Why Americans Are the Only People in the World Using PCP
Illustration: Rebecca Hendin

Why America Is the Only Place in the World Where People Use PCP

America’s forgotten drug is woven into the day-to-day fabric of poor inner cities dotted across the country. But it’s never gone global like crack or LSD, while some U.S. cities have remained impervious.
Max Daly
London, GB
RH
illustrated by Rebecca Hendin
March 22, 2021, 3:53pm

Just a few miles from the White House, in Washington D.C.’s poorer neighbourhoods, the trade in PCP is alive and kicking. 

The hallucinogenic anaesthetic drug – mainly smoked via $20 PCP-soaked cigarettes called “dippers” – is the most frequently mentioned illegal substance in criminal case hearings at the city’s Superior Court after cocaine.

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Over a quarter of DUI tests in the city come up positive for the drug. More than a third of arrestees who test positive for any drug in D.C. have PCP in their system, the highest rate in the U.S., and more than double the proportion of those testing positive for opioids. 

It’s not just a drug closely linked to crime. Data from the Center for Substance Use Research (CESAR) shows that of those admitted suffering from a drug overdose into Prince George’s Hospital Center, a hospital in Maryland which serves DC, around one in four test positive for PCP. Of all drug deaths in 2018 in DC, 14 percent involved PCP.

Yet, bizarrely, just 40 miles down the road, in Baltimore, PCP is almost unheard of. 

At the Midtown Medical Center in Baltimore, a half-hour drive from Prince George’s Hospital, typically 0-2 percent of those admitted into emergency rooms in 2018 suffering from a drug overdose tested positive for PCP, according to CESAR data. Just 0.3 percent of drug deaths in 2018 in Baltimore involved PCP.

The contrast between these two cities is a reflection of the picture across the United States. 

Analysis carried out by VICE World News has found that while in most areas PCP is MIA, there are hotspots seemingly scattered at random across the country where police have busted huge amounts of the drug during the COVID pandemic.

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Most oddly, bearing in mind the transglobal nature of drug markets, PCP is a drug almost entirely restricted to the U.S. It has failed to gain traction anywhere else on the planet.

Why is this substance, unlike many other illicit drugs, so geographically specific, and what does this tell us about why people living in certain places take certain drugs?

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"Dippers" seized by police in Los Angeles. Photo: LA Impact

PCP, chemical name phencyclidine, was born in America. It was synthesised in the mid-1950s by Michigan chemist Victor Maddox and patented by pharmaceutical firm Parke Davis (now a subsidiary of Pfizer) under the brand name Sernyl, for use as a surgical anaesthetic. However, the drug’s ability to cause hallucinations meant its use in medicine was swiftly curtailed.

In the 1960s the drug’s trippy qualities and feeling of floaty euphoria caught on with psychonauts and hippies seeking to explore the mind. It attracted nicknames such as “angel dust”, “magic mist” and “wobble weed”. 

But by the 1970s, as its use spread to a wider crowd of users, PCP gained a reputation on America’s West Coast as a “killer drug”. Gil Scott Heron’s cautionary 1978 song Angel Dust reflected attitudes that it was a drug best avoided. And by the 1980s, the media was flagging a PCP “epidemic” on the East Coast, particularly New York and D.C

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PCP’s particular reputation was a mash-up of the worst rumours about LSD and cocaine, of a mind-bending drug that gave users superhuman strength and made them jump off buildings. In the 1984 film The Terminator, when Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character punches through a windscreen suffering no pain, the police presume he must be high on PCP. 

“We had a saying at Bellevue in the psych ER and toxicology program: ‘Naked running is PCP until proven otherwise’.”

Those suspected of using the drug were treated as unhinged, out of control, and potentially lethal. Even though scientists cast doubt on PCP’s ability to engender violence, others have said PCP can produce psychosis and severe hyperthermia, which may cause violent and bizarre behaviour, including disrobing and running about. But like the hoary old stories from over a century ago about Black people on cocaine being impervious to bullets, the “deranged” PCP user was weaponised by the authorities and the media.

One of the key lines of defence used by police officers filmed pulverising Rodney King with batons in 1991 in footage that sparked the LA Riots was their fear he had “superhuman strength” from being high on PCP. King didn’t test positive for the drug, but its reputation served as an excuse for their barbaric show of force. 

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A direct line can be made between King and the death almost 30 years later in March 2020 of another Black man, Daniel Prude, at the hands of police in Rochester. Police chiefs attempted to blame Prude’s death on the fact he was high on PCP. But a coroner later found that while he had taken the drug, the actual cause of his death was asphyxiation due to police restraint. In May last year, in Minneapolis, George Floyd’s suspected PCP use was mentioned by police officers when he died in police custody.

On the surface, PCP use nationally is low compared to a lot of drugs. Just 73,000 Americans admitted using it at least once in 2019, according to the National Survey of Drug Use and Health. This is less than 10 percent of the 778,000 Americans who said they had used crack cocaine that year, the 2.4 million who admitted using LSD, 2.5 million who used MDMA and 2 million who used methamphetamine. 

PCP is certainly not a drug for everyone. Julie Holland, a psychopharmacologist and author who headed the psychiatric emergency room at Bellevue Hospital in New York for nine years and has consulted on several rape and murder cases in DC involving PCP, said in her experience the drug does have a propensity to spark extreme behaviour.   

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“Some people who take low doses of PCP may feel relaxed, dreamy or floaty, separated from themselves to some extent, as it is a dissociative drug,” Holland says. “But at higher doses – and they don't have to be crazy overdoses – people get paranoid, psychotic, and yes, they can get agitated and aggressive. They go into fight or flight. It’s not about ‘superhuman strength’, but keep in mind it's an anaesthetic, so the typical pain that may stop you from pushing your body to its limits will be absent.”

Holland continues: “We had a guy at Bellevue who was just sharing a joint outside a bar, next thing he knows, he's dancing naked on a car, so police brought him in. He had smoked PCP without knowing. We had a saying at Bellevue in the psych ER and toxicology program: ‘Naked running is PCP until proven otherwise’. There is just something about this drug that makes people disrobe and take off like a shot.”

Yet, despite its bad reputation, and becoming a much more niche drug at a national level since the 1980s, PCP is still an intrinsic part of the drug scene in some parts of the U.S. – in San Diego and Los Angeles, in Houston and Kansas City, and in DC, Stamford, New Haven and Philadelphia. It is likely, according to research carried out by VICE World News, that the official figures on PCP use underestimate its true prevalence, because it is a drug largely used by a socially excluded population living off the radar.  

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In DC most people caught using PCP are men in their late twenties, according to John Cook, Deputy Director of the Washington-Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program. He said PCP use cuts across all racial groups, although the drug is especially prevalent in the south east quadrant of the city, in the predominantly Black neighbourhoods east of the Anacostia river and in neighbouring Prince George’s County, Maryland, which also has a high proportion of Black residents. 

At United Medical Center, east of the Anacostia River, doctors see around six patients a day related to PCP turning up at their emergency department. “There’s been a steady flow of patients using PCP in the last two years,” said hospital spokeswoman Toya Carmichael. “Many patients will use a combination of PCP, MDMA and K2 [synthetic cannabis].” 

PCP has been threaded into DC’s crime zones since the 1970s, said Maura Gaffney, a DEA Intelligence Analyst in Washington. After falling in prevalence in the 1990s, the drug experienced a resurgence in the 2000s, partly due to the rising popularity on the street drug market of cigarettes dipped in or dosed with PCP liquid. The drug had become known as “wet” and also “sherm”, as Sherman brand cigarettes were often used as dippers.

“It’s a hanging out with friends drug, like having a few beers.”

Gaffney said the reason for DC’s vibrant market is most likely down to its particular underworld connections: “The influence and control of the drug by long-established traffickers in the city could be keeping the drug prevalent,” she says.

Yet, in Baltimore, a city that also has high levels of deprivation, it’s a different story. According to drug worker and blogger Daniel McGhee, a former homeless heroin user who lived on the streets of Baltimore in the 1990s, PCP was drowned out by the explosion of heroin and cocaine use in the city over the 1980s and 1990s.  

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During that time, McGhee says he always wondered why PCP never crossed over from DC. “I drew a comparison to different clothing brands being popular in different cities,” he says. “It’s just a matter of learned taste and availability, supply and demand.”

Over the state border in Pennsylvania, PCP is a big drug in Philadelphia, where it has retained a loyal following, despite very high levels of opioid use. Bill Hunter, a narcotics officer in the city, says the drug is “nearly as available as marijuana”. Street sales of PCP are mostly among low-income customers across all racial groups, although he has seen a rise in young people using the drug as part of a wider drug menu. 

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One of Alex's "dippers". Photo: Supplied

For “Alex”, not his real name, an unemployed 25-year-old PCP user from Philadelphia, it’s a drug people smoke while hanging out hustling on the street corner, and also at house parties. 

“It’s not a drug you really see people maintaining a professional life doing in their spare time,” Alex says. “It’s kinda just a supplementary drug for people who are wrapped up in street dealing and that lifestyle and culture. It’s a hanging out with friends drug, like having a few beers. You hear so many wild rumours and stories [about the effects of PCP], however consuming it while properly dosed in a peaceful setting will usually not present any issues.”

PCP is not just a drug of the big city. It can be found in small cities dotted across the US, seemingly at random. Around 40 miles outside Philadelphia, in the small Pennsylvania city of Chester, PCP use is widespread among young people, according to Jonathan Rahim King of youth charity Safe Corridors, who said the city has high levels of crime, unemployment, poverty and violence. 

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In nearby Coatesville, which has similar problems with poverty, police often come across people high on PCP, according to Chester County Detective Jeremy Rubincan. “They are often brought to the attention of law enforcement because someone will call in a naked subject in public. They are typically sweaty and paranoid. I have learned to never shine a flashlight in the face of someone who is wetted out [high on PCP], to make every effort to speak softly, and to seek compliance without going hands on if possible,” he says. “I have experienced positive results with that method, but I have also encountered individuals who immediately attacked with extreme violent behaviour.”

Rubincan says one of the other areas in the country with a high prevalence of PCP is West Whiteland Township, a mostly white area with a population of over 18,000. “It is a very wealthy area,” he says. “They seem to get the naked people in public calls more than anyone else. I know there is a video on YouTube of two of my friends tasing a large male in a store who is walking around naked.” He adds that the college kids in Chester County go for MDMA and cocaine: “They don't mess with PCP too often, probably due to its reputation.” But mysteriously, in other similar small cities in Pennsylvania suffering from equally high levels of destitution, the drug is nowhere to be seen.   

Meanwhile in New York City, PCP was closely associated with the 1980s hardcore punk scene, with “dust” being a well-used stage name, and more recently with rap musicians, such as the Wu Tang Clan. In 2014 rapper Andre Johnson, a Wu Tang associate, cut off his genitals while high on PCP in LA. Nowadays New York is known more as a supply hub for the drug, rather than one where use is high. 

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In nearby New Jersey, Alfred Sacchetti, chief of emergency services at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden County, has observed that although PCP use has declined significantly in Camden since the 1980s, he still sees cases of PCP intoxication “on a weekly basis”. According to Sacchetti, most of their patients smoke PCP with marijuana. 

“Some are very agitated and must be physically restrained and chemically sedated,” he tells VICE World News. “Others are more catatonic but will attempt to move off of stretchers and are at risk for harming themselves. Most will require continuous observation, meaning a nurse or tech must be pulled from the ED staff to watch the patient until they recover.” 

Sacchetti continues: “If the hallucinations are frightening, violence may be a response to fear on the part of the user. Being out on the streets, there are more stimuli that may be misinterpreted by the user leading to more violence.”

Less than an hour train journey north from New York, in Stamford, Connecticut, PCP is a bigger problem. In August last year, police said the drug had been behind a spate of attacks, car crashes and shootings in the city over lockdown. 

“PCP has been prolific here since the 1990s,” says Stamford Police Captain Richard Conklin. According to Conklin, the area’s close proximity to New York is a factor. He says they debrief a lot of the people they arrest for PCP, many of whom purchase it in NYC in gallon, quart, or pint containers. “Our drug dealers can just jump on a train and in 40 minutes be in NYC. It's a quick turnaround,” he adds. In Stamford, PCP is the most popular drug after opioids and weed. It is most often sprayed on mint leaves and sold in tin foil squares for $20, ready to roll into joints or cigarettes. Conklin says dealers usually stamp PCP packages with a logo so the buyers will ask for that brand.

“PCP is very popular in the projects and the hood, but it's not really easy to come by. It's sort of secretive. It isn't openly offered on the street like other drugs.”

“It’s prevalent in lower-economic neighbourhoods, Black, hispanic and white,” he explains. “I think one of the problems is that it's relatively cheap. And when you're out of work it's not a tremendous cash outlet.” Since the start of the pandemic, according to Conklin, there has been a surge in incidents of public disrobing and other bizarre behaviour, in which the perpetrators have admitted to using PCP. 

The drug is also a problem in other cities in Connecticut, in Bridgeport and New Haven, according to local police forces and medics. Professor Kristin Waters, a Clinical Pharmacist at Yale New Haven Hospital, says five to 10 patients a week come into the emergency department testing positive for PCP. “I would say it’s a mix of races and genders,” she says. “The ages vary also but I would say thirties to fifties. It doesn't tend to be the youngest patients who are misusing PCP.”

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Timothy Riera, a Clinical Social Worker in New Haven, has noticed a similar trend. Until last year, he worked in a substance treatment unit in New Haven where there was a “surprising number of clients” using PCP. Most were in their thirties to fifties, and the typical user was Black. “These clients are often among the most marginalised of persons,” Riera says, “because of their racial profile, lack of support, untreated psychiatric symptoms and their predilection to have experienced a high level of trauma while growing up. Most of them want to forget something.”

“Mike”, who did not want to use his real name, is a 26-year-old restaurant worker from New Haven, who is currently attending a drug addiction treatment program. “PCP is very popular in the projects and the hood, but it's not really easy to come by,” he says. “It's sort of secretive. It isn't openly offered on the street like other drugs.”

As it does on parts of America’s East Coast, PCP also pops up in hotspots across the Southern states, in Kansas City in Missouri, Monroe in Louisiana and Houston in Texas. 

In Houston, one in five cases of intoxicated drivers involve PCP. The DEA’s Houston division has found clandestine PCP labs in recent years, although one of the biggest busts happened in January where police carrying out a traffic violation stop found $2.5 million of the drug in a Dodge Caravan traveling between California and New Jersey. Monroe is the most racially segregated metro area in Louisiana. Police say that a high proportion of PCP dealers and users in the city are Black men aged between 25 and 45. Meanwhile in Kansas City, police say the drug is “very prevalent” and they encounter it “nearly daily somewhere in the city”, according to Sgt. Jake Becchina.

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On the West Coast, where PCP first gained popularity in America six decades ago, the drug has stuck around, most notably in Los Angeles – a national production hub for PCP, which is linked to the street gangs there.

PCP has remained a “significant drug of choice” in LA, mainly for people using it as a means of self-medication, says Tim Kornegay, criminal justice transformation organiser at community group LA Voice. People used the drug “to get away from the visual and psychological pain” of tough lives, although he says the drug is less stigmatised in LA than it was in the early 1990s. While many users are aged over 30, Kornegay says PCP is also being used by young people, as part of a varied menu of highs. “The drug use nowadays is more focused on a party atmosphere,” he says. 

A short drive away in Culver City, an affluent area of LA County, police don't see PCP at all. Meanwhile, an hour away in San Bernardino County, Sgt. Mauricio Hurtado says PCP usually impacts the “tough Black neighbourhoods, where it is used with other drugs such as methamphetamine and cocaine”

Nicole Nishida, spokeswoman for the DEA’s Los Angeles Division, says although some PCP labs have been found in Nevada and Texas, nationwide most PCP is still being made by gangs in South LA. In January a man from Inglewood, South LA was arrested in connection with PCP supply after the DEA accused him of importing multiple gallons of precursor chemicals from China.

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“They often do some of the phases of the manufacturing process out in the high desert, but the cooks are all from the Compton area for the most part,” says Nishida. From LA, the drug is distributed around the country by vehicle and in the mail to street gangs in cities such as New Jersey

Demand for PCP appears to have exploded in the last year and police have put this down to the impact of COVID-19. Last year LA Impact, the state’s major crime task force, seized a bumper amount of PCP, almost 500 litres – more than four times the previous four years of seizures combined. This was done, according to police, without any increased clampdown on the drug. 

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Bottles of liquid PCP smuggled inside cans seized by police in Los Angeles. Photo: LA Impact

“It’s very cost effective," says Frank Lyga, a retired LA drug detective who instructs law enforcement on how to deal with PCP crime cases. He says an average PCP-dipped cigarette can, if smoked gradually, keep someone high for 24 hours at very low cost compared to most drugs. 

South of LA, the city of San Diego is also a PCP making hub. According to Cornelius Bowser, who works with gangs in San Diego to prevent gun violence, gang members came down from LA in the late 70s and started making it in bathtubs.

“PCP still is popular here, especially with the black and Mexican gangs,” Bowser says. “What I'm finding out, especially now that marijuana has been legalised, I'm starting to see a lot of these guys smoking marijuana just walk up and you can smell it…they're smoking PCP too, especially the hardcore ones.”

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Bowser is a former member of the West Coast Crips, during which time PCP was his drug of choice. He recalls with mixed emotions his experiences with PCP, such as the time he was driving in his car and felt like he was in a spaceship, or the time he felt like he died and came back to life, experiences which could be different every time. He thinks that the high can vary depending on the person’s mindset, and can be sometimes useful to gang members.

“I believe it enhances whatever natural mood you may have up to ten times,” says Bowser, “so if a person has an ‘invincible’ attitude it will be reflected with greater intensity. The gang members will get drunk, smoke PCP and then end up committing the crime. It’s part of the gang culture.”

Why has PCP survived and even thrived in some US cities but died out in others? There is no simple explanation. 

In the media, most mentions of the drug occur in the context of violent crimes, often committed by Black men. PCP, it seems, is a drug linked to urban zones of poverty, unemployment and high crime. In other words it’s a drug linked to inequality, and groups of people who are more likely to be excluded from the mainstream economy, with housing and employment problems, such as the Black community. Much of America suffers these conditions. But the reason PCP is not as widespread as opioids, meth and cocaine, is that it is not so readily available.  

“For the gang members that control it, the OGs, it's like a guarded secret.”

The supply of PCP is clunky and reliant on old school trafficking networks. It needs to be produced in a lab from dangerous precursor chemicals such as ether and potassium cyanide, and then transported, as a noxious liquid, around the country. Its supply is nowhere near as efficient, easy or widespread as other street drugs such as cocaine, heroin and meth. Because it is not so readily available from your average street dealer, its use has tended to stick to zones which have embedded, historical ties to gangland manufacturers in California. 

In a way PCP is now a product for a niche market in America, so it is not one that is worth the bother of organised crime groups or cartels, above the level of street gangs, to get involved in. If PCP had somehow overcome its bad reputation and become a recreational drug in the US, rather than a drug of down-trodden metropolitan streets, its distribution network may have become more sophisticated and easy to access. But PCP is a drug that is not that easy to get hold of, unless you are in the right city and know the right people.    

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In a policing career involving over 250 investigations involving PCP, Lyga, now retired, was assigned to the LAPD Narcotics Division, Major Violators Section for over 20 years and spent 17 years on the Clandestine Laboratory team. He recalls the PCP trade being something of a closed shop. 

"For the gang members that control it, the OGs, it's like a guarded secret. They have certain people that are cooks. If I'm going to branch off and start doing it myself, and I don't get their permission, I have issues. Unless you have permission, you don't do anything. They'll come and adjust my attitude, they'll take my product, they'll break stuff, or kill me, or terrorise my family, they'll do something to put the word out. So even the Mexican gangs that we have in the US aren't involved in PCP without the permission of the Black gangsters that control it."

What is bizarre about PCP is that, unlike almost any other drug the world over, it has not spread abroad from its host nation in any meaningful amount. To some extent, the same reasons why PCP has not been taken up across the U.S. like heroin, weed, LSD, meth and coke, also explain its lack of adoption globally. 

Lyga says that during his LAPD narcotics career he never came across an incident where PCP was being sent abroad from the US. Nor is PCP a big seller on the darkweb market. On the original Silk Road market PCP cigarettes were among the most elusive and expensive items for sale. At the time of writing, PCP wasn’t available for sale on any of the Western darknet markets.

Despite testing thousands of drug samples since starting in 2013, UK-based drug testing agency The Loop is yet to come across PCP, either in the UK or during testing in Australia. Wedinos, another UK-based drug testing firm which has been testing drug purchases for the last eight years, has not come across PCP. There are no records of a PCP-related death recorded by official data for England and Wales. Energy Control, based in Spain but which tests drugs sent in from around Europe told VICE World News that PCP surfaces extremely rarely. Drug testing organisations in Vancouver and Colombia also confirmed the drug is incredibly rare. 

So why has this drug stayed put? 

“It’s generally unwise to assume that every US experience is going to be replicated here in the UK or elsewhere, you can't map one drug culture on top of another,” says Harry Shapiro, author of several books on drugs and head of drug information charity DrugWise. “It wasn’t ever used medically here unlike in the US, so that partly explains its absence from the UK scene. But I suspect too that the drug had such a bad rep, so that would also be part of the story.” 

Shapiro compares PCP to crystal meth – huge in the U.S. and predicted by experts to swamp the UK, but despite the media claims, it never caught on. “Like any recreational drug, if there doesn't seem to be a market, nobody bothers to try and find out how to make it.” 

He says another reason could be because the UK already has a PCP alternative in the form of ketamine, a drug more popular in Britain than anywhere else. “Ketamine is in the same category of ‘dissociative anesthetic’ drugs as PCP, although you don’t get those stories about people thinking they can lift a ten tonne truck like you did with PCP, nor the PCP rage that got written about back in the day. Ketamine is more introspective,” Shapiro says. 

Drug journalist Mike Power, author of Drugs 2.0, agrees that the rise of ketamine on the British clubbing scene in the 2000s may have made drug users less inquisitive about its more threatening American cousin. “In the 1990s, there were a lot of scare stories coming out of the US about PCP users being terrifyingly strong, with massive libidos and frighteningly aggressive temperaments – almost as if they were an embodied exaggerated version of the racist archetypes of Black people believed uncritically by much of white America, at the time.”

According to Julie Holland,  the New York psychopharmacologist and author, PCP is not a very user-friendly drug. “Not everyone likes the way it feels, even at low doses, and it's too hard to dose accurately. The effects when you take too much are significantly unpleasant for a lot of people. Most people that I know who've experienced PCP, it's been by accident. They’ve been passed a joint that's a bit wet, a bit chemical smelling, and taken a hit anyway.”

PCP’s very geographically specific use is a reflection of the myriad, patchwork nature of global drug consumption. Drug use is cultural, and, for most people who are not buying online, it is also reliant on local markets and supply networks. 

This is why krokodil, a harsh home-made heroin alternative, is mainly restricted to Russia, and why bazuco, a crude coca paste, is a south American drug. In Australia people have got into ‘chroming’ – sniffing spray paint. In the Middle East the amphetamine of choice is captagon, while in south east Asia it is yaba, a pill-form mix of meth and caffeine. There are unique reasons why fentanyl has bled onto the drug menu in North America and Estonia, and as yet, nowhere else. And who knows why Stafforshire was one of the only part of England to experience Monkey Dust?

What the story of PCP shows is that what drug you take depends on where you live. But equally, what drug you take, and how you take it, depends on why you are taking it in the first place.    

@narcomania