"Wet" and Wild: PCP's Horror Show
The scariest drug on the street, "wet" makes a few users commit grotesque murders that even cops can't stomach. Crackdowns are getting ugly. What will it mean for the many people who use PCP safely?
A Camden, New Jersey mother, high on drugs on a late summer night in August of 2012, decapitates her own son in a fit of violent psychosis, places his head in the kitchen freezer, calls 911, admits the crime to a dispatcher and then stabs herself to death before police arrive on the scene. Across town just days later a man, also in a drug-fueled psychosis, steals into his neighbor’s house as their children sleep and slits both their throats with a knife, killing one and critically injuring the other.* The horrific, gory details are splashed across the front pages of tabloids nationwide.
The uninitiated may assume that 34-year-old Chevonne Thomas and 31-year-old Osvaldo Rivera were high on so-called bath salts when they took these childrens’ lives. The synthetic meth analog got major bad press last year as the new monster-making killer drug epidemic. But in the big East Coast cities from Boston to Washington, DC, bath salts have barely registered as a blip on the street drug scene. Users here that want a wild drug ride turn to the old standby PCP, despite its reputation for triggering schizophrenia-like states that lead to bizarre episodes of violence. Phencyclidine (scientific name) is a dissociative anesthetic that shuts off certain brain chemicals producing a detachment from reality and states of mind as extreme as mania, delirium and psychosis. It is the most dangerous hallucinogen, never approved for medical use in humans because of its extraordinary side effects. On the street PCP is sold as an oily, liquid base called “wet,” in which either tea or mint leaves or tobacco cigarettes (“dippers”) are soaked and then dried and smoked.
While the war against PCP that raged in the ‘70s—when the drug was briefly almost as popular as pot among suburban high-schoolers—has been won, the drug has persisted in the inner-city drug market, typically densely distributed in poor, violent neighborhoods. It remains a niche drug, appealing to a small base of dedicated users, but its unpredictable effects, which often send wet smokers to jail or psych units, pose outsized health, social and economic costs.
An analysis of Philadelphia’s 2012 Adult Parole and Probation drug test submissions shows that PCP accounted for 10% of the total positive results. This figure is similar to the rate in Baltimore, DC and New York and has remained steady for a number of years. In Philly’s Badlands, in East Baltimore and in the South Bronx, PCP use remains a major community concern. Only 1% of high school seniors nationwide are estimated to have used the drug last year, evidence of its greater prevalence among the urban poor. In neighborhoods overburdened with elevated rates of mental health problems, domestic violence and gun deaths, PCP casualties create extra headaches for already-resource-starved social safety nets and law enforcement.
Psychiatrists at inner-city psych units are frustrated because wet soaks up so much of their time and funding. A typical drug user who presents at a psych unit for suicidal intentions associated with the crushing despair of dope sickness or three days of crack binging is easily stabilized with medication and quickly transferred to a far cheaper drug rehab unit. PCP users, however, will often sit catatonic for days before enough clarity returns for them to articulate their treatment needs. When wet’s anesthetic effect wears off, some patients need to be transferred to other hospitals to repair bones broken during a binge. Psych-unit stays run about $1,000 per day; other injury care costs can go much higher. Most PCP users are poor and uninsured, so taxpayers foot the bill.
"I’ve never had a bad trip like you read about in the papers where dudes be jumping out of windows," Jared says.
Cops hate PCP. Every officer who works an inner-city neighborhood where wet gets traded and used has heard the horror stories of monsters with the strength of 10 men who don’t even blink when blasted with a Taser, and many have responded to hectic PCP crisis calls. When high-profile incidents like those in Camden last summer hit the front page, cops nod at each other knowingly: PCP is bad news, always was, always will be. The justice system has adjusted its policies accordingly; while on probation, drug users can usually test positive for drugs like marijuana multiple times before being pulled in front of a judge for a violation hearing, but PCP is zero tolerance. One hot urine can find a user in a courtroom, threatened with going back to jail.
Many users protest that they’re unfairly tarred, that PCP can be used safely and responsibly. “Hell, no, I ain’t never beat up on no cops,” says Jared, a 25-year-old North Philadelphia heroin dealer and wet user for the past three years. “When I smoke wet I don’t even hallucinate, and I’ve definitely never had a bad trip like you read about in the papers where dudes be jumping out of windows and shit.”
Jared admits that he once had a bad reaction to the drug, but the situation didn’t escalate into anything that would make the evening news. “I was smoking once with these three dudes and I got paranoid real bad,” he tells me. “Like suddenly I just knew these dudes were about to roll me so I started thinking that I had to get them first. I was definitely getting homicidal. But I just left, you know. I didn’t hurt nobody. Besides, I was alone on these dudes’ turf, so it wasn’t crazy to think some shit could go down.”
One problem with getting a handle on the PCP problem and crafting sensible interventions is the abundance of hype and lack of serious study. Casey Bohrman, a social worker and PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice, became an expert—one of very few—during her research on police crisis interactions with the mentally ill and substance abusers, many of whom are high on PCP.
Of the police who interact with wet users in Philly, Bohrman describes a strained mix of old-school, knuckle-cracking drug warrior attitudes and growing understanding of mental health challenges faced by poor neighborhoods.
“I’ve conducted many interviews with officers in the 25th police district [overseeing the brutally violent neighborhoods where PCP is used and traded], and I’ve found that when they respond to mental health crisis calls, they’re very nervous about approaching people with mental illness,” Bohrman says. “Mentally ill people can be violent and unpredictable, and officers don’t want to get harmed, but at the same time they want to try not to hurt the person in crisis.”
However, when officers find out that the person in crisis smoked wet, their perception of the interaction changes from a helping intervention involving a sick person to one where the gloves come off and the submission of a crazed drug addict will be gained by any means necessary.
“Police use dehumanizing terms like ‘zombies’ or ‘possessed’ when referring to people who use PCP,” she says. “They talk about users as if they’re inhuman. I think it makes it easier for police to justify the use of force.”
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.