COLUMN ONE : Effects of PCP: Myth Vs. Reality : Stories abound about the drug imbuing people with superhuman strength. But some researchers say those claims are overrated. Much about the drug remains a mystery.
It is a drug that has been blamed for stimulating the most abhorrent, mindless acts of violence.
Users are reported to have blithely amputated parts of their body--pulling their teeth out with pliers or gouging out their eyes. Mothers were accused of scalding or maiming their infants. And felons are said to have terrified police officers when gunfire failed to halt their advance or when, in a superhuman show of strength, they popped their handcuffs.
It has been more than a decade since PCP--commonly known as Angel Dust and technically as phencyclidine--enjoyed its heyday. But its legacy has endured, especially among law enforcement officers who still encounter an occasional PCP user on the streets.
Nationwide, PCP use has dropped dramatically. Only about 5% of the people arrested in Los Angeles County showed traces of PCP in their urine last year, according to UCLA researchers who track drug usage among people held in Los Angeles jails.
Nevertheless, police officers contend that when Rodney G. King stepped out of his car after a high-speed chase on March 3, they immediately concluded--although they were wrong--that King was high on PCP. The officers yelled out, “He’s dusted,” according to Officer Timothy Wind, one of four officers indicted in the case.
When he first observed King, Sgt. Stacey Koon said, his mind raced with stories he had heard about the superhuman strength of PCP suspects. He has told investigators that he feared King could, in a moment, turn into the “Hulk,” grabbing away police weapons and putting officers in a “death grip.”
A videotape of the notorious police beating of King has touched off national outrage and prompted the filing of criminal assault charges against the officers.
At their trial, likely to begin this summer, the specter of PCP is expected to play a leading role in the defense strategy, with defense attorneys arguing that King’s beating was justified on the grounds that police thought he was high on PCP or having a PCP “flashback.”
Defense attorneys are likely to dwell on King’s “strange behavior,” which the officers and other witnesses have already described in statements they provided to investigators: that he failed to follow directions promptly, that he appeared disoriented and stared ahead blankly, that he resisted handcuffing by pushing away officers, that he laughed inappropriately, that he circled his arms wildly, shook his buttocks at an officer, and exhibited few signs of pain during his beating. Police investigators later concluded King was legally drunk at the time of his arrest.
The jury also will have to reconcile differences of opinion about the medical effects of PCP--to distinguish fact from fiction about the dangers of this drug.
Many law enforcement officials and prominent medical researchers and clinicians are convinced that PCP is the most dangerous drug ever to hit the streets of America.
Others are more skeptical. They say that the shocking stories about PCP are based more on myth than reality. Whenever a new drug sweeps the nation, they say, the reaction is always the same--to vilify it in dramatic tales of wanton violence that will justify the use of extraordinary measures in subduing its users.
New York City College pharmacologist John Morgan, who has sharply criticized the media’s portrayal of PCP, contends that every new drug experience in America is reported by the media in a way that emphasizes “individual tales of dangerous, criminal or self-destructive behavior.”
“The myth is newly erected and slightly embellished with each new drug,” Morgan said. “The best model seems to be the Frankenstein monster who advances impervious to pain, bullets and . . . fire, in order to murder (or) dismember . . . men, women, children and the household pets.”
In his seminal book that reviews the history of drug abuse in America, Yale psychiatrist David Musto describes how cocaine, for example, gained a foothold among Southern blacks in the early 1900s. He cited anecdotes that circulated about the sexual rapaciousness, criminal tendencies and superhuman strength cocaine instilled in blacks--providing what he said was yet another excuse for their repression.
A “myth that cocaine made blacks almost unaffected by mere .32-caliber bullets is said to have caused Southern police departments to switch to .38-caliber revolvers,” Musto asserted.
Attorney Carol Watson, a member of the board of the Police Misconduct Lawyers Referral Service in Los Angeles and who has represented citizens in police abuse cases for a decade, said that in years past, when PCP was more popular, it was “not uncommon” for police to use PCP as a justification for their excessive force in making arrests.
She said police use PCP as an excuse because “they believe the public will go along with any use of force if they make a claim the person was under the influence of PCP. The perception is that PCP is so dangerous that any means are justified to subdue the person.”
Yet much about the drug’s complicated behavioral and physiological effects remains a mystery to medical researchers.
First synthesized in 1958, PCP was widely tested in humans as a surgical anesthetic. At first, it heralded great promise because it suppressed pain without rendering patients unconscious. But testing was discontinued in 1965 because of undesirable side effects including extreme agitation, delirium, muscle rigidity and seizure. It continues to be used today, in a slightly different form, as an animal tranquilizer.
Dr. Edward Domino, who participated in the early testing of PCP, documented that the drug produces an “adrenaline release resulting in a ‘fight or flight’ reaction with an increase in heartbeat, high blood pressure” and a raised body temperature.
Medical researchers say the effects of the drug vary greatly. It can act as a depressant, stimulant or hallucinogen depending upon the dosage, type of administration and circumstances of use. On the street, PCP is available as a powder, tablet or liquid, or in leaf mixtures; it may be swallowed, injected, snorted or smoked.
Key factors that determine whether a PCP user becomes violent are the user’s personality, the physical setting and external stimulants.
In law enforcement circles, there is virtual unanimity about the extreme danger of PCP.
Police officers say that if a PCP user “goes off”--for whatever reason--he can be extremely dangerous.
They cite the case of West Covina Police Officer Ken Wrede, who was killed in 1983 by a PCP user who was unfazed by both Mace and baton blows. In a powerful display of force, he uprooted a sapling and its 8-foot stake, which he hurled at the officer. Then he managed to grab a shotgun out of the officer’s car and kill him.
Officers interviewed in Los Angeles, San Jose and Washington--which all have experienced serious PCP epidemics within the past two decades--agreed that PCP is extremely dangerous, not just because of the hallucinations it induces but because it numbs pain in users and subjects them to very sudden, unpredictable swings in behavior which can sometimes include extraordinary acts of strength and violence.
Chronic users are said to sometimes experience dangerous “flashbacks” during which the drug, which is stored in fat tissues of the body, can be re-released into the system.
Of 21 metropolitan areas tracked by the U.S. Drug Abuse Warning Network--a federal program run by the National Institute on Drug Abuse--Washington was hit the hardest and longest by a PCP epidemic that has now passed. Looking back, Jay Carver, director of the city’s pretrial services agency, said there were plenty of horror stories that drifted up to him from the courtroom involving babies that had been dismembered or suspects so wild that six police officers could not subdue them.
“But it’s also true that not everybody went off the deep end,” he said. “Certainly there were an awful lot of people who used PCP and didn’t go insane.”
In Los Angeles, too, the PCP epidemic has passed.
“PCP is a dead drug. It’s of minimal concern in Los Angeles,” declared Douglas Anglin, director of the UCLA Drug Abuse Research Group, which periodically measures drug usage within a representative sample of several hundred people arrested by the LAPD and county Sheriff’s Department and held in four Los Angeles jails.
Traces of PCP were found in the urine of less than 5% of the males tested in 1990. By comparison, about 46% of the males tested positive for cocaine.
The PCP capital of the nation is now San Jose.
About 10% of the people arrested in San Jose last year--compared with 5% in Los Angeles--showed traces of PCP in their urine last year, studies show.
Frank Swaringen, a deputy sheriff in San Jose who made a movie instructing officers how to handle a PCP suspect, said that during his research he documented “numerous cases” in which PCP suspects have popped their handcuffs. “They’ve ripped off their skin or broken their wrists in the process, but they don’t feel the pain,” he said. The movie, shown at police training seminars nationwide, tells police officers to talk slowly and move quietly to avoid “setting off” a PCP suspect. Don’t shine flashlights in their eyes or use bullhorns that could “shock the senses,” and always have backup help, the movie advises.
Sgt. Thomas Page, director of the LAPD’s Office of Drug Recognition Experts, agreed with that strategy. He labeled PCP “overall the most dangerous drug because it’s by far the most unpredictable. A person can be sedate one moment and become violent the next.
“We have learned from experience that the best way to handle a person under the influence of PCP is to keep the sensory stimulation low. Don’t excite them or agitate them to prevent them from going off.”
If a police officer observes muscle rigidity, dancing pupils, a robotic walk, excessive perspiration and non-communicativeness in a suspect, Page said the officer should suspect PCP. A field sobriety test should be administered and the suspect then taken into custody.
The Police Department’s “Use of Force Guidelines” quote medical authorities as advising that environmental factors such as noise, people, uniforms and even words may stimulate aggressive behavior in PCP suspects.
“By using a low-key approach, choosing words carefully and displaying non-aggressive body actions, the officer may have some success in reducing the potential for violent behavior,” the training bulletin states.
As Marceline Burns of the Southern California Research Institute put it: “We learned fairly early on that PCP suspects are manageable if they are not overstimulated.”
Attorney Watson criticized the officers’ tactics in handling Rodney King.
“The fact is that if they truly thought he was under the influence of PCP, they used exactly the wrong tactics to try to control him, which leads me to believe that they didn’t really think he was on PCP at all,” Watson said. “It sounds to me like they came up with that story after the fact in order to justify the beating they gave him.”
Some medical researchers blame the media for creating a bogyman out of PCP based on a few recycled horror stories about the superhuman strength, self-destructiveness and other violence exhibited by PCP users. They acknowledge there is some truth to the stories, but stress that only a very small proportion of all PCP users suffer these extreme effects.
One dangerous impact of the “media sensationalism,” according to Canadian researcher Betty L. Davis, with the Ministry of Health in British Columbia, is the way it has generated exaggerated fears in police officers about the violence they should expect from PCP users.
“Consequently,” Davis concluded, police “may behave toward the PCP user in an aggressive and threatening manner, thereby intensifying the users’ feelings of anxiety and paranoia, and precipitating a violent incident which may otherwise have been avoided.”
Dr. Judy Howard, a pediatrician at UCLA who studied female PCP users and their babies, responded angrily to insinuations that PCP is not as dangerous a drug as the media or police have portrayed it to be. “Let me tell you, PCP is terrible,” Howard asserted.
The effects on the offspring of mothers who used PCP were worse than the effects of heroin or methadone, Howard found. A half dozen of the mothers she studied became so violent that she said they had to be dropped from her research project.
Dr. Margaret McCarron, professor of emergency medicine at County-USC Medical Center, reported that “violence and unpredictable outbursts and bizarre behavior” were the most striking findings of her study of 1,000 PCP users who were hospitalized in the medical center’s jail ward.
McCarron also noted in her study, published in 1981 in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, that some patients “were seemingly possessed of superhuman strength, breaking restraints designed to withstand 1,000 pounds of pressure.”
McCarron found that violence accompanied 35% of the cases, bizarre behavior 29% and agitation 34%. The study found that:
- About 130 patients had been involved in an altercation, including 19 with serious injuries.
- Forty-three others had used guns or knives to threaten or injure somebody. Two were randomly shooting into windows of private homes. One was chasing his wife with a machete. Another, after taking two people hostage and attempting to stab them, was shot three times by the police SWAT team.
- An additional 29 cases suffered various types of self-inflicted injuries, including a man who pulled out two of his front teeth with pliers and another who set himself on fire after stabbing his grandmother. One man broke a window and then ate some of the glass. A woman claimed that God had told her to kill all the people on a bus. Police intervened as she attempted to do so.
Declining PCP Use
Testing for PCP
Urine tests of several hundred male arrestees at four jails in Los Angeles County in 1990 found PCP in just 5% of those who showed evidence of drug use. Use of substances was as follows:
Darvon: less than 1%
Methaqualone: less than 1%
Source: (Urine testing) UCLA Drug Abuse Research Group, funded by the National Institute of Justice
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.