A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Does PCP turn people into cannibals?

March 25, 2005

Dear Cecil:

What's up with PCP turning people into cannibals?

Cecil replies:

Now, Jim. It's not like cannibalism is a frequent consequence of PCP use. Only one case has turned up that I know of, involving Antron Singleton, a would-be rapper using the stage name Big Lurch. In 2002, after he was found walking around Los Angeles naked and covered with blood, his roommate Tynisha Ysais, 21, was discovered dead on the floor of their apartment with her chest slashed open and her internal organs exposed. Pieces of her right lung, which had been removed from her body, appeared chewed and torn, and there were teeth marks on her face. Singleton's lawyer claimed his client had tucked into Ysais after a five-day PCP binge had made him psychotic. An insanity plea was rejected, and Singleton was sentenced to life in prison without parole; a similar incident soon found its way into an episode of CSI.

Huh, you say. Sounds like PCP isn't the drug of choice when you're looking to get mellow. Maybe not, but PCP, known technically as phencyclidine and on the street as angel dust, horse tranquilizer, etc, has its defenders, or at least apologists, who say tales of homicidal rage are exaggerated and recall the hysteria surrounding cocaine, LSD, and marijuana in earlier eras. A riffle through the clippings offers evidence for both sides of the argument:

  • Houston, a 21-year-old rising R & B star said to have been battling PCP use and mental problems, went to his hotel room while on tour in London in late January, ostensibly to read the Bible, and gouged out one of his eyes. His publicist denied reports that he had earlier attempted to jump from a 13th-floor window. PCP isn't mentioned in later accounts of the incident and the guy definitely had other issues, so this one can't be confidently pinned on the drug.
  • According to the New York Daily News, in 2002 a 30-year-old Brooklyn mother killed her 7-year-old daughter while high on PCP, stabbing her more than 35 times and also repeatedly stabbing a neighbor who tried to intervene.
  • In a 1980 special issue on PCP, the Journal of Psychedelic Drugs reported that, on the one hand, (1) some stories about PCP-induced dementia were demonstrably embroidered or otherwise unreliable — for example, Baltimore college dropout Charles Innes blinded himself while in jail after swallowing a canister of drugs, but there was no proof the stuff was PCP; (2) the vast majority of PCP experiences were nonviolent; (3) you could find eye gougings, superhuman strength, and whatnot attributed to drugs ranging from LSD to ergot; (4) PCP users took gobs of other drugs too; and (5) the one recreational drug indisputably linked to crime was alcohol. On the other hand, the Journal's contributors went on to say, PCP had played a role in plenty of stunningly senseless violence: (1) a 17-year-old boy made a sexual advance on a 14-year-old girl after both had smoked "superweed" (here meaning marijuana dosed with PCP); when she resisted, he concluded he was being attacked by a wild animal and strangled her; (2) a man cut off one of his partner's testicles at the latter's request while both were high on PCP; (3) one chronic PCP user "branded himself by burning a cross on his chest"; (4) a 38-year-old man smoked superweed, cut off the head of his dog, and attacked a stranger on the street with a razor; (5) high on PCP, a man waved down a car, shot and killed a passenger, then frolicked on the freeway firing in the air before being subdued; and (6) a 29-year-old man smoked a PCP "crystal joint," entered a pregnant woman's home, stabbed her, killing the fetus, killed her two-year-old child, and when found was running down the street with a knife, naked and bloody, yelling, "Hallelujah, I'm Jesus!"

PCP was studied in the 1950s as a human anesthetic but after reports of delusions, psychosis, and other side effects was restricted to veterinary use and eventually discontinued. It surfaced briefly as a recreational drug in San Francisco in 1967, reappeared in the 70s, and during the 80s became popular in urban black neighborhoods. The drug lost favor during the 90s but some reports indicate it surged with the new century, finding a market among a segment of clubgoers and ravers. It's described as dissociative, meaning users are more or less aware but feel oddly detached. Is PCP inherently dangerous? Given the continuing litany of horror stories after 40 years of street use, it seems clear this stuff is in a different league from LSD and other drugs with which it's often compared. The argument can be made that it unleashes violent outbursts mainly in people who were unstable to start with. But let's face it, much the same can be said of a gun.

More on Charles Innes

We've heard from an acquaintance of Charles Innes who claims to have spoken with him about the blinding incident mentioned above. The acquaintance says the drug involved was definitely PCP. Although we were not able to speak to Innes directly, we did talk to reporter Van Smith of the Baltimore City Paper, who has known Innes since the mid-1990s and has discussed the incident with him. According to Smith, Innes denies that the drug he ingested was PCP. The Journal of Psychedelic Drugs article ("The Dusting of America: The Image of Phencyclidine [PCP] in the Popular Media," July-December 1980, p. 201), says Innes "claimed the drug was PCPA (parachlorphenylalanine). This agent, which … is unrelated to PCP, was claimed to be available on the street in the late 1960s and early 1970s but there is no proof that it was ever available." The article says no tests for PCP were carried out, and one may surmise that Innes himself does not know for certain what the stuff was. According to Smith, Innes was in a drug-induced psychotic state for several days prior to blinding himself. While PCP is widely reported to cause temporary psychosis, whether it was the drug Innes took is not known and probably not knowable.

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