Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
"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."
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.
"I would liken it to the people who use ketamine today. Ketamine was a drug developed in the '60s, and it's also currently used as an anaesthetic to animals. It's very similar to PCP and ultimately, it makes you feel very powerful because nothing hurts you. It's used at rave parties and, like PCP, it's inhaled, injected, swallowed, and smoked. The ketamine high lasts for about 20 to 30 minutes, and its residual effects last up to an hour after an initial dose. They call it the businessman's LSD because of the short duration of the high. A moderate dose causes euphoria, a burst of energy, and a drunken feeling. A high dose will cause tunnel vision, shortness of breath, loss of balance, a floating sensation -- which was what you'd notice from people on PCP. They would do what we called 'moonwalking.' They would put their foot out real slow and put it down. You can end up going into a coma from a result. Like PCP, someone under the influence of ketamine can be very physical, because you're talking about taking doses of an anaesthetic, which kills everything that hurts, so you feel like a superman."
Black agrees that sherm smoking was more of a ghetto drug, but, like rap music, it quickly finds its way into the better neighborhoods. "You typically found it in the low-income areas, but then, like everything else, you ended up with middle-class and upper-class kids coming there to buy it."
The name "sherm" comes from a brand of cigarettes. "Nat Sherman's brand cigarettes is known as the perennial favorite of PCP users because the thick, dark paper withstands the saturation well and conceals the fact that the cigarette has been dipped. When it became fashionable to roll your own cigarettes, there were cigarette-making kits where you could roll your own cigarettes with a filter. Some of the smarter ones started rolling marijuana joints that way, because they looked more professional and less suspicious."
Don Thornhill, an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, says that he doesn't see much PCP use right now, but that could change. "We haven't seen much of it in some time, but we don't really get involved in it unless there's a laboratory or something of that nature. Typically, it does move from East to West. In the late '80s, crack cocaine started on the East Coast and spread out West. One of the things that made PCP such a problem is that people would get so whacked out using it. Their threshold of pain was just phenomenal. It's very dangerous in that respect."
The police and users are not the only ones in danger. According to Dr. Anthony Ferkich, director of Emergency Medicine at Paradise Valley Hospital, anyone trying to help a PCP user is at risk. "I can remember a big gentleman, probably upwards of 300 pounds -- a big, strong fellow -- he was brought in by police, handcuffed. He was under the influence of PCP. He was very violent, very enraged, and the trick was, how to get him from the handcuffs onto the patient gurney! There were ten policemen in the room, and he looked at them, saying, 'Do you want me to break these handcuffs?' No one in the room doubted that he could do it. You could see the rage in his eyes, and there wasn't anything in particular that was enraging him. They tend to get that hyperadrenaline surge, so they are frequently stronger than they would normally be. They present a danger to the staff of the hospital and themselves."
Echoing the police interpretation, Ferkich says that though PCP use had been on the decline, there has been a slight rise recently. "Over the past year, I've been seeing more cases than I'm used to, but it's not a large number. And I'm speaking only about the patients where we're looking for it, by way of drug testing. The effects from smoking the marijuana and formaldehyde is largely an irritant effect on the lungs and respiratory passages, coughing and so forth. Marijuana's actually a hallucinogen, so anything from a mild euphoric reaction to visual hallucinations are possible. PCP tends to cause sort of a waxing and waning behavior. They can be calm some moments and violent and agitated at other moments with big adrenaline surges. They can be very violent. Heartbeat and blood pressure is up. Overall, there's a general hyperdynamic response in the body."