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7 Burning Out on the Northwest Side: PCP Use in Chicago PDF Print E-mail
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Books - Angel Dust
Written by Wayne Wiebel   

Chicago, like all other cities, contains numerous congregation sites where people gather to interact and conduct a remarkably diverse assortment of tasks. For many, the city comes to life and derives its meaning from the experiences encountered at such "people places." Such a place is the "hangout" where teenage youths come together to pass time and entertain themselves. A primary, though by no means sole, activity among the youths who have been the focus of my research over the past 4 years has been the taking of drugs. Within those groups who are actively involved in the use of drugs, there tends to be a variety of hangouts (Shick and Wiebel, 1976; Shick, 1978). The PCP users who are the focus of this study had as their primary hangout a snackshop that was adjacent to one of the high schools on the northwest side of Chicago.

Chicago's Northwest Side

The northwest side of Chicago has a character of its own distinguishing it from the rest of the city. Unlike the more central portions of the city, it is not as tall, crowded, or as hurried in pace. There is some industry, but by far most of the businesses are service related and located on the major thoroughfares which intersect the area.

Residential sections predominate. Many streets are lined with five-room homes and owner-occupied duplexes. The more affluent neighborhoods contain larger single-family homes along tree-lined streets, but even here the yards are relatively small and little space separates the homes.

The people of northwest Chicago are mainly working class, holding down either blue-collar jobs as skilled laborers or white-collar jobs in sales, office management, real estate, and insurance. Most people work in the area, rather than downtown. While the traditional ethic of the residents held that only the male of each household was the source of family support, economic pressures have recently necessitated everyones' pitching in. Despite such measures, residents are still more frequently just getting by than enjoying "the good life." They are not necessarily unhappy, however, and many find meaning and enjoyment in the social institutions which support their existence. In a city known for its rich assortment of ethnic enclaves, the northwest side presents a combination of both the more traditional ethnically divided sections and the more recent development of mixed neighborhoods.

Ethnic identity is particularly strong among the Italian, Polish, German, and Irish who have resided in the area all their lives. Primary social relations are maintained among those who live on the same block. As the youngsters from any area grow up, their social networks expand considerably with the size of the school district of which they are a part. Adults are also often active in church groups, mostly Catholic, where Wednesday night Bingo games are a major social activity. Family social clubs also appear to be growing in popularity—some fear at the expense of the various church organizations.

The Democratic political machine, another Chicago hallmark, plays a significant role in the life of the area. The precinct captain, who can be likened to a political social worker, is almost invariably a well-known figure to the land owners of his precinct and is often looked to for favors, which are expected to be reciprocated at election time. The machine is also a major employer and a sizable member of residents hold patronage positions as city inspectors, street and sanitation workers, and the like.

The most disreputable of Chicago's distinguishing features, organized crime, also plays a role in both the history and activity of the area. Mob chieftains, lieutenants, and more or less well-connected tough guys reside, do business, and at times violently expire here.

A final characteristic of the northwest side, bringing us closer to the subject of this chapter, are the local snack shops, many of the traditional "Mom and Pop" variety, which serve as hangouts for the students, dropouts, and graduates associated with nearby high schools. The operation of these snack shops is so integrally related to the schools that for the most part they are only open for business during the days and hours that school is in session. On weekends, holidays, and any other time that schools are closed, snack shop patrons return to their neighborhoods or break into smaller groups and visit regional congregation sites, such as the forest preserves and beaches, to pass the time, procure drugs, and party.

Selection of a Study Group

Northwest Youth Outreach (NYO), an outpatient drug-abuse treatment program, has operated in this community for the past 19 years and deploys an urban outreach team to contact youngsters at six of the area high schools and their adjacent hangouts. During a 2-week exploratory period, I visited the most promising of such sites in the company of NYO outreach workers in order to select an appropriate target group for the PCP ethnography study. It was determined that the group should consist of at least twenty individuals representing a wide range of experiences with PCP. One of three possible hangouts with a wide network of multiple-drug-using youths was chosen. Given the 3-month period allotted for data collection, a primary consideration in the selection of this particular group was their openness to the researcher. The process of developing rapport was greatly facilitated by a highly regarded outreach worker who introduced me to key group members and assured them that I could be trusted. Had it not been for the transference of trust from outreach worker to ethnographer, it would have been virtually impossible to start from scratch and do a satisfactory job under the existing time constraints.

This particular high school hangout had a core group of approximately eighty regular attendants, most of whom were experienced users of a wide variety of drugs. Because these individuals also had ties in their residential neighborhoods and the different regional hangouts they frequented, the extended social network of the twenty individuals selected for interviews covered a wide geographic area and included as many as 300 people. While observation and field work often extended into the neighborhoods and regional hangouts when the snack shop was not open, an effort was made to restrict respondents for extensive interviewing to individuals who knew each other from the snack shop.

The selection of respondents for formal interviews was based on an attempt to represent the spectrum of PCP users. Primary among the criteria used were age, sex, and patterns of use. Included in patterns of use were experimental, occasional, and habitual users of the drug. Also included were those who had experienced problems related to their use of PCP and those who seemed to experience a minimal amount of difficulty.

The interviews were conducted in private at the offices of NYO and usually took 5 hours spaced over a period of 2 days. A standardized questionnaire developed by Shick and Wiebel (1976) in a previous drug study was utilized to collect information on background and drug-use history. A sociogram of people the respondents knew who used PCP and a semistructured open-ended interview covering a broad range of topics relating to PCP were also included in the data collected. All interviews were tape recorded and later transcribed for analysis. Respondents were given guarantees of anonymity and confidentiality concerning all information revealed; they were also given a $20 incentive fee for their participation in the interview. In addition to the data collected during interviews, this report is also based on observations and conversations with many young people while I was hanging out with the respondents at the snack shop, parties, and other congregation sites.

The Snack Shop

Rudy's was one of the three snack shops located adjacent to Central High School. All three catered almost exclusively to Central's student population, numbering about 2,000. For the most part, the snack shops were open for business only on those days and during those hours when school was in session. All three hangouts shared much in the way of common characteristics, and many of Central's students would on various occasions frequent a combination of the spots. All the shops served food (mostly hot dogs, hamburgers, and soda) and had football machines, pinball machines, and juke boxes.

The largest snack shop, the Bigtop, was known as the hangout of the "greasers." The Crest, located across the street from Central, had mostly disco music on its juke box and attracted the youngest crowd, who followed the blaring sounds of "Saturday Night Fever." Rudy's was known as the "home of the freaks."

While the individuals from all three hangouts would acknowledge the regulars at each snack shop to be either the "teeny boppers," "greasers," or "freaks," the distinctions between the established types, the freaks and greasers, seems to have decreased significantly over the past 5 years. Before, one could easily distinguish the crowd anyone belonged to on the basis of appearance alone. Today the difference, especially in appearance, has become much more clouded. Traditionally, greasers often wore black clothes, pointed high heeled shoes, and leather jackets. The males frequently "greased" their hair back with "jelly rolls" in the front and "d.a.'s" in the rear. The girls often teased or "ratted" their hair high on top of their heads. The freaks, on the other hand, wore their hair long and spent a minimal amount of time altering its appearance. Clothing was less coordinated than the greaser's, at times even disheveled, and often included blue jeans and T-shirts with various emblems or designs imprinted on them. Today the greasers rarely use oily hair tonics and the freaks wear their hair much shorter than was fashionable a few years ago. Casual clothing including T-shirts, jeans, and sneakers are on occasion, if not usually, worn by almost everyone. Thus the major criteria for establishing who belongs to what group has become largely a function of where they hang out and who they hang out with and to a much lesser degree what they look like or how they act. There also appears to have been a decreased importance associated with being identified as a member of one of these groups. As one 14-yearold female who regularly hung out at Rudy's commented:

Everybody calls us the freaks but I don't really think of myself as being a freak, you know, we're not all burnouts or anything. Some of us don't even do that many drugs anymore and you know, everybody else does 'em too but I guess if you gotta call us somethin' you'd have to call me a freak.

Rudy's was reputed to be the hangout for the heaviest high school drug-using youths in the area. A total of more than eightly individuals would stop by on a regular basis. Depending on the time of day and how many people were willing or able to leave the school grounds, anywhere from ten to fifty or more youths would congregate in and around the shop. In inclement weather, everyone would cram inside the small smoke-filled quarters to talk, listen to music, eat, and wait their turn at the football or pinball machines. Moving around inside the snack shop was almost always a difficult task, as was communication because of the high noise level emanating from rock and roll on the jukebox, the clang and clatter of amusement machines, and the combined voices of everyone trying to speak over the racket.

During pleasant weather the street corner outside Rudy's became the focal point of activities. On occasion, students would wander inside the snack shop, but for the most part, people remained outdoors. Good weather also brought more people to the area than could conceivably fit inside the shop, but most significant of all was the change in character of activities.

In stark contrast to the confined and limited activities within the snackshop, the outdoors offered freedom and a whole new range of possibilities. Foremost among these was the ability to engage much more freely in the consumption of alcohol and other drugs, particularly marihuana. While students would be quickly confronted and thrown out of the snackshop if they attempted to smoke marihuana or drink on the premises, outside they only had to keep a watchful eye out for the police officers patroling the high school. Their approach was generally apparent and allowed sufficient time either to discard or conceal incriminating evidence. When the police were not visible the youths would openly smoke marihuana and drink beer. As summer approached it was not uncommon by noon to see the large trash containers on the street corner overflowing with empty beer cans.

The warm weather also brought groups of students playing softball in the adjacent school yard and throwing Frisbees on the grass or in the streets. Other individuals would sit on the sidewalks or lawns talking to friends while at the same time improving their sun tans.

Aproximately 85 percent of the group who regularly frequented the snack shop were presently attending Central High School, the remaining being either dropouts or graduates. Most were between 15 and 18 years of age, although a few were younger and a number of others ranging into their midtwenties would stop by on a less regular basis. The number of males and females who came there was roughly equivalent. Almost all the subjects were from working-class backgrounds and of European ancestry.

The single most distinguishing characteristic of this group was their heavy use of a variety of intoxicants. While there were a few group members who rarely if ever took drugs, most of these youths would consume at least two different types of drugs on any given day. Marihuana and alcohol were the staples of their existence, and for many the first marihuana joint was smoked sometime between their waking up and their arrival at school. Thereafter, numerous additional joints would be shared throughout the day with friends. Any reference to drugs was generally taken to mean some substance other than marihuana or alcohol. Drugs, or "chemicals" as they were also often referred to, included "tic" (PCP), "beans" or "downers" (barbiturates, sedatives, and tranquilizers), "acid" (LSD), and "speed" (stimulants). Marihuana and alcohol, while appreciated for their intoxicating effects, were the staples of consumption and the foundation upon which the "real" drugs were taken.

The term partying referred to the group activity of getting high. The process of partying was both the primary social organizing mechanism and the near constant preoccupation of most youths who hung out at the snack shop. In addition to the taking of drugs, partying also entailed participation in a group endeavor of entertaining intention. Favorite places to go included forest preserves, parks, the beach, concerts, movies, or friend's houses. Activities regularly engaged in included listening to music, conversation, football, pinball, Frisbee, softball, basketball, and card playing. With the exception of those youths who were the heaviest users of drugs and some of the older individuals who still maintained a "hippie image," the students who hung out at Rudy's looked and acted very much like what one might expect of typical urban high school youths.

History of PCP Use

PCP was first introduced to this part of Chicago in the early 1970s. Sold under the names of THC and "tic," it was originally often misrepresented as tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient found in marihuana. By the middle of the 1970s, the most frequently used street names were "tic," "angel dust," or "dust," and much of the misrepresentation had ceased, since many users were becoming aware of its true identity as an animal tranquilizer.

When the drug appeared on the scene it joined the ranks of other drugs classified as "chemicals" by youths. Included in this category were amphetamines and LSD, which at the time were losing popularity, and barbiturates and sedative hypnotics, which were taking their place as preferred substances.

Then, as now, there were three major divisions of drug users in the drug-using community. The first group used alcohol and marihuana almost exclusively and tended to be younger, on the average, than the other groups. Included in this group were those who had avoided the use of any other drugs and those who, at one point in time, had used "the harder" chemicals but had since stopped using anything other than marihuana and alcohol. The second group was distinguished by their use of "chemicals" (PCP, LSD, and pharmaceuticals) in addition to marihuana and alcohol. Once an individual has tried one of the drugs in this grouping he or she is likely to experiment with most if not all of them at one time or another. The final category of drug user was categorized by the mode of administration rather than the specific drugs used. Those individuals who became involved with the intravenous administration of drugs were the "hard core" members of the drug-using community and are only marginally active in this study of primarily high school youths. Most every user of PCP snorted the drug in order to get high. Occasionally the drug was eaten, but it was only rarely smoked by the members of this group. Two marginal members were known as "tic junkies" because of their preference for injecting the drug.

When PCP became available, those users of chemicals were the first to experiment with the new drug. Its characteristic of being a potent drug which "spaced out" users was considered a highly desirable attribute at the time, and this contributed to its growing popularity. The early to middle 1970s were a time when the group identity of "freaks" was still quite strong and being a "stoned out" guy was a valued badge of membership which displayed as well as confirmed one's identity. One 19-year-old who gained recognition at an early age as a freak through his frequent use of PCP explained "Before I thought . . . I thought I was cool bein' a burnout. I wanted to be a burnout, that wad the thing. Get burnt, man." Because of its effects, the use of tic, perhaps more than any other drug, signified one's commitment to being a freak, and its use greatly expanded during this period.

By the summer of 1975, PCP had reportedly reached the height of its popularity, and groups of thirty or more youths would regularly gather at their favorite site around a bonfire in the woods and get high on tic. The drug was readily available from numerous sources and it ranked high on the list of preferred intoxicating substances. During this same time period, however, some individuals who had been using tic regularly over a period of time began experiencing difficulties they associated with PCP use. The most serious were problems in relating to the significant others in their lives. The accumulated effects of the drug result in a slowing down of mental processes and memory loss, which were referred to as "being spacey." While the subjective effects of being "spaced" were not always considered to be undesirable, one's ability to deal effectively with family, school, work, and friends was significantly reduced, as was one's ability to deal with life situations in general. One 14-year-old girl who had stopped taking PCP over the last year described what it was like to be "spacey" and how that was seen as affecting relationships:

People'd talk to me, you know, and I wouldn't . . . I wouldn't even understand what they were talkin' about, you know. They'd say one thing; and I'd be talkin' about something else. You know? or just go yeah, yeah, uhhuh, uh-huh. Oh really? It would have nothin' to do with the conversation at all, you know. (laughs) That's how I know I was . . . and a lotta times I wouldn't say nothin', I'd just walk around and I'd stumble around, and everything and I wouldn't say nothin', I'd just . . . watch everybody. Sometimes if I come to school high or some'n, I'll be sittin' there, I'll be hearin' every word she's saying, but it's not computing in my head. You know? I mean . . . same thing if I read, you know. I'd read, but it wouldn't compute right, you know? I wouldn't understand it. I couldn't even, like my ma'd talk to me, and you know, I would . . . I'd just changed a lot, towards her, towards everybody. You know, I wasn't the same person. I, you know, I'm usually all smiles and everything, you know, and then, I was just . . . you know, draggin' around. Just barely makin' it, you know. (laughs) Eat, sleep, and that's it, get high, you know? That's all I'd do. When I did tic, I was just . . . layin' around, you know, I wasn't doin' nothin', I felt like a . . . really, I felt like a maggot, dirty, you know. Like I didn't feel . . . you know, I didn't feel nice and like . . . like I feel clean-cut now, and everything. Then I felt like a slob, you know? Sometimes I wouldn't wash my hair, I wouldn't comb it. I didn't take care of myself that good; and I just started noticing it, you know.

Increasingly, the youngsters felt that these difficulties were directly related to the use of the drug, and as a result, many users began decreasing or completely stopping this use of PCP. With this realization came the beginning of the drug's bad street reputation.

As more tic users seemed to have serious personal and social problems resulting from their excessive consumption of this substance, they realized and informed others of the undesirable characteristics associated with its use. Over a period of approximately 2 years, experience, word of mouth, and more recently, publicity had warned people of and at times had exaggerated the dangers of PCP. As the dangers of PCP use were confirmed in street experience and verified by the testimonials of peers, the popularity of the drug began to decline. While use of PCP has by no means terminated, both the number of people taking tic and the frequency of consumption among those still using it has reportedly decreased considerably over the last 2 years. Large parties of people doing tic within this extended group were unheard of by the summer of 1978. Its availability in the assortment of chemicals which can be consumed and the desirable effects received from moderate consumption, however, still contribute to its continued use.

Most important, the conditions surrounding present use have changed considerably. Whereas a "space cadet" once symbolized the epitome of membership among freaks, the "burnout" now symbolizes the casualities of membership in an adolescent drug-using network that no longer has a primary identity (that of freaks) relating to the use of drugs.

Now it isn't popular. (laughs) I mean being' a burnout's being like a pig. To me. To a lotta people. Being' burnt was, yeah, he's burnt, big shit. It's the most stupidest thing, being burnt. What ya got when you're burnt? More drugs, more drugs. People aren't got their shit together when they're burnt [male, age 19].

While the use of drugs in general has shown no signs of diminishing, tic has lost considerable favor among preferred substances, and many minimize or lie about their use in order to avoid the stigma related to its abuse. In addition to alcohol and marihuana, which continue to function as staple ingredients, tranquilizers ("beans") seem to have replaced tic in preference. Cocaine, MDA, LSD, PCP, and speed, though less frequently consumed, remain favorites among many.

Initiation to PCP

Initiations to PCP seem to have changed with the drug's popularity and reputation. Individuals who used PCP when the drug was most popular were usually introduced at an early age, oftentimes by older brothers, sisters, or friends.

It was like my brother dealt it a lot, so he was always trying to turn me on to it. At first, ya know, I didn't want to do it but then I, I heard that it was good, ya know, like people told me that it was a real nice high, that I'd like it, and I did it the first time and I really liked it a lot. I guess it was 'cause it was the first chemical, ya know, so different [female, age 16].

Often it was the first chemical with which they had experimented. Because of its reputed potency, a successful experience based on one's ability to enjoy the effects was considered an important rite of passage into the ranks of experienced drug users. Surprisingly, almost no one in this group had any particularly bad experiences during their initial trials with PCP, and everyone reported that they liked the high the drug produced. This in part may be explained by the fact that the individuals who introduced novices to tic were careful to moderate the dosage so as to minimize adverse reactions. Bonnie, a 16-year-old who was the first person I interviewed explained, "My brother kind of like watched what I did with it . . . ya know, he wouldn't let me do too much of it."

A second probable reason underlying the positive reactions of experimenters was the value placed on getting "stoned." Perhaps more than any other single characteristic, PCP's ability to produce a notable "stoned" state in users was foremost in perpetuating its appeal. Linda, a close friend of Bonnie's, described the appeal of the high during our interview:

I tried everything, then, you know. I didn't care what it was. I liked gettin' high. So. It was different. Just some'n to do. I liked it. I dunno, everything is out of place. You know? Like your feet are never touchin' the ground, it seems like for me, ya know? And . . . like when I'm walking, like seems like it takes you so long, I'm never gettin' anywhere you know? And uh . . . I dunno, you feel, you think about one thing and then as soon as you think about it, you forgot about it. Then you'll try to think about what you were trying to think about and you get all confused, and you just say forget it, and not even think about it at all. (laughs) You spend a lot of time being confused. (laughs) You get confused a lot. You never know what you're thinkin' about.

Currently, initiations to the drug seem to come later in the sequence of substances taken by experimenters. Increased awareness of the adverse consequences of extensive use has led to a more moderate pattern of use among both those who are new to the drug and those who have used it over an extended period of time.

The PCP High

Attempts to define and describe the subjective effects of any drug are problematic because of the many factors involved, including individual differences, pharmacology, situation, expectations, and interpretation. The issue is a particularly complicated one in relation to PCP because of the range and seemingly contradictory effects regularly reported by users. This seeming contradiction in reported effects is further confounded by the variety of forms in which the drug is sold. Substances sold under the name tic have a wide variety of appearance and myth relating to their individual characteristics. There is yellow, orange, and brown tic; white tic with brown, green, or blue speckles; gummy tic; powdered tic; crystal tic; and even green tic which was prepared for St. Patrick's Day.

"Angel dust," a white powdery or crystalline substance, is reputed to be a more mellow high than tic, yet the effects are described in identical fashion. Another variety of dust called "dummy dust" has the same appearance and subjective qualities as angel dust, but it has the worst street reputation because of the small quantities needed to produce stunning reactions that render the user dumbfounded.

Despite reports of some PCP being cut with other intoxicants such as cocaine or heroin, inert substances like baking soda or milk sugar, or harmful additives such as Comet cleanser, the described effects of the drug are surprisingly consistent.

Moderate doses of the drug produce a numb feeling and reduced sensations in the limbs. This is most commonly described in terms of feeling like one is walking on clouds, pillows, or marshmallows. Increased doses of the drug bring further perceptual distortions, difficulty in walking, and slurred speech. The effects of the drug were, however, almost universally described as being unlike any other single drug and more like a unique combination of "downer," "speed," and, halluncinogen. While someone high on PCP most often gave the appearance of someone high on "downers" or alcohol, unlike these drugs, the subjective experience included an increase in energy and a desire to do things. In sufficiently high doses, it caused distortions in perception and illusions reminiscent of hallucinogens. The resultant combination of effects was referred to as being "in the ozone," "zoned out," or "stoned."

In order to help clarify the nature of the high, respondents were asked to describe both their best and worst experiences with the drug. One unanticipated but important finding was that a sizable minority of individuals included the same experience as having both pleasant and undesirable components. This seemingly contradictory finding may be attributed to the fact that the primary appeal of the drug is its ability to produce a "stoned" state. The best high was often when an individual got the most "stoned." Yet, by virtue of being so high, the individual had the least control of his or her actions and as a consequence was at greatest risk of adverse occurrences.

In describing one of her best highs on PCP, one regular user commented:

At school it was kinda bad but it was good though, because, well it was bad, because I got too high, and I couldn't see my test. I passed it with a D. Yeah. But it was good cause I had a good high, just felt good and had a lot of fun afterwards. Went to Rudy's.

In response to the same question, Linda described an unusual instance of violence in similar terms:

A lotta times I had good experiences. I guess this one time wasn't a good experience, but . . . I had a good time. I got punched out by a truck driver. Like I just got into a fight with the guy, but I was havin' a good time, you know? That whole night. I just . . . I was havin' a great time. We just did some tic. It was right before I had to go home. You know? And I was standin' by the bus stop, and they were goin' to wait for a bus for me, you know? The buses weren't comin' and we were gonna cross the street; and this truck driver ran right in front of me, ya know? Like he almost hit me, I jumped out of the way, and then it was a stop light, you know? This guy had to stop; and I punched his truck, you know? He gets out and he's about seven foot tall, you know, big motherfucker. And I'm goin' you know you think you're cool cause you're a truck driver, well, I'll tell you what, you're not cool at all, you know. I had a bruise for about a week. You know. On the side of my face. (laughs)

Along a similar vein, one of the more popular 19-year-old guys describes his first experience years previously in terms which might frighten
many people but seemingly pleased him:

I asked people, the people at my party, is tic any good? They said yeah. So I tried it. I was zoned. I was in the ozone. I was on my bed, and the party's just goin' on. I couldn't move at all, man. I was trying to get to sleep, and couldn't I was too spaced out . . . I was mummified. I was sitting on my bed, trying to move my legs, I couldn't. I started digging it. (laughs) I did, I liked it, Oh yeah. (laughs) I did. I thought it was real good. (laughs)

Invariably worst experiences were related to an individual's consumption of a sufficient quantity of the drug to lose control of his thought processes and actions.

I got pretty fucked up, cause like . . . I didn't remember anything, you know, like I just remember I was sittin' in front of school. And uh, I just went out of it, and like when I really came to, you know? I was behind a restaurant; and it was already the next day. They called the police, and they came, and they knew I was fucked up. I lost everything I had from school. I had two big bags of like my gym shoes, all kinds of books and stuff I coulda used, ya know? But I lost everything, I don't know what happened to it. They were with me for like three or four hours. They go, where do you live? And like I'd think about it, and then I couldn't remember what they asked me. I'd know I wanted to tell em somethin', they'd ask again. And I'd start to tell them, I'd have to think about it, and my mind was just goin' beserk, you know? But uh . . . they finally, you know, found out where I lived and they took me home and my ma was pretty upset [female, age 16].

On a number of occasions the intensity of the high in combination with loss of control was sufficient to provoke fears of death. One 15-year-old had such an experience while attending a movie that she had very much wanted to see but could not follow because of the high dose of PCP which she had snorted.

The worst thing was the thought of death. I was really scared because of the thought coming through my mind of me actually laying in the coffin, you know? Just laying there and people above me just . . . I could see it exactly in my mind, straight in front of me as clear as day, you know? People just over the coffin, just saying oh what a shame this had to happen, some people saying, "Well, it was coming, you know?" Just stuff like that. "It was coming!" (laughs) She had it coming to her and stuff like that. My mother. How bad she would feel. The thought went through my mind, "Oh God, she'd feel really awful, I shouldn't be doing this, you know?" And it just kept goin' through my mind, and goin' through my mind; and I tried to think about some'n else, and it wouldn't work. My eyes were just gonna roll in my head; and I was gonna be dead. (laughs) Yeah. I was just gonna sit there, shake to death, and die, right there on the spot. I was gonna die.

One of the two individuals from Rudy's who was known to be a frequent injector of PCP mentioned having such death fantasies on numerous occasions:

After I really got into it heavy, you know? I had death experiences several times, quite a few times. That was hell. It really was. I thought I was caught in some kind of a . . . a circle, I don't know how to describe it. It was pain, feeling a lot of pain, and I was trapped, and it was . . . it seemed like a million years I was stuck in it, and I'd never get out. And I was screamin' and beatin' on the walls like I went through a door of another . . . (laughs) dimension or something. You know? And I had to find the door to get back. And I was screamin' and beatin', trying to have somebody help me, come back, you know? And I can't . . . describe it to you, you know, what I was going through. But it was hell. I really thought . . . that that was it. I was in hell. Because I lived a negative life, I thought well this is where I'm gonna have to stay now. You know? This is my like uh . . . my punishment. Rather than go to heaven, I'm in hell. You know, I guess it all stems from my lifestyle.

Those who included their best experience as also being their worst did so because it was the highest they had ever gotten on tic, and despite their loss
of control, reaching their limit "in the ozone" was valued in itself.

What made it interesting was like the drama of . . . what's gonna come down next on it, you know? You don't have no . . . no idea what's real and what isn't. I'd have to ask you, what year is it? What time is it? Where are-we at? I really digged that, you know, getting ozoned to the max [male, age 25].

Other descriptions of best experiences were notable for their apparent lack of anything that would be considered particularly exciting or eventful.

I went on a campin' trip, I was fishin'. I was high on tic. It was good, I was with my cousin. It was in Ohio. It was sunny out, and we didn't do too much and get real zoned, we just mellowed out [male, age 17].

The better experiences were generally marked by a sufficiently strong dose to "zone" the user and the absence of anything happening that would present a problem for the individual in his intoxicated state. Euphoric states and the sharing of desirable experiences with others were rarely mentioned as central features of pleasurable PCP experiences.

Management of Use

Because of PCP's potency and the potentially serious consequences of taking too much of the drug, numerous individual and group controls evolved to minimize undesirable outcomes.

One of the most important is controlling the amount of PCP a user takes. There is, however, a considerable range in the purity of PCP that is sold on the street, so that the same amount either in price paid or actual measured quantity does not always correspond to the same level of intoxication. As a result, users often ask the dealer or others who may have sampled a particular batch to assess its potency and suggest an appropriate dose. The assurance with which such estimations are made are frequently dependent on how well the dealer is known and the degree of trust a user has in his judgment. Another method of controlling for variations in purity is to buy the drug in as large quantities as possible. Once a user has sampled his first high off a new batch, he can estimate accurately the desired dosage for subsequent use.

If someone exceeds the level of intoxication that was intended, a number of measures are commonly taken. During such episodes, attempts on the part of the individual and his friends to control the surroundings and minimize disturbing stimuli were generally sufficient to handle the individual until the undesirable effects had worn off.

There's a lotta things you can do. Like, you get real fucked up or some'n, and you can only see outa one eye and shit. Just sit down somewhere and relax, for half an hour, you know, people say walk around, walk around. You get dizzy that way. (laughs) You know, just sit down and have a friend wit' ya, and talk, that's all ya can do, man, is talk. You start talkin', and the dude forgets about he's spacin' out, you know? You just talk, and he gets into the rap, after dat, he forgets about it, and he gets up and goes on with the party. You know? That's how I always done it, man. Just c'mon, sit down and talk with me for awhile, gettin' a little high. Anybody could do it. It's really mind over matter [male, age 19].

Orange juice is also believed to be an aid in bringing down those who have taken too much tic and is often administered, at times unwillingly, to those who are experiencing difficulty with their high.

I knew, like if I did too much, orange juice gets you to come down a lot, and usually I could, ya know, take care of myself by doing it [female, age 15].

Other more personalized remedies such as drinking large quantities of liquids and vomiting are used by some to help moderate excessive doses. In all cases, emergency medical treatment is the last resort taken and only when the situation is deemed to be life-threatening by friends or when police, family, or outsiders intervene.

Many users also attempt to moderate their frequency of use in order to prevent themselves from becoming too "spaced out" from the accumulated effects of the drug. When individuals prove to be unsuccessful in this regard, controls often come into play as peers warn their friend that he is becoming a "burnout." Mary, a 14-year-old, went through her heaviest PCP use at the ages of 12 and 13. She has since quit and summed up the importance of friends and their opinions as follows:

Well, when I first started gettin' burnt, you know, I was thinking a lotta people were saying', "man, you can't even talk to that chick no more, you know." I heard a lot of people sayin' it. Or one of my friends would tell me they said that, you know, and I'd just think about it. I don't want people to dislike me, and if they like me better the other way, then, I guess, you know, I am better . . . I'm better off the other way, you know? Cause what are you without friends, you know? Not too much. (chuckles)

Even Sammy, who was still a regular user, commented on how social pressures from others at Rudy's had contributed to his reduced consumption of the drug:

Everytime I was zoned out people would tell ya, "You're gettin' too burnt." "No I ain't." you know. Just tell you, lotta people naggin' at me and stuff. So I slowed down myself.

At first, such warnings may come in the form of playful joking and mild admonitions. If the user's condition worsens, however, peers are likely to become much more openly critical and ridicule him or her. Individuals who are not able to reverse their pattern of use are likely to become marginal members of the group whose presence may at best be tolerated. Such was the cate with Joe, one of the intravenous users of PCP, who despite being the subject of frequent derogatory comments continued to hang out at Rudy's.

It's things other people say. You know, other people see it before you do. If it's younger people, tease the shit out of you, you know? Make you wanta straighten out. At least me, you know, like hear people say, "Here comes Crazy Joe! The burnout." I guess maybe they get a big kick out of saying these things while I'm incoherent and can't say anything back to em. You know? So . . . then when I hear em, they think maybe I'm high today and I'm not, I hear em saying this shit, it kinda . . . kinda hurts you know? Cause nobody wants to be considered a burnout. Or a junkie or a dope fiend or anything else. You know? That's another thing they call me is junkie, and shit, you know, I don't know what to say.

In the course of an evening's partying, one or more of the group would invariably overindulge in some combination of substances. In the normal course of events the group would take appropriate action to help everyone requiring attention. Such assistance was usually offered in an understanding manner. Among friends there was a strong mutual alliance to protect those in need from harm to self or others. "Burnouts" and others, however, who consistently were unable to control themselves were often not helped and left to fend for themselves.

Because of the difficulties young people have in estimating the proper dose of PCP, it is not uncommon for users inadvertently to consume more of the substance than they had intended. Everyone interviewed for this study had at one time or another experienced the effects of taking too much PCP. Invariably such determinations were based on an individual's loss of control and consequent inability to respond appropriately to the requirements of situation and surroundings. This was not always considered particularly bad, however, especially if the group took responsibility for the person's actions and intervened when necessary to prevent undesirable consequences. Thus any excessive dose short of that requiring emergency hospital treatment was generally considered to be little more than unfortunate, regrettable, or embarrassing. Rarely did anyone ever require hospital treatment. In most all instances where an individual was taken to a hospital it was a result of intervention by school authorities, families, or police who were unable or unwilling to manage the situation in any other manner.

On occasion, seriously intoxicated individuals sometimes suffered from accidents or injuries which had ramifications extending beyond the period of intoxication. Most often, however, undesirable consequences of using PCP lasted only as long as the person was still high or until he or she could be aided by a friend. The more severe consequences of PCP use among this group appeared to be a result of the accumulated effects from regular use.


"Burning out" is the inevitable outcome of regular PCP use for a period of time as short as 1 week. The effects of "burning out" are a reduced ability to function in mental, physical, and social capacities. Communication in particular becomes a problem. Memory loss, difficulty with comprehension, and difficulty in following a thought to its logical conclusion are all symptoms of the "burnout" syndrome.
Linda described "burnouts" and her own experience as follows:

They [burnouts] just talk like they don't know what they're talkin' about, they don't care. You know, they talk like 2-year-olds, you know, you give em a hard question, it'll take em about . . . half hour to figure it out. You wanta play a game of pinball? Uh . . . wait a minute, uh . . . pinball, huh? But, I think tic burns ya out more than anything else. If people like start talkin' to me and I notice I'm not even listening to em, you know? I'm in another world, you know? I'm gettin' burnt out. (laughs) Or if I didn't do any tic and I still feel high, you know? You gotta still have some in your system, you gotta be kinda burnt out. You know?

When an individual had been using PCP regularly and began to exhibit any of the symptoms just mentioned, friends would attribute the behavior to the excessive use of PCP. If the difficulties continued, recognition of the individual as a burnout, lowered status, and gradual rejection would inevitably follow. In addition to problems among peers, burnouts also often experienced difficulties at home and school.

The accumulation of problems and association of them with the use of PCP more often than not brought about a reduction in consumption. This would enable users to reintegrate their lives and resume previous levels of functioning.

This process of dissipating the effects of the drug was not accomplished overnight, however. Many of the individuals interviewed for this study had gone through periods of being burned out which lasted from a few months to 4 years. Those who subsequently quit or greatly reduced their consumption reported periods from 3 weeks to a month before they began to feel what they considered to be close to "normal" again. There were reports of two individuals, one institutionalized and the other totally ostracized from the group, who had discontinued use and failed to totally recover. Unfortunately, because of the time constraints of this study, these individuals were not located, and as a consequence, the validity of these reports could not be confirmed.

While clinically controlled experiments are required to determine the exact nature and extent of the long-term effects from PCP use, it is surprising that no indication of long-term damage could be observed among the study group. Although there may well be some form of permanent residual damage attributable to the drug, it was clear that, if any, the effects were minimal in relation to mental, physical, and social functioning. This is especially apparent when compared with the obviousness of impairments witnessed among individuals presently intoxicated or burnt out.


Respondents reported that continuation of PCP use was related to their psychological attachment to the drug and situational pressures emanating from friends' use. Success in quitting appeared to require both a realization that the liabilities associated with use outweighed the benefits and a commitment strong enough to enable them to turn down the drug when offered by friends.

The increasingly bad street reputation of tic over the past several years provided a social environment which supported efforts to decrease or discontinue use, making it much easier to quit using tic than had been the case during the peak of its popularity. Most respondents who quit using the drug reported little difficulty once they seriously resolved to do so. One 16-year-old explained.

I didn't have a hard time quitting . . . it was something I wanted to do, it's like, if I didn't want to quit and tried quitting it'd be a hard time probably but it's just that I wanted to quit so there was nothin' to it . . . if it was somethin' that I didn't want to do, why should I do it, right? So it wasn't hard.

Most often such a commitment was the result of a series of bad experiences relating to their use of the drug. Linda and her girlfriends had all been heavy users at the same time and all stopped or decreased their use during the
winter. One of her friends explains,

I don't really know what made people quit, but I know, like my friends, me and my friends that quit, it was just all because we did too much, and just suddenly got turned off by it, ya know. I think that's mostly why people quit doin' it . . . is when once they had the experience of doin' too much. Cause like that's the only thing bad about it is when you can't handle yourself with it, ya know. 'Cause you're like, when you feel like a zombie, ya know, and ya can't walk or anything.

On occasion when offered the drug in partying contexts, individuals who had quit would take the drug again, but in no known instances did this lead to a relapse to chronic use. In fact, many former users, who were adamant in their negative sentiments about the drug, admitted that they might take the drug again some time in the future if it were offered to them for free. Linda describes her fluctuating sentiments and behavior:

Everytime I do tic, I always end up waking up in the morning, the next morning, I got all these bruises all over me. From fallin' down and bumpin' into shit and flying to the moon and back, you know? I musta ran into a few stars or somethin', I don't know. I was never gonna do tic again in my life. That was it, that was the last time I ever did tic. Not really. That's what I thought. (laughs) I did tic after that. A couple of times. I never really asked for any, I always got turned on. If I got turned on, I'd do it. If I got turned on right now, I guess I'd do some.

The most frequent reasons given for deciding to stop use of the drug were related to difficulties experienced with family, friends, and school. For some the experience of being constantly burned out and their deterioration in appearance and ability to function were crucial in deciding to stop.

It was almost universally agreed that treatment could prove to be of value only to individuals who had already themselves decided to discontinue use of the drug.

Depends on the person. If this person thinks that they're havin' a great time all the time, they're not gonna listen to nobody. If this person somewhere really wants to get off, get off of it, you know, then . . . it [treatment]']] prob'ly help [female, age 16].

I don't really think it helps [treatment] if a person has in their mind that they want tic, you know, like . . . it's gotta be up to them. If they think that they need help, and they think that it might work, they can go, maybe it will, you know? Maybe it won't (laughs) [female, age 17].

If an individual was seriously committed to stopping, counseling was thought to be a potentially supportive aid, but none of those included in the study received formal therapy during the period when they stopped using PCP. Others who had received formal treatment when they were not ready to discontinue use reported limited benefit from such services. Joe was sent to a residential treatment program by the courts.

I went to the drug program. I figured this drug program beats the hell out of jail. So I stayed out there about, seven months. I was probated there. Finally I couldn't take it no more, shavin' my head all the time, makin' me wear signs, and dig holes in the ground and shit. Learning experiences they call it. You know. So. It got to be too bizarre; and I got out. I went straight to my judge, probation officer, told em I split like I was supposed to within a seventy-two hour period of time, judge says, "what do you want from me now?" I said, "I want your permission to go to California." And I left for California. It made me learn a lot about myself, it didn't work, cause I'm doin drugs again, but . . . all the tools and things you need to straighten your act out are there. If you wanta use em, you know?


Given this group's stated preference for being high in public rather than private settings and the often readily apparent nature of their intoxicated state, it was with considerable surprise that I found that these youths have had infrequent encounters with the police.

The police regularly patrol the snack shop, parks, and forest preserves the respondents frequent and primarily enforce the laws against drinking. When arrests are made, they are usually for disorderly conduct. During the course of searches when large quantities of PCP are found, the result is generally a charge of possession of a controlled substance, but this can often be avoided because of the readily concealable nature of anything less than very large quantities. When small quantitites of tic or marihuana are found, they are generally confiscated, with only a warning to the possessors about their being arrested if found to be in possession again. Prior to the media exposes which brought PCP into the national consciousness, Bonnie was caught with a small amount of PCP by the police and let go.

They usually, if you've just got like . . . a little on you, you know. Then they say well, "Don't do it again. If you do it again, you'll have to, if you get arrested again, this type of thing, you know, we'll put you away." And all this stuff. But if they got a lot on em, sometimes you get put on probation, I know a couple people that got put on probation.

Obviously intoxicated individuals may be told to go home, be taken home, or taken to a hospital, depending on the degree of incapacity.

The success of PCP users in avoiding confrontations with the police seems attributable to two primary factors. The first is the protection offered by the group. The more sober members of the group keep an eye out for the police and warn others to shape up while the patrol passes.

People take care of each other. There'll be people there that are straight. That'll be there, you know? Take care of em. You know, here's the coppers. Relax [male, age 18].

A second factor is an apparent ability on the part of PCP users to "straighten up their act" when confronted by police and forced to respond to their inquiries. One very heavy former user explained his technique:

Like, you know, when I'd see a copper, I'd just . . . sit at the bench or some'n, you know? Have a cigarette. Says "What's wrong with you buddy?" Say "Nothin'. Nothin' at all." He goes "What's your name?" And I'd . . . I'd . . . get unhigh for that. Minute or two minutes, you know, I'd . . . tell em okay (laughs) they'd leave, and I'd get stoned again. Coppers when they scare me, they blow my high away a lot, You know, you just lose it completely.

While most of the individuals included in this study had run-ins with the police at one time or another, few of these were directly related to PCP. Those individuals who were most seriously involved with the substance had much more frequent and serious contacts with police, but even then PCP was rarely the direct cause of arrests. More often being burnt on PCP reduced their effectiveness and thus placed them at a greater risk of arrest when engaging in illegal activity. It was only the most chronic users who had repeated contacts with police and had to appear in court. Even Crazy Joe, who was known by the police to be a tic junkie and had been arrested on numerous occasions for other offenses, never had been caught on a drug violation.

There's been so many of em [arrests], I put em out of my mind, it comes almost as an everyday thing now. Things that I've done, like I say, going to court, you know, for disorderly, because I was high on tic, but never got arrested for any drugs. I mean I've been busted wit' a gun, and with tracks in my arm, and labeled a junkie with a gun, and narcotics agents came in and hassled me for names and shit, you know. But I never actually been arrested for possession. Sales. Or delivery, anything like that.


Despite the decrease in popularity of the drug, PCP remained a readily accessible drug to the members of this multiple-drug-using network. Although most individuals would rely on only a few of their favorite dealers to procure drugs, the twenty primary respondents of this study were able to identify over 100 dealers from whom they knew they could buy PCP. Ranging from 14 to 26 years of age, three-fourths of the dealers were male, and half dealt only in small quantities (nickels and dimes) versus larger amounts of a gram or more. Without exception, people who dealt PCP also were dealers of other drugs, usually marihuana and other chemicals.

One of the primary reasons for its abundant availability is the high profitability of the drug from the dealers' perspective. Even the small dealers who buy a gram of the substance for approximately $70, break it up into about eighteen dimes ($10 packets) or twice as many nickles ($5 packets), thus more than doubling the return on their investment. Although no one in this group was directly familiar with anyone producing the drug, a few knew people who were immediately below them in the chain of distribution. Their estimation of quantities and prices in the network were as follows. The laboratory man who makes it sells it in pounds for approximately $10,000 each. It is then broken into ounces and sold for about $1,000 apiece. The ounces are broken into grams, which go for about $70. The last man in the chain breaks the grams up into approximately eighteen dimes or twice as many nickels, which he then sells to customers.

In at least the first three steps of the distribution process the drug is "cut" or "wacked" with up to fifty percent of an additional nonintoxicating substance. The most commonly used additives are baking soda and milk sugar. Other substances reputed to have been used on different occasions include powdered bleach, Draino, and soap, all of which give pungent and undesirable effects when inhaled through the nose.

The majority of group members, both male and female, have acted as dealers at one time or another in order to supplement their income or reduce the cost of the drugs they consume. Thus the stereotype of the drug dealer as a villainous individual preying on the weaknesses of youths proves to be very inaccurate in relation to the group studied. The dealers were themselves group members who were friends first of all and potential sources for illicit substances secondly. Drug dealing was a socially accepted form of behavior which carried no stigma and often enhanced status.

One major dealer describes what first attracted him to drug dealing:

This one kid was the big dealer, and the girls were just all in love with him, he had a pocket full of money all the time, and you know, he'd turn em on to this dope, and they could get high, they'd go off and all do their thing. Whatever. I say hey, this is for me, you know. I got to be the center of attraction, you know? I guess, you know, it was acceptance type thing I guess at first. So I copped a couple grams of it; and I started sellin' it.

Anyone with the necessary resources required to purchase drugs in quantity would be considered foolish by his friends not to do so in order to save or make money and subsequently give good deals to his friends. The selling of drugs was far and away the easiest way for these youths to make extra money. Amounts ranged from enough to supply themselves with free drugs to reportedly huge sums for the industrious entrepreneur.

I wanted to be a dealer, I wanted to be a big shot. (laughs) I was for awhile. I'd have $300 a week. Clear (laughs) Yeah. In cash [male, age 19].

While some individuals with a personal aversion to a particular drug such as PCP might avoid dealing that drug, others would attempt to always have an adequate supply of almost everything available in order to enhance their status in the group as well as make money.

The reputation of dealers was related to their fairness in making deals and their dependability: they had good quality dope and gave a good "count" (quantity) at a reasonable price. Dependability was based on their usually having drugs available when someone was in the market to purchase and their track record for keeping appointments and following through on prearranged deals. A substantial financial return was the reward for dealers who were able to maintain good reputations and were personable enough to have an extensive friendship network. One of the respondents who used to deal large quantities of drugs explains one of the techniques he would use to promote sales:

What I used to do is find a big mouth, a big tic freak, you know, person that knows most of the people, and I'd ozone em, you know. I'd give em like fifteen dollars worth for five bucks, you know? Tell em that's just a nickel. He'd go ahead and he'd snort up some of it, do all of it, get all wasted, he'd go around tellin' everybody, "wow, that shit is great!" And the word passed around, I had great dope, and everybody comes around me to buy it. But then you could make the count a little smaller and it's still good dope. I used to make about $150, $200 and sometimes $300 a night on it.

If the dealer limited sales to people he knew and was not careless in the openness with which deals were transacted, the risks associated with the possibilities of arrest were not considered to be very great. Being careless or greedy were believed to be sure fire ways of asking for trouble and losing friends.


This ethnographic study of PCP users in an urban high school drug-using network highlighted a number of factors associated with the use of this drug. PCP is a powerful and unique substance. Hazards associated with the use of the drug, especially those relating to becoming burnt out after repeated regular use, were well known among members of this group. Undesirable experiences directly attributed to the use of PCP have resulted in a significant decrease in popularity of the drug and group sanctions against excessive use.

Among this group, instances of intoxication which resulted in violence, serious accidents, hospitalization, or death proved to be of minimal concern to users. Individuals who were at greatest risk for such adverse consequences were the most chronic users of the drug. Moderate use of PCP was the typical pattern, and it was usually described as an enjoyable experience without negative consequences. On those occasions when someone took too much of the drug, the situation was almost always adequately handled by friends without long-term undesirable effects.

One of the most significant findings was the extent to which the group itself helped to manage and control the use of PCP. Once group members had sufficient experience with the drug to realize the undesirable effects associated with regular use, the reputation of the drug and its users changed so as to discourage members from becoming burnouts. Those individuals who were not able or willing to moderate their consumption of PCP were deemed to be of the lowest status and were allowed to remain only as marginal members of the group.

It was believed that formal treatment for drug abuse would be of little value to anyone who was not already committed to discontinuing use. It was, however, thought that the accumulation of life-situation difficulties resulting from use of the drug would eventually bring chronic users to the point where they themselves would seriously want to change their pattern of use. At this time, treatment was considered to be a potentially supportive service.

Despite the decreasing popularity of PCP in this group, the drug continued to be readily available, apparently because of the high profitability it offered to dealers. That there are so many sources for the drug and that most everyone at some time deals it to friends make police attempts to reduce availability through enforcement at anything other than the highest levels extremely difficult.

The use of PCP has peaked in this group and shows no signs of regaining its once popular status. It has, however, remained as one of the drugs available and occasionally used by these high school youths. Although a very potent drug, moderation of use along with group controls aiding the management of use may well minimize difficulties directly attributable to the drug. If this is the case, then it may well be time to switch concern, for this group at any rate, from their use of this specific substance to their excessive use of the entire range of drugs they consume as an integral component of their lifestyle.


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Our valuable member Wayne Wiebel has been with us since Monday, 08 October 2012.