Could the current '80s pop-cult revival include a resurgence of PCP use? Hitting its peak in the early '80s, PCP, or "angel dust," had notoriety as the drug that made its users so violent that police had difficulty subduing them. One method of use employed dipping marijuana in PCP and formaldehyde, creating a smoke known as a "sherm." With the decline of PCP labs, sherm use all but disappeared, but that could be changing. In the May issue of Details magazine, in an article titled "Reefer Madness," writer Kevin Gray documents the effects of PCP's increasing popularity of "sherms" or under its new names, which include "wet," "dank," and "amp." Gray's account takes place in Houston, which, in the drug trade, is just down the road from San Diego.
At a tattoo shop near one of the beaches, two customers are talking about their past drug use with the owner. When PCP/ formaldehyde-dipped joints are mentioned, the shop owner laughs. "You mean 'lovely'?"
One customer, Beth, says smoking it was the worst mistake of her life. "That's the reason I quit smoking pot."
Beth is petite and outspoken; she has no qualms about sharing her experience. "I came across some weed that was laced with PCP. It was, like, the worst experience of my life. Everything was running together, and I forgot where I lived. It was really horrible. I'm 19 now, and that was two years ago. One of my friends had it. He did so many drugs that he couldn't tell what was what anymore. He didn't know it was laced himself. He was on other drugs at the time that we did it, so it was like just another drug for him. Now I just drink."
Teer, a thirtyish man sporting a goatee, ceramic earrings, an ornamented, pierced tongue, and many tattoos, says that the beach is not the most likely place to find "sherm-heads." "The most common thing now is ecstasy. It's everywhere. People aren't out on the corner selling PCP. That's more in the ghetto."
Beth chimes in. "Maybe, like, El Cajon. A lot of stuff goes on out there."
Teer says that he started smoking sherm when he was 16. "I used it a lot. I used a lot of drugs, but the older you get, the less fun it gets. Smoking a sherm is kind of like huffing paint times 20 for eight hours. Some people freak out or get weirded out, but you can do the same thing on acid. I would smoke it at school -- I won't tell you where! We'd sit in the back of the room, all shermed out. When I was locked up [in jail], I knew some guys that had it. The whole tank had it, and when they woke up in the morning, we'd take a hit of that stuff just to get right.
"I remember the last time I smoked it, I was totally bummed that I did it. I remember thinking how it sucked. I was probably about 23 or so. I've been sober for four years now."
PCP, or phencyclidine, was originally developed as an anaesthetic in the 1950s, but the effects of delusions and agitation banished its use to animals by the 1970s. It was later taken off the market because of its widespread abuse.
Lieutenant Carl Black is a member of the San Diego County Narcotics Task Force. A police officer for 33 years with extensive narcotics experience, Black dreads the thought of PCP's resurgence. "It's not a new thing, and I'd hate to see it come back. The problem is, drug use tends to be an East-to-West phenomenon. Something that starts out on the East Coast will soon catch on out West here. So far, nothing has come up here that I have heard of."
Will Glaspy, an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington, D.C., says statistics indicate PCP could be returning to the streets. "Nationally, in 1999, there were only 52,000 dosage units seized. In 2000, there were a total of 284,938 dosage units seized. In 2001, there were a total of 1, 033,644 units seized. The majority of those -- 800,000 -- came out of El Paso. So it looks like there may have been a big seizure that led to that increase. It might possibly mean that the lab was in Mexico too. El Paso is always on the list; then you've got places like Los Angeles, New York, Philly. But even if you factor El Paso out, there was still a slight increase. Last year, San Diego had one very small exhibit."
Lieutenant Black is especially wary of sherm use. "That was the big thing back in the late '70s, through the mid-'80s. They'd take a marijuana cigarette, dip it in PCP, and wrap it in foil to keep it. According to the drug identification 'Bible,' that was the most common way of ingesting PCP. Then, in the mid-'80s, it sort of dropped off the charts. It was quite the drug. If you had someone high on that stuff, you didn't want to shine a light in their eyes, because that would set them off. It's still out there, and we come across it once in a while."
Although Black hasn't seen a resurgence of sherm smoking in San Diego, he's heard that it's on the comeback trail. "I don't remember the source, but somebody was talking about it coming to the forefront farther east. If it's starting to rear its ugly head east of us, it will eventually get here."
The street value hasn't changed much since the 1980s, nor has its effects. In fact, another drug similar to PCP is also coming on. "People did take PCP orally, but they laced marijuana with it too. It goes from about $10 to $15 a sherm. You talk about a tiger by the tail -- you get ahold of somebody smoking PCP, you don't know what they're gonna do. I remember driving down the street and I saw a guy walking naked. You go, 'Oh no. If this guy's walking around naked, he's probably using PCP.' One of the things is that they like to take their clothes off. I called for some other units, then walked up to the guy. I can't describe it, but when you looked in their eyes, you knew. It was this really vacant look. You had to handle them with kid gloves, because you never knew what was going to set them off, and it would take about six of you to wrestle them to the ground.