challenges is that wet is actually a mix of drugs,” Bohrman says. “Often PCP is cut with embalming fluid, so users probably don’t know whether they’re smoking straight PCP or PCP cut with other chemicals. Many users also soak marijuana in wet, adding THC to the mix of PCP and embalming fluid and whatever else might be present. We don’t know how all these different variations of chemicals affect users differently.”

Such confusion about basic details of wet manufacturing was obvious in the case of the Camden murders as news outlets reported law enforcement claims that a “virulent strain” of PCP was responsible for the murders. But what made this batch of wet so dangerous? Did it have a higher content of PCP, or other chemicals with a particularly toxic effect? This wasn’t clarified; nothing was learned from these tragedies.

In the wake of this summer’s murders, Camden announced a crackdown on wet trade and use.

“The effects of smoking wet can range from sedating to violent to hallucinating to people stripping off their clothes because they feel like they’re burning up,” Bohrman says. “But the lack of serious research into what causes some PCP users to become violent means it’s really hard to develop a harm-reduction program that could instruct users who are going to use the drug to minimize their risks.”

The little information available on PCP harm reduction is mainly on web forums where drug users give advice based on personal experience (use small amounts, go slowly, wait to see how the effects feel before using more). Another complication is that users with mental health disorders predisposing them to psychosis likely can’t use the drug for any extended period of time in any amount without winding up in a crisis that requires police and medical intervention. What would a harm-reduction program for these users look like? Would doctors be willing to adopt it on psych units?

What is clear is that the limits of enforcement in winning the war against PCP have likely been reached. In the wake of this summer’s murders, Camden announced a crackdown on wet trade and use. But there’s no indication that these law enforcement efforts are working. A public health approach could make everyone’s life in PCP-dense neighborhoods a little easier: the users who smoke the drug and hurt people in their communities, the cops who are tired of dealing with what they see as self-inflicted insanity, and the doctors who are frustrated having to treat the same wet smokers cycling through their psych units and taking up public funds that they feel could be better used treating people with severe mental illnesses.

Most wet users say that they have no problems using the drug. They enjoy smoking it. “Wet is a mellow high for me,” Jared says. “I use it to get out of my head for a minute. It takes my mind off things that be stressing me out.”

The neighborhoods where Jared and the vast majority of PCP users live are among the poorest and most violent in our nation. The stress of getting through each day can be overwhelming, and the desire to take a “feel no pain” break and numb out for a few hours is understandable. Most wet users pose no threat to themselves or others, and education about how to minimize the drug’s risky side effects could, in turn, minimize dangerous episodes.

Should we demonize all wet smokers—and deny them reliable information on how to maximize their safety—because a small number of users go berserk and make headlines? Or should we take a zero-tolerance stance on such a high-risk drug that provides little tangible social benefit and has outsized costs? These are tough questions that must balance the value we place on both the lives of addicts and the rights of poor communities to enjoy the same sense of safety and security as the rest of us.

Jeff Deeney is a Philadelphia social worker and a writer who is in recovery. His column, "Street Beat," runs regularly in the The Fix. He is also a contributing writer at The Daily Beast.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated incorrectly that Osvaldo Rivera had killed his own children. The Fix regrets the error.

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