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3 PCP Use in Four Cities: An Overview PDF Print E-mail
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Books - Angel Dust
Written by Harvey W Feldman   

When a new illicit drug appears on the street, it usually comes to the attention of conventional society because of its negative effects. Treatment personnel see only those cases in which clients have had adverse reactions, and representatives of the criminal justice system become acquainted with it when crimes, sometimes violent ones, become associated with its distribution or use. Unless researchers spend time directly with users, which is rare, they usually do not know of the drug at all until it has achieved official recognition. From the beginning, an illicit drug has a built-in bias that begins with the premise that street drug use is not only evil but dangerous to the health of users and damaging to the social order. With PCP, the bad name the drug began with continued to grow worse, so that by the time the lay public was informed of its ubiquity among youthful users, it was already associated with a litany of horrors that made any sensible person wonder how or why the drug was used at all. Part of the litany that developed about PCP goes something like the following:

PCP first appeared around 1967 in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco under the name of the PeaCe Pill, but quickly developed a bad street name because of the adverse effects the drug produced. Use of it disappeared by 1968. That same summer, it was introduced in New York as Hog. It did not develop as a drug of choice, and by 1969 it was sold primarily as a drug of deception and mislabeled as LSD, cocaine, and THC, the active agent of marijuana.

The sources of this information were either medical clinics that served "hippy" type populations or laboratories that tested the content of street purchased drugs. More than a dozen similar summary articles have been published with essentially the same historical content. In all these summary reports, the portait of the PCP user supported the negative aspects of the drug. Users were pictured as being in a state that was physically and emotionally pathological, usually with the following symptoms: acute confusional state, disorientation, gross ataxia, and exhibiting a blank, purposeless stare. Further, the user was often described as agitated and on the verge of violence, with a potential for slipping into a psychosis that could last for weeks, even months. In short, there was little about the drug that was pleasant, and users were characterized as bizarre and dangerous.

Now that four ethnographers have met, observed over 300 PCP users, and interviewed 100 of them during a period of 3 months in Philadelphia, Seattle/Tacoma, Miami, and Chicago, it appears that much of the history of the drug is inaccurate, at least as it compares with users' versions of their own experiences, and that much of the characterization of users is slanted and misleading. Our ethnographic study has illustrated that there are serious gaps in our reporting system, so much so that during the period of time in which the youth population began exploring PCP use around 1967 to 1968, our nation's drug experts were almost totally unaware of this youth phenomenon in the streets and neighborhoods of our cities and suburbs. Even now, we are able to offer only a retrospective analysis of how a new drug like PCP came into popular use.

A Brief History of PCP Use on the Street

In the United States, drug patterns change quickly. Rather than having drug fads—meaning that a new drug emerges, becomes popular for a period of time, and then vanishes—there appears to be waves of drug popularity in which a drug will burst on the scene, enjoy a brief or extended favored status, and then die down but not totally disappear. Richard Blum 0971) has noted that new drugs, once they appear, continue to be used and almost never go into extinction. The street history of PCP is illustrative of this pattern and may well serve as a theoretical model for the way new drugs come into use, enjoy their time of popularity, and then become incorporated into the street pharmacopoeia of drugs and chemicals users have available to them. With PCP, the pattern had three historical phases: (1) the introduction, (2) the spread, and (3) a period of stabilization.

The Introduction

Prior to the early 1970s, when the White House Special Action Office on Drug Abuse Prevention encouraged the opening of drug treatment programs throughout the country, services for drug users tended to be located mainly in our largest cities. It was there that the drug expertise congregated. One need not be surprised, then, that PCP has been reported first to have emerged in San Francisco and New York where drug programs and reporting systems concentrated. This, however, appears to be an artifact of who does the reporting rather than an accurate representation of drug-using patterns among the nation's youth. Our ethnographic study in the four selected cities indicates that PCP emerged in each of the cities at approximately the same time it was reported to appear in San Francisco, around 1967-1968. In the late 1960s, the drug appeared in pill form. In Philadelphia the pills were called T-tabs. In Miami they were briefly marketed under the name of PeaCe pills, a name which was dropped in favor of THC tabs. In Chicago they were also sold as THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in marihuana), a drug that was never available in the illicit marketplace in any of the four cities. Whether drug users ever believed this deception or simply associated the effects of PCP with THC is not known. Eventually, PCP came to be called tic, or "titch," a kind of bastardization of THC and an acronym that could be pronounced. From the reports, it is unclear whether anyone understood or even cared about the deception; it appears that PCP was sold in this way not because it had such a bad name on its own, but because the anesthetic effects it produced were associated with the label THC or tic. To this day, PCP is called tic in both Miami and Chicago. In pill form, however, PCP proved to be more concentrated and stronger than users could manage (although in Philadelphia, it was looked on as too weak among some users).

This simultaneous appearance of PCP in different parts of the country is one of the surprising findings of this study. Although it was not possible to explore how this phenomenon evolved, we were able to note that two components were necessary before information about a new drug could move so rapidly across the country without the aid of the mass media—namely, a communication network that is presently not well understood and the existence of literally thousands of social groups with members who have a willingness to experiment with new substances that promise a new, different, or unusual experience. While we were aware that this orientation existed among young adults and older adolescents, we were surprised to note the same and perhaps even greater enthusiasm among younger adolescents on the elementary and junior high school levels.

Mobility evidently played an important role in communicating information around the country. In Seattle, for example, all that was necessary to introduce PCP to one of the groups Jennifer James studied was the introduction of two brothers from an area of California where PCP had developed a foothold. They had moved, not as the wanderers and runaways of the 1960s, but as members of a nuclear family when the father was transferred by his company.

Similar information about transmission patterns was not as specific in the other three cities, since we did not attempt to explore this feature. It was clear, however, that groups of drug-experienced adolescents existed in abundance in each of the study cities. The nature of this ready market of users will be discussed in the next section. For now, the fact of their existence is theoretically important in order to understand how PCP use could spread so quickly across the United States that it appeared to emerge simultaneously in the four cities we studied.

The Spread

The second phase of the historical development, from approximately 1973 to 1975, was the spread of PCP use throughout each of the study cities. It seems that once a drug has been introduced, local patterns begin to alter and modify the way it is used. Drug effects then become tailored to the local lifestyle. With PCP, it was immediately recognized that the effects of the drug could be too extreme. The heavy anesthetic effects in which the user stumbled into a comatose state were generally not considered desirable, although other psychedelic aspects of the experience were viewed as enjoyable. Further, the very potency of the drug was viewed as a challenge; and management of it became part of the lure that turned an otherwise distasteful drug experience into one that appealed to young people trying to establish their local reputations among peers. In other words, users enjoyed some of the effects but usually preferred them in a more controlled form. With experimentation, they discovered that different routes of ingestion could alter the nature of the high. Smoking was found to be less potent than pill form, and snorting made the drug even more controllable. In Philadelphia, for example, the drug was first smoked, then later snorted. Walters has noted that when snorting became the fashion among users in Philadelphia, the number of emergency room cases, according to DAWN data, dropped dramatically. Today, snorting is the preferred manner of ingestion among those people who seek a psychedelic experience from PCP.
During this phase of spread, when enthusiasm for PCP was rampant among the street participants in Chicago, high status was accorded those youths who were daring enough to try and enjoy the powerful anesthetic effects of PCP. The challenge of taking a tranquilizer that was intended not simply for animals but for large animals such as lions, horses, or elephants and then subsequently managing the aftereffect brought status to those young people involved in a peer system where risktaking was honored and respected. During this early period of spread, use of PCP was considered a form of status enhancement. In Chicago, Wiebel found that having symptoms of "burning out" brought higher status to PCP users, although this phenomenon lasted only a short time.

The Stabilization Period

The level of street sophistication users now seem to possess did not develop all at once. Nor did knowledge of some of the long-term effects of PCP become apparent immediately. In all four cities, however, concern about "burning out" developed quickly. More will be stated about this phenomenon in another section of this chapter. For now, the process of burning out on PCP was one of the most important inducements to developing street strategies to manage PCP. In fact it was the recognition of the potential permanent damage resulting from chronic PCP use that initiated the decline of PCP as a favored street drug. During this latter period, PCP continued to be used, mainly for the fun the high provided, but also because of its easy availability, since other equally powerful drugs like barbiturates were more easily kept off the illicit market by agencies of social control. Like a new dance craze, PCP eventually lost its flash and glitter. Rather than fading out of sight completely, it remained available to users because it still provided the kind of fun/adventure they sought. Except for the young adolescent, who traditionally has a heightened enthusiasm for acceptance, and the self-destructive young adult, who is most frequently an isolate rather than a group member, most drug users now take a realistic view of PCP, recognize its power, and make the necessary adjustments in their patterns of use and in their social relationships so that PCP, now firmly established in the arsenal of available intoxicants, can be used safely rather than recklessly. During this period of stabilization, there were, of course, new users introduced to PCP, but apparently not in the large numbers, nor with the enthusiasm of the earlier experimenters. This period has run from approximately 1976 to the present.

The Ready Market of Users

The spread of any new drug requires not only a substance with some appeal and the promise of an exciting high, but a reservoir of users who are willing to sample the drug and experience its effects. Who, one may ask, are these willing experimenters? How do they manage to challenge a drug like PCP when the true and apocryphal stories about its potency are frighteningly accurate and known? Previous ethnographic studies of drug users provide some hints as to the willing acceptance of a whole variety of adventurous activities. This eagerness for thrills was a feature that Preble and Casey (1967) recognized underpinned the street action of New York heroin addicts. The title of Michael Agar's (1973) ethnographic study of heroin addicts at the U.S. Public Health Hospital at Lexington, Ripping and Running, provides the tone and tenor of the lifestyle. And Sutter (1966) clearly described how young black dudes, as they called themselves in Oakland, California, strove to be "the baddest" in a world of action and violence. These same features of restlessness, a search for something to break up the humdrum, a kind of edginess that allows an eager acceptance of something new and different, exists now as an undercurrent in the middle-class youth culture. While violence and other assaultive behavior have not been completely incorporated into the middle-class way of life, the thrust into drug use has brought middle-class youths closer to the world of the criminal and the under class than any other adventure.

In all four cities, the dominant group that explored and pioneered PCP use was the white adolescent, both working-class and middle-class males and females. Among the white groups we studied, there existed a kind of restlessness, an orientation for action, and a sense that life generally was boring, uninteresting, and lacked recreational alternatives. Walters noted in the Philadelphia area he studied that "suburbia lacks spontaneity." But whether the setting was suburban Philadelphia, where cars and telephones connected the youth system, or inner-city Chicago, where youth groups historically congregated on corners and milled around mom and pop sandwich shops, the theme of looking for action was universal. One of the core pastimes of these young people has been not simply taking drugs, but the complete range of activities that surround and are associated with drug taking, a range of activities that always breaks up the boredom and brings a faster pace to life.

One may speculate on whether the 1970s generation of young people has accepted or rejected the social changes brought about during the turbulent sixties. Clothing styles are different; haircuts are shorter. Even the politics appear to be sharply conservative when compared with the radical actions on campuses during the earlier era. The one outlook, however, that young people of the 1970s clearly have accepted from their older siblings of the previous generation has been the view that life can be enhanced through the use of drugs and chemicals. In fact, it could be stated that they are the inheritors of the previous generations' knowledge of drugs and their effects, so that many of the past mistakes have been corrected and many of the dangers knowledgeably avoided. In other words, the present generation of drug users, despite the innocence usually associated with young people, has in its collective possession highly sophisticated information on the selection, distribution, and management of several dozen different substances, of which PCP is merely one of the most recent.

We have had difficulty drawing up a profile of the PCP user because our study indicates that they are rare in pure form. Closer to the reality is the adolescent, male or female, who identifies with a group of peers who collectively look favorably on the use of drugs as an integral part of enhancing life. These young people place a positive value on illicit drug taking, understand the dangers, and are willing to risk them. In fact, the risks themselves may be one of the more important features that underpin the motivation for use in the first place. In this sense, there are really not PCP-using groups. Instead, there are groups who use a broad spectrum of drugs. Since PCP is readily available and provides the essentials for an acceptable drug adventure, it has now become one of the many options from which young people can choose. Because it is easily manufactured, relatively inexpensive, and presents a challenge of the first order, it ranks high among the drugs used by the youths we studied, trailing only marihuana and beer in frequency of use.

In each of the groups, fringe members who frequently became loners were devotees of PCP and stated a preference for the extreme stoned state the drug produced in heavy doses. These oblivion seekers were rare and not typical of the usual adolescent who might use PCP in social situations but preferred other drugs. Although they are rare, each of the ethnographers reported on them in the four cities.

The groups that use PCP on a regular basis did not simply add drug use casually to their recreational options. Rather, they took to the process of getting high—planning the events, financing them, purchasing the drugs, and using them—with an excitement, no matter how earnestly their "cool" lifestyles might attempt to conceal it, that had the enthusiasm of a football rally and the fervor of a religious movement.

In our study, we noted that socioeconomic status was a key variable in determining not simply the selection of drugs, but the manner in which the drug was experienced. No matter what their socioeconomic status, all the groups had developed an identity that was largely associated with drug taking. In Philadelphia, it mattered little whether the groups were called "cools" or "rowdies" except that the different lifestyles tended to affect the intensity of PCP involvement. Each of the groups saw themselves as heavily involved in drug use that was controllable within the groups' prescribed limits. No group placed invidious meaning on the reputations they had developed as drug aficionados. In Chicago and Miami, the groups referred to themselves as "freaks," not in the old sense of being oddities, but in the 1960s meaning of having a dedication to taking drugs and enjoying both the high and the reputation. In Miami, Cleckner called her upper-class group "cognoscenti"—meaning having superior knowledge. Members of that group referred to themselves as "trip stars" and had in fact explored a wide range of high states in search of the best that each of the drugs, narcotics, and chemicals could offer. Having the necessary financial resources, they attempted to construct a drug experience in keeping with their pursuit of excellence in other aspects of their lives. In Seattle, in addition to the usual adolescent groups found in the other cities, there existed a kind of ragtag assortment of people who seemed to live on the fringes of working-class society, people who had found a common identity in helping each other through the various trials and tribulations of broken marriages, employment crises, occasional arrests and court appearances, and drug misadventures that had the comic sadness of a Mary Hartman soap opera. In all the groups, adolescent and adult, drug use played a key role in holding the group together, not only in the sharing that accompanies the process of purchase, use, and enjoyment of the high, but in the fellowship that arises out of the shared experiences that are sometimes frightening but give rise to a sense of solidarity when mutual help keeps members from completely running aground.

The societal view of drug users, especially of young drug users, is that they are victims. They are usually portrayed as morally weak, subject to peer pressure, and so hungry for group affection that they blunder unknowingly into drug experimentation that stupidly puts their health and lives in danger. The public response has been first to protect them from predators—whether those happen to be adult drug sellers or close friends. Whether or not this view has ever been an accurate portrait of young drug users we cannot say. Our study, however, showed that it does not easily apply to the members of the drug-using groups we studied in four cities. Instead, the young users we observed and interviewed possessed a rather sophisticated knowledge of various drugs, even if they could not always articulate that knowledge in a language that was scientifically accurate. Their enthusiasm for new drug experiences was not manifested as blind pursuits that took them recklessly into danger, although danger was clearly ore of the aspects of drug use they found appealing. Even 'ore appealing, however, was meeting the challenge of the risk and skillfully overcoming it. The more successful drug users—those who learned how to manage PCP—did not require the services of treatment programs. As a result, they seldom appeared as case material or statistics. And since almost all this knowledge was developed before the widespread use of PCP was known by the authorities, it can be assumed that the sophistication about PCP, if not about other drugs, was learned on the street.

Knowledge was not, of course, equally distributed in all communities nor to all groups. While it is our contention that a growing sophistication has developed among young drug users, different levels of knowledge clearly existed. In each group, it appears that at least one user took on the role of research scientist and scoured the library or sought out older, more experienced users for tidbits of information about a new substance. Our study indicates that socioeconomic status and educational achievement provided the background for good library work in the drug field. Although a leader in each group developed some knowledge about PCP, the quality of that knowledge was directly proportionate to the ability to find and use it. In Miami, among the "cognoscenti," the level of sophistication was astonishing. One respondent had not only read the popular reports, but had culled the library for the early studies and was conversant about the technical details of investigations in which PCP had been used as an anesthetic as well as a psychotomimetic. He was also acquainted with the special edition on PCP issued by Clinical Toxicology. Unquestionably, this acquisition of information provided the group with the kind of scientific information upon which they could determine dose level and other strategies for controlling and enjoying PCP. Even if they blundered, they understood the tactics for bringing around a member who overdosed. With their superior knowledge, they had little reason and even less incentive to use public treatment programs, where, they felt, the level of knowledge about drugs, particularly PCP, was inferior to their own.

Other groups were not nearly as literate, but they were no less informed about methods to control PCP, even if the citations they employed were taken from the street and not directly from the library. The major advantage a group like "cognoscenti" had over the run-of-the-mill adolescent groups, in addition to their educational superiority, was having access to the kind of resources that allowed them to develop safeguards against known dangers. While younger, less wealthy groups knew the dangers of overdose, they were subject to market fluctuations in drug quality and strength, so each purchase presented risks. The "cognoscenti," on the other hand, were able to buy in bulk, so that use of a known potency could be assessed within fairly well established limits.

The Street Perception of PCP

Previous literature on PCP has indicated that its effects are unpredictable. In fact, the word unpredictable tends to be one of the most widely used words when describing phencylidine, whether it refers to the behavior of users or the quality of the drug sold in the illicit market. Similarly, the drug is reputed to be sold under literally dozens of different names, which, according to reports, has made identifying it for research purposes difficult since users frequently know it only by its street name rather than its generic name. While it was true that users often did not know that drugs carrying different names were PCP, each local area had developed a relatively stable way of identifying the various forms in which PCP appeared on the street, although new forms were constantly being introduced. The assortment of names was not totally random, and the state of identifying PCP was not one of complete chaos.

In each of the cities, there have been attempts to attach a street name to the various forms of PCP in much the same way that different names were given to different forms and levels of strength of LSD. This attempt to gain uniformity allowed the user at least some rudimentary measure of quality and potency of the drug he purchased. In Seattle, for example, the name "crystal" was given to the purest form of PCP sold in that city. Its name matched its appearance, since it was white and crystalline. "Crystal flakes," a slightly weaker form, was similar in appearance but with a kind of oily texture. "Angel dust" or "dust" was considered to be good quality PCP that was cut with corn sugar, while "rocket fuel" was yellowish, moist, and coarse and considered low grade because it was the "dregs," the leftovers of a better grade. "Monkey dust" was a brown powder that contained lactose. Since almost all the PCP available in the Seattle area was manufactured, it was reported, by local amateur chemists, the quality was unknown and, as a result, unpredictable until the batch had been tested. But in the various options and mistakes that were possible, the names given locally would cover the range of available forms of PCP. In Philadelphia, on the other hand, PCP was available in two forms: leaf and powder or crystalline. All PCP in leaf form was called "angel dust" if it appeared on parsley or mint leaves, and it was called "killer weed" if it appeared on marihuana. In the powdered or crystalline form, it was called "Buzz," PCP, or THC, but generally was referred to as "buzz," undoubtedly because of the onomatopoetic association of sound it created in the user's head. The crystalline form of PCP could be manufactured in a variety of colors and textures. In Philadelphia, there was brown, yellow, and white PCP. In Chicago, where it was called "tic," it was also available in a variety of colors, and a special green PCP was put out for St. Patrick's Day.

These efforts to categorize PCP were made in order to establish a street form of quality control so that users had some viable way of assessing the strength and potency of the product they bought. In this way, they were able to judge and measure the quality and then determine the degree of intoxication they sought; when these attempts were not successful and users took more than they apparently intended, it was difficult to know with any certainty whether the fault lay with an unpredictable batch of PCP or some motivation of the user that was not immediately apparent.

The Subjective Effects of PCP

Probably no drug, not even heroin, which for 50 years has been considered the ultimate monster drug, has been considered more dangerous by drug-abuse experts than PCP. It has been presented to the mass media as though it were a live enemy, capable of inducing the young people who experiment with it to lose complete control of rationality, to be so overpowered by the drug that they helplessly and inescapably move directly to either a psychotic episode, suicide, murder, or a state of suspended confusion that only an indefinite commitment in a mental hospital will reverse. Even in its less potent forms, the drug has been reported to cause users to become belligerent and assaultive. In fact, some experts have cautioned emergency room personnel about treating PCP users without the help and assistance of police because of their inclination toward violence. One nationally known figure stated that the effects of PCP are so profound that when he was asked to consult with the United States Air Force, he suggested that any soldier found to have used PCP even once should be discharged because of the possible brain damage the drug can cause.

It would seem reasonable to ask at this point, if the drug were so dangerously potent, what would motivate users, not simply to try the drug, but to repeat use after the potent effects were experienced? Surely, if even a portion of the horror stories were true, would not a large number of PCP users have intimate first-hand knowledge of friends who had been decimated by the drug? And would not they themselves have startling autobiographical tales to tell of struggles with insanity or involvement in court cases in which they would be the central figure in some half-remembered violent conflict?

Perhaps the most important apsect of understanding the subjective effect of PCP on users is that it is an anesthetic whose effects are dose-related. Cleckner notes among her users in the Miami area that the set of the user toward the impending drug experience set the tone and tenor for the way it was enjoyed or disliked. When the drug is expected to provide an enjoyable experience, the likelihood is that the attitude or set of the user toward whatever happens will be positive. Later, we shall describe how even thoughts of death, which was one of the common themes of a PCP-induced state, could be enjoyed and defined as pleasant.

Similarly, the social context in which the drug effects were experienced was a key factor in shaping the subjective response. Most users preferred a context that was free of confusion, unexpected disruptions, and other people who did not understand how becoming "spacey," self-involved, and disoriented could be fun. Under these ideal circumstances, PCP was not an unpredictable drug. One had only to arrange the setting appropriately, make certain that the potency of the drug was properly assessed, and then look forward to enjoying the bizarre effects with a positive expectation. Under these carefully controlled circumstances, users seldom reported experiencing adverse acute effects.

As stated earlier, the effects of PCP are dose-related. Users who had experience with PCP learned that the different dose levels produced qualitatively different experiences. Walters has classified these levels into four categories: (1) "buzzed," (2) "wasted," (3) "ozoned," and (4) "overdosed." In the buzzed state, the user feels a mild euphoria, and rather than experiencing the drug as an anesthetic, the person is stimulated, so that activity is enjoyed. In this light state, users were known to attend school, take and pass tests, work at physical labor, and otherwise maintain a front of behavior that appeared straight and drug-free. When a user was in a condition of being wasted, the drug usually caused a bodywide anesthetic effect in which the user felt the effects profoundly in his legs and feet. Typically, the user found coordinating body movements difficult and speech somewhat slurred. Users described the sensation of walking as particularly amusing, since the actions gave the sensation that the ground had turned to sponge or marshmallows. In this state, users recognized that body movements were slowed, awkward, and unbalanced. In contrast to the outward awkwardness, users sensed a speeding up of thought processes and seemed to enjoy an odd sensation of being able to participate and observe themselves in what has been described as an out-of-body experience. Even in this more advanced drugged state, users in Philadelphia reported being able to work at physical labor but felt that traditional intellectual tasks were difficult to perform. The ozoned state is one in which the user becomes incoherent and immobile, although still conscious. In the overdosed state, the user loses consciousness, a condition that most experienced PCP users did not believe was life-threatening.

Arranging the setting with all the features of proper use in correct order was not always possible, however. For the amateur, knowledge of how to carry off such a plan was absent, although even under circumstances of maximum ignorance, it was still surprising in our four cities how few respondents claimed to have experienced ill effects on their first use. Among the younger and generally poorer users, there were few ways that the quality of a batch of PCP could be adequately assessed prior to use. The older group of "trip stars" in the Miami area had sufficient resources of education and wealth to know how and where to buy quality PCP, and then to purchase in sufficient quantity that the small group of devotees could keep on hand a known quality and potency for extended use. The groups with fewer resources usually either depended on testing the drug at the point of purchase or requested from the dealer some accurate appraisal of its potency. Both methods were less than foolproof.

One of the aspects of PCP that has perplexed some of the experts has been the users' claim to having different reactions to essentially the same drug. It has been reported often that many users associate the effect of PCP with a psychedelic experience similar to LSD, while others enjoy it for its depressant effects similar to those of barbiturates. To confuse the matter even more, other users insist that their experiences are unique and cannot be compared with those from any other intoxicating substance.

In addition to the effects that are dose-related, it was found that groups with different social styles sought different behavioral outcomes. In Philadelphia, Walters, for example, noted that the "cools" in his study tended to maintain a control over the effects of PCP, utilizing it often to help them carry out activities of work, school, and athletics. The "rowdies," those who preferred an action orientation, on the other hand, preferred the depressant effect more associated with barbiturates or alcohol than with the psychedelics. The intent was in keeping with the binge notion, in which a profound anesthetized state was produced. Instead of an evening of psychedelic fun, the "rowdy" preferred the "ozoned" state, where the loss of coordination and an agressive attitude sometimes moved him toward the kind of bravado and manly fights in which he became the inevitable victim.

For those who enjoyed the psychedelic effects, the major problem was to adjust the dose to match the expectation, to achieve either the buzzed state or the wasted state without slipping into the ozone. When the proper state had been achieved, the experience, no matter how strange it may seem to people who have never attempted it, almost always was defined in positive terms. The difficulties in speech and the inability to coordinate movement or to organize sequential thought—a state which users called "being fucked up"—may make the user appear to be incapacitated. But while the outside movement may slow, the internal awareness takes on a heightened sensitivity and alertness to the condition itself, so that the total experience, rather than being frightening, can be interpreted as something amusing, like looking at the world as though it were reflected in the distortions of fun house mirrors.

Adverse Reactions

No matter how sophisticated young users have become, they all recognized that PCP was a powerful drug. In almost all the popular and professional presentations of PCP, its potency and the dangers are heavily emphasized, so much so, in fact, that it becomes difficult to understand how anyone would chance a drug whose dangers are so extreme and pleasures so few. The dangers that PCP users recognize as part of the risk involved in using this powerful anesthetic were not, however, the ones that have been promulgated by the experts of the drug field. For the experts, the issues of social Control appear to rank high as concerns, and much has been written about the aggressiveness and violence associated with PCP use and the need to contain it. From the users' perspective, these events were too infrequent to be worthy of establishing even informal guidelines on management. Users simply did not associate violence with PCP. They did, however, have other concerns. These fall into three general categories: (1) taking too much, (2) disrupting normal routines, and (3) burning out.

The possibility of taking too much PCP on any given attempt was always a threat. Except for those individuals—most often the "rowdies"—who actively sought a heavily anesthetized condition, the aim of most PCP users was to control the effects so that they were not ozoned. While some users developed methods for moderating the high, the tactics were not foolproof unless users had the necessary resources to maintain control over manufacture and distribution. Except for groups like the "cognoscenti" in Miami, users were generally unable to buy the quantity that would assure them of quality control. Instead, the typical user would purchase enough PCP to last for a day at a time, and often for just the afternoon's or evening's high. With such variability in the supply of PCP, the strength fluctuated. Under these circumstances, unskilled users would not know in advance how potent any given dose of PCP actually was. Since the effects of the drug are dose-related, it is not surprising that users, particularly those in the early years of the spread, had qualitatively different experiences each time they experimented with PCP. Even though the drug developed a reputation for being unpredictable, the effects indeed were predictable, provided the strength and amount of PCP were known. Users, however, especially young ones, seldom had the resources necessary for total management of the effects.

Users did, however, establish informal guidelines for reducing the risks. One method of determining the strength of PCP came at the point of purchase in what Walters called "the sample toot." According to him, users in Philadelphia attempted to determine the authenticity and potency of PCP by its taste, texture, and color. They knew from accumulated experience that potency was associated with freshness and that freshness was determined by the degree of moisture, richness of color, and a chlorine-like pungency. Further, they had discovered that brown forms of PCP tended to be more potent. Details such as these helped the users determine the approximate dosage that would bring them into any of the four high states that PCP offered. Additionally, there were street methods for prolonghig the high, which was a form of controlling adverse effects. Again, in Philadelphia, one tactic was to snort a small amount and then put the rest in a glass of beer. The result was to achieve a quick PCP high in the snorting and then to extend it without significantly increasing the effects by slowly sipping the dissolved PCP in beer. Some users claimed that the mixture of marihuana and PCP helped to soften the high and provide less stress when the effects were wearing off during the "coming down" period.

A component of taking too much was the accompanying bad experience that was always unique to the individual user. Similar to the bad trip with LSD, some users simply did not like the kind of mental and body distortions the dissociative reaction brought on. Even though users often compared the PCP experience with LSD, there seemed to be a qualitative difference. With LSD, the existing reality was distorted often in a swirl of available colors and images taken from the surrounding world. Users draw a distinction between changing reality with LSD and creating a totally new reality with PCP, a condition they called "hallucinating." The content of these drug responses was often connected to changing body images—shrinking legs was a common theme—and a feeling of being isolated and nearly invisible. When these experiences became distasteful, users were often frightened, sometimes prone to crying, and thrust unexpectedly into depression. Often these negative experiences could be altered simply by flowing with the sensation until a different perspective of the same condition could be developed. When this was done successfully, rather than considering the distortion a handicap, the user could switch emotions, leave fearful feelings behind, and begin enjoying the same experience that had only moments before caused consternation.

One of the more consistent hallucinations that PCP apparently triggered—and this same phenomenon occured in even the early studies when PCP was being experimented with as a legitimate anesthetic—was a sense of death, called in the scientific literature meditatio mortis. Users often reported this strange byproduct of the high. Although their reactions were often fearful and triggered periods of crying, they often found the experience exciting and enticing. In a kind of out-of-body experience that made them something like Tom Sawyer viewing his own funeral, users reported a pleasant sensation associated with feeling like the "living dead."

These and other adverse reactions to the drug could be quickly reversed and converted into positive experiences, and frequently users could not decide whether a frightening experience was negative or pleasurable. In Chicago, for example, users often stated the contradictory view that the best experience was the worst experience. Fun and horror blended into a drug-induced tale, so that it appeared that adverse effects were the goal of taking PCP. In having frightening tales to tell, users could demonstrate their own daring in using a highly potent drug. They could meet and face an internal scene of terror, and then return from the vision and bring back to their friends a war story that was rich in hallucinatory detail. In this context, the worst could be the best even if, especially if, the experience took the user close and sometimes directly into death itself.

If the experience was so unsettling and threatening that it became a "bummer," friends were always available to calm a user and provide quiet reassurances that distortion would disappear as the effects of the drug wore off. Depending on the geographic area of the country, friends would offer either rfiilk or orange juice, attempt to have the user vomit, or suggest breathing exercises as methods for managing adverse reactions. Among the most sophisticated groups, supplies of Valium provided a chemical counteraction. Most often, just allowing the person to wait out the drug's effects in a quiet, nonthreatening environment, one as free of stimuli as possible, was sufficient to bring the person around.

Of all the adverse effects that were possible, the one that concerned PCP users the most was "burning out." It was abundantly clear to all the users that sustained and regular use of PCP would lead inevitably to burning out, a condition that was described as appearing "spacey." In this condition, a user was usually incoherent, unable to think clearly, forgetful with severe memory loss. As a result of these symptoms, the user generally developed a reputation as unreliable and lacking in fun and spontaneity, all characteristics that run counter to those features adolescents tend to value.

In the early days of the spread, Chicago and Philadelphia users, caught up in the enthusiasm of exploring a new and powerful drug, placed high status on being a "burnout." But as the condition became better understood on the streets and users began to recognize the handicaps of memory loss and an inability to think clearly, the status dropped steadily. In today's world of drug users, the PCP burnout is viewed with a mixture of pity and disgust. In all four of our study cities, the burnout is ostracized and demeaned. Groups of users have developed a system of values that is designed to protect members from becoming captured by drug use. Inherent in this ideological scheme is the belief that drugs and chemicals should provide fun, excitement, and danger, but they should not be allowed to destroy the physical, emotional, and mental capacities of users. In understanding this aspect of the young's approach to drug use, it can be seen that they are receptive to educational information about drugs, provided the information is not intended to dissuade them from drug use altogether. In their own way, this is the strategy they themselves have developed in managing burning out and burnouts.

In order to reduce the likelihood of burning out, users generally made a conscientious effort to keep use of PCP under control. They watched themselves and each other for signs of burnout. When signs appeared—and the signs are noticeably visible—users frequently began either to cut back on the amount of PCP they used or quit it altogether until the symptoms of burning out began to recede. For those users who were unable to cut down on their own, other group members generally pointed out the sympt6ms in efforts to alert a user that he or she was in danger of becoming a burnout. These attempts to alert the prospective burnout came in the form of warnings. When the warning failed, humor and ridicule were applied. And if the user still did not respond to these group sanctions, she or he was eventually labeled a burnout and was either scapegoated or ostracized.

Public Sites for Drug Use and Partying

The social context in which drug use took place played an important part in shaping the way the drug effects were felt. In all four cities, users preferred to use their drugs and chemicals in a setting where interruptions would be minimal. Familiar surroundings were more desirable than strange unknown settings. As Cleckner noted about her groups in the Miami area, the setting might also contain elements of challenge where users' ability to demonstrate control can be played out. Essentially, users had two choices of places where they could congregate and get high: public sites and private settings.

Private settings were not as available to young PCP users as they were to older ones who had established themselves outside their families of birth. Young users, then, were forced to contend with the problems that accompanied outdoor drug use. Once issues of weather had been adjusted to, users were forced to control their behavior in accordance to the possible scrutiny of nonusers, especially the police. As a result, they had to learn to accomplish two tasks: (1) to use drugs in such a way that police were unable to detect it, and (2) to present a public image even when heavily intoxicated that did not attract attention. Despite the potent effects of PCP, users became skilled in both accomplishments. The natural suspicion of police, especially regarding aspects of drug transactions and possession, had been an element of long standing in the drug world. Users depended on each other to establish warning systems about approaching police officers. Similarly, they developed skills, almost a sixth sense, about identifying plainclothesmen. In many instances, this alertness to danger seemed almost unnecessary, since it appeared in some of the cities that police did not generally place a high priority on arresting the young polydrug user, except in suburban Philadelphia, where the police were especially alerted to the noisy and public behavior of the rowdy groups.

The more important problem for those users in public sites was maintaining a posture of sobriety. Surprisingly, users were able to muster clarity for short periods of time and snap out of a heavily anesthetized state in order to respond to police questioning. For the young user, part of the adventure seemed connected to these periodic episodes with police. In the Philadelphia suburb Walters studied, the group of rowdies had selected a cemetery as a secluded area for gathering and drug use. The interlocking crypts, a kind of underground network which these young men had memorized over the years, provided an exciting escape route when police periodically attempted to break up the gathering and intrude on the drug taking. Despite their penchant for heavy sedation, they were able to maneuver this maze with unusual agility when police intruded on their merriment.

With the exception of the Chicago street corner groups, the overwhelming choice for taking PCP was in an apartment or house. When two or more young people got together for the purposes of drug taking, the event was called a party. Although partying was considered to be any event in which drugs were used in some planned or spontaneous fashion—such as snorting a line in the school bathroom or outside in the parking lot—the notion of partying tended to be associated with an organized event. Whenever possible, the party was held indoors away from possible intrusions. In today's youth idiom, the term party has become synonymous with drug taking. Walters has suggested a scheme for classifying parties that range from the small get-togethers to the large keg party. As he described them, the classification depends on the numbers and relationship of those in attendance. In the get-together, a small, intimate group would participate in conversation and share stories, secrets, and drugs. Larger parties were aggregates of the get-together with small constellations of groups, making up a large crowd of twenty to thirty people. When the party took place in a private home, attempts were made to create an atmosphere that would be favorable to drug taking. Where possible, lights, music, candles, and other decorative touches were added to provide an atmosphere that would blend rather than clash with the total drug experience. Parties were often held without adult supervision; but if adults were present, then young people could display their cleverness and cool demeanor by breaking off from the main group in order to use drugs secretly and return to display their skill in maintaining a sober front.

Cutting Down and Quitting

Among the drug users we studied in the four cities, there was considerable concern about keeping PCP use under control. As was noted in earlier sections, users were keenly aware of the impairments excessive PCP use could cause. When impairments associated with burning out appeared, users frequently decided to cut down on the amount they consumed rather than attempting complete abstinence. In the world of young people today, total abstinence is difficult, since inducements to use drugs appear constantly. Users in our study understood that there was nothing in the chemical makeup of PCP that produced dependency. Nor did they generally believe that the periodic yearning they sometimes had for PCP was a "psychological dependency." Instead, they recognized the imperatives of their group situation, where taking drugs was not only ubiquitous, but an activity around which almost all other activities were built. In this context, it was hard to quit using drugs when use tended to permeate a youth's total social world.

Under some circumstances, however, quitting PCP use frequently had the support of friends, particularly in those cases where burning out was a factor. As noted previously, burning out caused disruptions of friendship because the individual burnout tended to become unreliable. When these disruptions threatened the user's standing in the group, then a social incentive for quitting was created. Under these circumstances, where the individual was forced to choose between PCP use and continued support from friends, use of any particular drug usually took second place. Similarly, if a user found that his individual reaction to PCP was continually unpleasant and produced nothing more than a series of bad experiences, his friends usually supported his decision to discontinue use. Frequently, sustained use produced a kind of numbing effect, a prelude to burning out, which the user himself might identify before it came to the attention of others. When this occurred and a user recognized that some particular talent he possessed was being undermined or damaged by use of PCP, he would decide either to quit or to cut down sharply on the frequency or amount.

Quitting PCP use was a decision that almost all users faced sooner or later, whether they eventually decided to do so or not. In our groups of users, PCP use was closely associated with early adolescence in much the same way that sniffing glue was associated with 9- and 10-year-olds. To continue using PCP on a regular basis past middle adolescence—Walter placed the age of decision around 16—called into question the individual's capabilities to plan for the future, to begin thinking about and taking on more mature roles. Even though drug use would certainly continue for almost all the users in this study, it was discovered that use of PCP in particular was considered inappropriate to the expectations of approaching adulthood. For those people who continued using PCP in moderation, there did not appear to be any set of formal sanctions. But for the individuals who preferred PCP, those dedicated "dusters," low status seemed assured, since all the street associations of steady use centered on issues of reduced intelligence and stupidity, traits that indicated a state of perpetual dependency rather than mastery, which was, after all, what users tried to demonstrate when they ingested a drug as powerful as PCP. As users moved into adulthood, their need for demonstrating valor and the capacity to master a powerful drug lessened.

The Criminal Justice System and Treatment

Despite almost daily use of drugs and frequent public displays of noisy behavior, there were few arrests of PCP users. As a result, few of the respondents in our study became involved with the criminal justice system or develOped familiarity with the court or correction system. Because of this, these polydrug users generally did not tend to think of themselves as criminals. The few exceptions to this generality were the burnouts, who had a tendency toward rowdy behavior. Rather than the drug itself being considered the cause of police attention, it was the reputation of the offender, who, with or without the use of PCP, had become known as a troublemaker.

There were clear indications that the police in each of the cities gave low priority to harrassing or arresting the street-level drug user. Just how much this policy has become an official one within city police departments we cannot, of course, state. The apparent acceptance by the police of drug use among young people, however, was consistent with reports on the way school authorities and employers responded. The everyday practice would tend to suggest that drug-using behavior has become an accepted, if unwelcome, fact of life. In Chicago, for example, rather than arresting young drug users on charges of illegal possession, drugs were often simply confiscated and users warned.

The only two exceptions to the practice of overlooking drug-using activities were in those situations in which users became involved in behavior that disrupted public order or were caught in life-threatening situations such as drug overdoses. If the police were called, they had no choice but to respond to complaints. Even in those circumstances, they tended to manage them more like family quarrels and act as mediators rather than to respond as though serious criminal activities were in progress. In overdose situations where police were involved, the usual outcome was to turn the matter over to medical professionals, usually those in the local hospital emergency rooms. In those few instances where users suffering from an overdose of PCP were taken to hospitals, the condition of the patient was reported to have worsened with medical intervention. Within the drug users' network, the usual practice was to allow the user to wait out the effects of the drug and to keep him and the environment as calm as possible. In emergency rooms, it appeared that the management of PCP users sometimes exacerbated the situation. In most situations, hospital personnel had been informed that the typical PCP user was prone to violence and assaultive behavior. As a result, users were often put in constraints. In all the cases where this happened the treatment experience became a nightmare.

Within each of the drug-using groups, the most common view of treatment programs was to see them as extensions of the criminal justice system. They were looked on with distrust and suspicion and used only as a last resort. Emergency rooms, for example, were seen as staffed by incompetents, where a serious problem with PCP would probably be worsened by mishandling that would panic the user who was already having a bad reaction. Almost all the users we studied did not interpret their current condition as requiring change, since few of them believed that their use of drugs had caused them problems they could not themselves handle. As a result, there was little interest in or incentive to seek the kind of help or counseling offered in drug treatment programs. Users were, however, receptive to help and tended to gravitate toward those few programs which either set up an outreach component, such as Northwest Youth Outreach in Chicago, or provided drug analysis information, such as Upfront, Inc. in Miami. And since few of the respondents had been arrested, there was only limited experience with involuntary treatment. For those few who had been referred through the court, they were sent to therapeutic communities or day care centers. Because the data were so sparse, little can be said about their experience with treatment programs other than it was the general assessment of the four ethnographers that the outcomes were not particularly successful.

Violence and PCP

Because of the common association in the mass media of PCP with violence, particularly those television specials that placed a special emphasis on it, this topic was one the four ethnographers were requested to explore in as much detail as possible. Each of them was asked to report on any firsthand observation they themselves made during their 3 1/2-months of data collection. In interviewing repsondents, they were asked to inquire about violent episodes the interviewee had either participated in or had witnessed directly. These episodes were to be explored in detail. Finally, users were asked to report any hearsay stories of violence that were reported to have been triggered by PCP.

With such a concentrated focus on the issue of violence, it seemed natural to expect that our study would generate considerable data on the association of PCP with violent acts. In almost all cases, however, PCP users were baffled by the connection of PCP and violence. Most of them believed that PCP was so powerful that the kind of coordination and agility required in a fight situation would be lost. In fact, most of the illustrations that were given in which users became involved in what they perceived as violence were usually humorous stories where the users were the injured parties.

Violence was not completely absent, although it was rare. It tended to appear among those groups in which toughness was an important component in developing and maintaining group status. With groups like the "rowdies" in Philadelphia and the corner group in Chicago, fighting was a traditional status assertion not only for resolving personal conflicts, but also for presenting the kind of tough image that was locally admired. in this sense, violence that an outside observer might attribute to PCP was in actuality behavior that was common to the group and indigenous to the community long before PCP had become a favored drug. Given different behavioral orientations, then, groups varied in the emphasis they gave to an association of violence with PCP. Among the "congnoscenti" in Miami and the "cools" in Philadelphia, fighting was not highly regarded behavior. With or without PCP, members of these groups did not participate in violence and generally were surprised that PCP had developed a reputation as a drug of violence. In Chicago, there tended to be a clearer recognition of the potential of PCP to trigger aggressive behavior. The circumstances of violence, however, were hardly ever ones of viciousness. Even where the PCP user was designated to be the aggressor, the ability to fight was so seriously impaired by the anesthetic effects of the drug that the outcome was seldom one in which serious injury was done to anyone. One user seemed to sum up the general view when he stated: "I have a hard time walking downstairs, let alone fighting."

Another situation in which PCP was associated with violence was that in which users, having had a bad experience, were restrained as part of an attempt to help them. Where these violent episodes took place, they almost always involved a representative of law enforcement or some treatment agent. No effort in our study was made to trace the exact development of these episodes, but the reports from the few users who were the central figures in them indicate that the attempt to restrain them triggered a panic reaction, which in turn was met with greater force, until the user was physically subdued in a wild melee. This type of violence tended to be reactive rather than earnestly initiated by a user intent on injuring other people.

Of the violence that was either reported or witnessed, much of it was directed not toward people but toward property. In Miami, a user punched a fire extinguisher. In Seattle, Jennifer James witnessed a man attempting to destroy the furniture in his apartment. In almost all cases, the person involved in the PCP-connected violence had already developed a reputation for violence independent of PCP use.

Public Education and Drug Use Prevention

If the groups studied in our four cities are typical, then the efforts of drug education and prevention programs do not reach the street level. Whether the programs lack the ability to know how to penetrate such drug-involved groups or whether the groups themselves throw up barriers that make penetration difficult is a question that should be explored. For now, our study indicates that the gaps between the two systems were wide and that young people had little interest in what the legitimate world had to say about illicit drugs. Public school drug education programs were largely ignored where they were available. Young people held a disdain for them, saw them as "unhip," and generally resented their efforts to promote total abstinence. Users generally looked on any information associated with public school with automatic disbelief and did not expect to receive honest or useful information from school authorities. For almost all the respondents, prevention efforts were so remote from their lives that no mention was made of them.

The single exception to the rule was found in Miami, where a drug education program called Upfront attempted to keep users informed of the quality of street drugs as a way of helping them protect their health. This program was considered more as an ally than an enemy trying to propagandize them into abstinence, which is the view most of the users held of treatment, prevention, and education programs.

Actually, no official attempts to prevent use of PCP were possible during the earlier phases of its use since the legitimate world was unaware of its popularity on the streets. The decline in use of PCP and the decline in the numbers of new users appear to have taken place because of the general consensus among users themselves on the negative features of its long-term effects rather than the kind of expert opinion that accompanies legitimate efforts at prevention.

Public education efforts such as newspaper stories and television specials were both amusing and dismaying to users. In most of the presentations, particularly the 60 Minutes special, which many users saw, the general view was that the exaggeration was so extreme that the true nature of the way they experienced the drug was lost. On the other hand, the recent publicity on PCP that showed it to be so powerful confirmed their interest in it, since the presentation was supportive of the daring and risk that motivated them to try the drug in the first place.

In most cases, however, users thought these public efforts did little to bring about an understanding of PCP or the people who use it since the distortions were so great. One Miami user who knew PCP by the name of "tic" saw and read several of the media accounts and decided that it was a drug she did not want to try. One day as she was reading a draft of Dr. Cleckner's ethnographic paper on PCP, she was startled to find out that "tic," the drug she had been taking and enjoying without too many ill effects, was in fact the PCP she had been warned against in the media. In such situations, where the effects have been so grossly distorted that users do not associate them with their own experience, distrust of all public efforts is reinforced.

Between the prevention efforts of the professionals, which users either ignored or distrusted, and the attempts of the media, which emphasized the bizarre and the violent, users had little hope or expectation that their generation of drug selection and preference would be any better understood than the previous generation, who spoke of communication and information gaps.


Agar, Michael H. Ripping and Running: A Formal Ethnography of Urban Heroin Addicts. New York: Seminar, 1973.
Blum, Richard H. "To Wear a Nostradamus Hat: Drugs and America." The Journal of Social Issues 27(3):89-106, 1971.
Preble, E., and Casey, J.J., Jr. "Taking Care of Business: The Heroin User's Life on the Streets." The International Journal of the Addictions 4(1):1-24, 1967.
Sutter, Alan. "The World of the Righteous Dope Fiend." Issues in Criminology 2(2):177-222, 1966.


Our valuable member Harvey W Feldman has been with us since Tuesday, 02 October 2012.

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