In the waning days of the disco era, “angel dust” made its appearance on the recreational drug menu of some partiers. PCP swiftly gained a notoriety that far outpaced either its popularity or its potency. But it is a potentially dangerous substance, and possessing it exposes a person to very serious criminal penalties.
This article discusses PCP possession and penalties generally under federal law. Possession is also illegal under state law. For state-by-state information on possession of illegal substances, see Possession of a Controlled Substance.
PCP is a “dissociative hallucinogen” that causes a sensation in the user of being disconnected from his environment and even from himself. This dissociation can include a dramatic alteration of body image. The drug produces this sensation by interfering with sensory and other signals to the conscious mind from other parts of the brain, by inhibiting dopamine and serotonin reuptake. The drug also affects opioid receptors in the brain, which may result in feelings of euphoria but also in depression, and can lead to impairment in memory and cognition.
PCP is a synthetic compound first synthesized in 1926 and patented in 1952 as an anesthetic. Although tested for use on humans, pharmaceutical companies abandoned PCP as a human anesthetic due to its dramatic and negative side-effects shortly after it was patented. PCP was employed as an animal anesthetic for a time thereafter, but such use was also shelved because of the unpredictable nature of the effects of the drug.
In the late 1970s, the U.S. media ran several sensational stories about people high on PCP who engaged in violent acts, self-mutilation, and other bizarre behaviors. The drug quickly gained a reputation as a catalyst to violence and even super-human physical prowess. These reports have been largely discredited and most of the violence committed by PCP users has been attributed to individuals with histories of violent behavior. And, even at its most popular, PCP never became a widely-used recreational drug.
PCP has no medically or legally sanctioned use.
PCP had its heyday in the late 1970s, but it was never a very popular recreational drug. Some studies put the peak at 13 % of high school students who reported trying it, but use levels quickly dropped to low single digits. Just 2 % of high school students responding to a survey in 2000 reported having tried the drug.
The drug is sold in powdered, or “salt” form; or as a liquid (referred to on the street as “embalming fluid”). For recreational ingestion, a cigarette or marijuana joint is dipped in PCP oil and smoked. These dipped cigarettes typically sell for about $10 to $25 each on the street.
Physical side-effects of PCP ingestion can include numbing of extremities, difficulty walking and speaking, loss of balance, and slurring of words. Psychological side-effects can include paranoia, hallucinations, amnesia, confusion, suicidal impulses, and terror. PCP's ability to erratically alter the user's mood may lead to unpredictable emotional states and outbursts. Although the media frenzy that arose in the late 1970s about the drug emphasized extreme violence by those under the influence, instances of violence were actually quite rare. Some news features about PCP reported users exhibiting “superhuman” strength while under the influence. However, this was likely due to the anesthetic effect of the drug and the user's PCP-induced inability to experience pain.
At high doses, PCP can cause coma, fever, stroke, and respiratory failure. Death can result.
Under U.S. law, PCP is a “Schedule II” controlled substance. However, like most drug possession crimes, possession of PCP is usually charged under state law. A person who manufactures PCP, who possesses large amounts of PCP for sale, or who has transported the drug across state lines may face federal prosecution.
A person convicted in federal court of a first offense of possession of 100 to 999 grams of PCP may face five to 40 years in prison, a fine of $2 million, or both. Where the crime resulted in an individual's death or serious injury, the punishment is increased to 20 years to life in prison.
A person convicted of a second offense of possession of 100 to 999 grams of PCP may face 10 years to life in prison, a fine of up to $4 million, or both. If the crime involved a death or serious injury, the penalty is increased to life in prison.
A person convicted of a first offense of possession of more than one kilogram of PCP may face 10 years to life in prison, a fine of up to $4 million, or both. If the crime involved a death or serious injury, the penalty is increased to life in prison.
A person convicted of a second offense of possession of more than one kilogram of PCP may face 20 years to life in prison, a fine of up to $8 million, or both. If the crime involved a death or serious injury, the penalty is increased to life in prison.
Regardless of whether PCP possession is charged under state or federal law, the possible penalties are severe. If you have questions about the crime of PCP possession, talk to an experienced criminal defense lawyer in your area.