The New Rise of PCP

The angel dust of the ‘80s is back in a new form called “wet,” and teens are going crazy for it—literally. Jeff Deeney on how a drug that makes users psychotic is staging a comeback.

04.22.11 9:46 PM ET

On the corners near Westmoreland and Rorer in North Philly’s war-torn Badlands, long the nexus of the city’s drug trade, you’ll hear rag-tag crews of young, gun-strapped Latin hustlers calling out “wet, wet, wet.”

They’re advertising to a specific kind of customer, one who’s not here to cop heroin or coke (though those are available in abundance if they want them), a customer who’s looking, instead, to get “wetted up.” These are customers who want a high that includes hallucinations and, not infrequently, a psychotic episode. By morning light, some of them will be strapped to gurneys in inpatient psych units, wards of the city’s Crisis Response Centers—psychiatric emergency rooms acting as triage units for the homicidal and suicidal.

These patients, many of them teens, are early adopters in what law enforcement authorities and mental health professionals worry is the beginning of a surge in PCP use, spawned by a convenient new way of consuming the powerful drug: by dissolving it in liquid and soaking cigarettes with it so that it can be smoked on the fly.

Lieutenant Charles Jackson has been in the Narcotics Unit of the Philadelphia Police department for 15 years. He says the powdered PCP called angel dust that partnered with drugs like crack and heroin to ravage the city in the late ‘70s and ‘80s is gone from the streets. These days, PCP comes dissolved in an oily yellow tincture called “wet.” Dealers soak crushed mint leaves in wet and sell them in dime bags, or dip cigarettes in it (called “dippers”) and sell them ready to smoke.

“It’s definitely a drug that appeals to younger users, people mostly in their teens and 20s,” says Jackson. “You don’t see too many older users because of the kinds of effects it can have.”

Effects like psychosis and other severe mental health symptoms. To the increasing number of kids now smoking it, PCP induces a psychotic state with symptoms that resemble schizophrenia. After a steep and prolonged drop in the number of young people trying the drug in the ‘90s, numbers of new users are climbing again. In parts of Philly, PCP use is back to peak levels, and the associated social costs are piling up.

Nelly, a former wet user, explains in his gruff voice that he started smoking wet when he was “a young bull”—an up and comer in the West Philadelphia drug scene. He first got into the drug while hustling crack almost 10 years ago when he was in his early twenties, and kept smoking until he was nearly 30. He says that for years prior to smoking his first dipper, he consumed a heavy daily diet of potent blunt-wrapped weed, the same stuff that most Philly dealers smoke from sundown to sunup while working the corner. Bored with his usual weed high, Nelly saw wet as a change of pace.

“PCP users can be so psychotic when they’re brought in that they can’t provide any history,” says one doctor.

“I got tired of weed and for a minute wet was cool, it was something new, it was a good way to escape.” Getting high on PCP, however, was nothing like smoking pot. “Smoking wet is another level,” Nelly says about the drug’s powerful dissociative effect that far surpasses the intoxicating power of even the most high-grade designer marijuana. His eyes widen in disbelief when he recalls the wild hallucinations. Wet users describe having extensive conversations with inanimate objects that come to life, or even stepping outside of their own bodies and spending the night hanging out with themselves.

Nelly says a wet habit starts out cheap. Dippers sell for $15 a piece, or two for $25. But the financial cost can escalate. “Most people smoke a dipper and chill, but I would smoke like six a night.” On top of the weed and pills he also used, the costs of his drug use piled up, and he had to keep dealing crack to afford his hustler-cum-addict lifestyle.

During its heyday in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, PCP was associated with biker gangs and horror stories in the press detailing catastrophically bad trips resulting in mental breakdown and bodily injury. But today, the drug’s spread more closely resembles that of crack-cocaine: poor, inner-city kids looking for an initially affordable, easy-to-obtain high. Philadelphia’s notorious Badlands, primarily a Latin barrio comprised of narrow streets lined with ailing two-story brick row homes, has been the epicenter of the city’s drug trade for decades. Today, the neighborhood is drenched in wet, and the corners where wet sells are some of the city’s most violent. On April 12 a man was repeatedly shot in the chest and stomach, dumped from a car and left for dead on a corner near Westmoreland Street and Rorer, the Badlands hot spot for wet sales. Addicts who cop wet at Westmoreland and Rorer say they sometimes flee the corner at a full sprint as gunshots ring out arbitrarily.

In 2007 there was a near riot on neighboring Hurley Street that left multiple homes wrecked and a young man critically wounded from a gunshot to the back. Those involved in the violence said it erupted over turf tensions between rival crews of wet dealers; most of these teens were using the drug heavily at the time.

Evidence of a swelling wave of PCP use has been starting to crop up in recent substance-abuse data. In March of 2009 the Washington Post reported that 10 percent of adults in D.C.’s justice system tested positive for the drug. The National Institute on Drug Abuse’s 2010 Monitoring the Future study reported that 1 percent of 12th graders had used PCP in the year prior to the survey, and 2.5 percent have tried it in their lifetimes. For perspective, at the height of the drug’s popularity in the ‘70s, 13% of high school seniors said they had used PCP. While the drug lost its broader appeal over the years, in some poorer neighborhoods it’s going as strong as ever.

Wet users experiencing an overdose say their body temperature skyrockets and they feel like they’re burning up, causing some to strip off their clothes in an attempt to cool off. The sweat-sheened and naked PCP fiend who ably fights off a pack of nightstick-wielding police with the strength of 10 men has become the stuff of urban legend.

And Jackson says that in his experience, the legend is true. “That stuff about Superman strength is for real, believe me,” he says. “I’ve seen people jump out of two story windows…people really do crazy stuff on PCP when we encounter them.”

PCP users who have violent encounters with police while they’re high on the drug wind up facing more serious criminal charges. Striking a police officer in Pennsylvania nets you an automatic felony aggravated assault charge. Wet addicts can find themselves in serious legal trouble. But Nelly says the greater cost was his peace of mind. Years of using the drug exacted a heavy psychological toll. He sometimes hallucinated and heard voices, even when he wasn’t on the drug. “I heard voices, they would tell me to do things I didn’t want to do, commit crimes, hurt people, stuff like that.”

Dr. John McCafferty knows the difficulties associated with treating wet abusers better than anyone. McCafferty is the Inpatient Director at Einstein Hospital’s psychiatric unit that serves the neighborhoods where wet gets sold and used. He sees wet users brought into the hospital on “302s,” the code referring to involuntary commitments, at least once a week.

Other addicts brought into the unit can typically be quickly stabilized, their needs assessed and recovery resources in the community quickly coordinated. Wet users, on the other hand, can remain nearly catatonic for days, during which time doctors can’t determine the kind of treatment they need.

“PCP users can be so psychotic when they’re brought in that they can’t provide any history,” says McCafferty. “I can’t tell what other disorders they have that I may need to treat.”

And treating wet users can come with costly complications you might not expect if you haven’t worked with this type of drug abuser.

“Some PCP users are transferred to the psych unit from the trauma unit, where they had pins put in their legs because they jumped out a window. Some complain of chest pains days after arriving, and when we do an X-ray we find broken ribs. PCP is also an anesthetic, so other injuries often aren’t discovered until after it wears off.”

Regarding the social costs of the drug, McCafferty makes another crucial point.

“These patients overwhelmingly do not have private insurance coverage, so the public winds up bearing the financial cost, which can be considerable.” Public funds for mental health treatment are already stretched thin, and treating wet abusers cuts into the same money for people suffering from organic disorders like schizophrenia.

Nelly, for his part, quit smoking wet a couple years back and has recovered much of the ground he lost while abusing the drug. Like many chronic, heavy wet users, Nelly experienced periodic psychosis long after he put down the drug. He’s now on medication that helps stabilize his mood, and he doesn’t hear voices any more. Mental stability allowed him to go back to work in a drug rehab, and steady work has kept him from hustling on the corner. At this point, the thought of relapsing on wet sends shivers down his spine.

“I can’t smoke that stuff no more. Believe me,” he says, shaking his head like he’s trying to throw off the bad memories. “If I go back out there and start smoking wet again, I’m a dead man.”

Jeff Deeney is a social worker and freelance writer from Philadelphia. He works with felony drug offenders in the criminal justice system and writes about urban poverty and drug culture.