A history of drug abuse and addiction in America wouldn’t be complete without addressing the one drug, PCP, that received the most attention and press related to horror stories about it changing people into the “living dead”, or the drug that was responsible for superman-like acts of violence. Drug abuse and drug addiction in 1970s wasn’t about medicating ones problems, but more about showing ones toughness by being able to survive powerful “trips”.
PCP, or more formally phencyclidine, is a central nervous system excitant agent having anesthetic, analgesic, and hallucinogenic properties. It was developed in the 1950s, and following studies on laboratory animals, it was recommended for clinical trials on humans in 1957. PCP was marketed under the drug name of Sernyl. The drug was first used as an anesthetic, but lost favor because of the varied side effects of extreme excitement, visual disturbances and delirium. As a result, in 1967 the use of PCP was restricted to “veterinary use only” and it quickly became the most popular animal tranquilizer.
However, diversion of the PCP into the hands of a population of young people disregarded the “veterinary use only”. In the 1960s there were ample drug seeking youth that were willing to try anything to find a different “high” or the test the limits. PCP picked up many pseudonyms like: elephant juice, angel dust, hog, tic, super-grass, and rocket fuel. Its street use occurred initially in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, which had become world famous as the psychedelic capital.
It was common to the hallucinogenic marketplace to pass off one drug for another as long as the effects were similar and once PCP became the drug of choice, mescaline and LSD were many times sold as PCP. Many marijuana smokers were seeking tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in pure form and would, instead, be given PCP. In an experiment undertaken in 1971 in Greenwich Village, analysis was preformed on drugs labeled as PCP, THC, mescaline and LSD. What they found was only LSD was labeled correctly and only part of the time, but the rest of the drugs were actually PCP.
The stories describing PCP as a “killer drug” date to its first introduction to the street community. In 1969, a New York City chief of detectives commented: “let me tell you, this stuff is bad, real bad. One dose of it and we’re talking about serious addiction.” Other news stories were reporting that PCP was so powerful that anyone could get high by just touching the drug. PCP never really became the drug-of-choice to most users because of its unpleasant side effects and it didn’t get much public attention until 1978 when Mike Wallace, of “60 Minutes” described PCP as the nation’s “number one” drug problem, reporting on bizarre incidents of brutal violence allegedly caused by the new ”killer” drug. People magazine followed with more stories about its bizarre effects on our youth and society. In 1978, a senator described PCP as “one of the most insidious drugs known to mankind,” and a congressman declared that the drug was a “threat to national security and that children were playing with death on the installment plan”.
PCP helped the TV ratings and magazine sales, not to mention some political hype, but these stories were far from true. These media outlets were saying that PCP was the number one drug problem, when it actually accounted for only 3% of the emergency room admissions for drug related problems. The connection of PCP with superman powers and a drug that provoked violence in humans was only press propaganda. A study with more than 300 subjects taking PCP, under controlled conditions, reported no feelings of aggression or violence.
Most of the stories related to violence were from individuals that had violent tendencies as a major part of their personal psychological makeup and not a side effect of PCP. The use of PCP by youth declined from 13% of high school seniors having tried the drug in 1979 to 5% in 1984 and 1% in 1988. The media hype had a psychosomatic effect on the public to the extent that in 1984, the drug was given responsibility for so many admissions into Saint Elizabeth’s mental hospital in Washington that PCP was nicknamed the “key to Saint E’s”, but studies were never able to validate that this drug caused the effects that the press used to instill fear for nearly a decade. A collection of all of the studies on PCP shows that the alleged relationship between PCP use and violent behavior accounted for a very small percentage of its users.
Feel free to browse through this series of articles to learn the history of drugs and treatment in America.
Department of Drug Education, Prevention, and Information
Reference: Handbook of Drug Control In the United States by James A. Inciardi. Published by Greenwood Publishing Group, 1990.
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