PCP Withdrawal: Side Effects, Recommendations, & Timelines

Phencyclidine, or PCP, is a Schedule II drug, according to the U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration. Though it technically can have medical value in certain situations, it is no longer legally manufactured for the treatment of humans.

Commonly known as crystal T, rocket fuel, or angel dust, all users of PCP are recreational users who often take the drug to experience a hallucinogenic trip and/or in combination with other substances of abuse for self-medication or escape.

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As an analgesic that causes a sense of dissociation from the self as well as the environment, there often are extreme psychological effects associated with the use of PCP that are acute as well as chronic. This means that PCP detox is very different for heavy users of the drug as compared to the detox experience of those who are addicted to other substances.

Though the physical symptoms of withdrawal are less overwhelming when compared to, for example, opiate detox withdrawal symptoms, the ongoing psychological alterations due to PCP abuse can be intense, making it extremely difficult to function in sobriety.

Ongoing abuse of any drug changes the size and shape of some cells in the brain, which, in turn, changes the way the user’s brain works and responds to stimuli. PCP users experience the same issue, but with time and intensive PCP addiction treatment, there is hope for a future in recovery.

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What Is PCP Abuse?

Any use of PCP is termed abuse because the drug is not legally manufactured and sold in the U.S. to treat humans. Methods of ingestion vary depending on what form the drug is in. PCP is sold as a powder, a liquid or as capsules. Some people roll a cigarette or a joint and dip it in the liquid, while others sprinkle the powder on top of the contents of the cigarette or joint before rolling and smoking it.

The powder may also be smoked in a pipe, divided into “bumps” or lines and snorted, or dissolved in water and injected. Still, others just take the drug orally, and others put droplets of the liquid version in their eyes.

No amount of PCP use is safe. Even a single use of the drug can trigger psychosis, attaching to the endorphin and enkephalin opioid receptors and causing the user to feel completely out of touch with reality. Users of the drug often feel superhuman, all-powerful, and invincible. As a result, they take risks that they otherwise never would — risks that can be immediately fatal.

Why Is PCP Abuse a Problem?

Just as all drugs of abuse are having a devastating impact on American families, economies, and social systems, PCP is also the cause of serious problems in rural and urban parts of the country.

For example, the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that more than 32,000 people aged 12 and older reported using PCP for the first time in the year before the study, and overall, more than 1.1 million Americans answered that they had used hallucinogens in the past year.

girl struggling with pcp abuse

Specifically for young people, use and abuse of PCP are highly problematic. More than 20 percent of high school seniors surveyed said it was easy to get PCP if they wanted it, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Studies show that the earlier the first use of any substance, the more likely it is that the individual will develop a lifelong problem with addiction. Whether the drug of choice during middle school or high school is alcohol, marijuana, or PCP, the risk of adulthood addiction rises with every underage use.

Additives and agents used to cut PCP, a substance that is already dangerous in its own right, are other sources of significant concern. Because PCP is no longer manufactured legally for medical use, users must buy the drug on the street from someone who manufactured it with no formal supervision or oversight. This means that anything can be in the drug, and it can be transported in any manner deemed necessary, whether or not that transportation method exposes the drug to viruses or bacteria that can cause infection and/or death.

Does Detox From PCP Cause Withdrawal Symptoms?

Regular phencyclidine use does, in fact, cause, withdrawal symptoms, though they rarely include extreme physical withdrawal symptoms like those associated with benzodiazepine detox or opioid detox. The psychological withdrawal symptoms, however, are extreme and long-lasting, requiring not only immediate stabilization in many cases but also long-term support from substance abuse treatment professionals.

It is important to note that very high doses of PCP can cause a catatonic state characterized by a blank stare and rapid eye movement. Higher doses and higher levels in the system caused by regular use of the drug can trigger auditory and visual hallucinations. These symptoms can begin within minutes of ingesting the drug, depending on the method of ingestion and the dose, and many people report continuing to feel some effect for up to two days following initial use.

When without PCP, many people in detox struggle with intense depression. Depressive symptoms can lead to suicidal thoughts or self-harming behaviors, or they can cause relapse when the person feels the pain is too much to bear. Medical detox and clinical supervision are always recommended for PCP detox to ensure the emotional and physical safety of the individual seeking recovery.

How Long Does It Take to Go Through PCP Detox?

The University of Washington reports that the half-life of PCP is between 11 hours and 51 hours, depending on the potency and dose, with other estimates ranging between seven hours and three days. Because PCP binds to adipose tissue, or fatty tissue, and there are high levels of fatty tissue in the brain, regular users of the drug often report feeling the effects of PCP for weeks after their last dose, a factor that can lengthen the time it takes to go through PCP detox.

Several factors can have a significant impact on how long PCP detox may take. They include:

  • Concurrent medical conditions
  • Length of regular use of PCP
  • Regular dose of PCP
  • Types of other substances abused or used to cut PCP
  • Personal characteristics, age, weight, metabolic rate

Because of the deeply impactful and long-lasting psychological effects of hallucinogenic drugs like PCP, a full detox can take anywhere from six months to a year after the last use of the drug. The most intense effects happen early on.

For example, the first week of detox often means flashbacks, hallucinations, sleep disruption, overall feelings of discomfort, and depression. By week two, the physical issues associated with detox are usually gone, but psychosis can begin or worsen for a month or more. During this time, depression can continue to be an ongoing and often overwhelming problem.

For up to a year following the last dose of the drug, it is normal for people to continue to experience different levels of hallucinations, psychosis, and cravings for PCP. It is not always an issue that improves over time. Rather, it can continue and become worse at different times during the first year of sobriety.

Is Medical Detox Necessary for PCP Withdrawal?

If entering rehab in the first days after the last use of PCP, medical detox is recommended. This is not necessarily for the management of physical withdrawal but for the psychological issues that will arise during the first weeks of recovery.

Because PCP so deeply affects the reward system in the user, making it difficult to experience joy or even contentment for the first months or years in recovery, medications used to treat depression are often recommended.

Additionally, 24-hour support and supervision can help to ensure that the individual has access to immediate mental health intervention in the case of an emergency as well as ongoing support from peers and professionals to begin the process of therapeutic recovery that will continue concurrently with detox.

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