"Wet" and Wild: PCP's Horror Show
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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.”