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COLUMN ONE : Effects of PCP: Myth Vs. Reality : Stories abound about the drug imbuing people with superhuman strength. But some researchers say those claims are overrated. Much about the drug remains a mystery.

June 17, 1991|CLAIRE SPIEGEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is a drug that has been blamed for stimulating the most abhorrent, mindless acts of violence.

Users are reported to have blithely amputated parts of their body--pulling their teeth out with pliers or gouging out their eyes. Mothers were accused of scalding or maiming their infants. And felons are said to have terrified police officers when gunfire failed to halt their advance or when, in a superhuman show of strength, they popped their handcuffs.

It has been more than a decade since PCP--commonly known as Angel Dust and technically as phencyclidine--enjoyed its heyday. But its legacy has endured, especially among law enforcement officers who still encounter an occasional PCP user on the streets.

Nationwide, PCP use has dropped dramatically. Only about 5% of the people arrested in Los Angeles County showed traces of PCP in their urine last year, according to UCLA researchers who track drug usage among people held in Los Angeles jails.

Nevertheless, police officers contend that when Rodney G. King stepped out of his car after a high-speed chase on March 3, they immediately concluded--although they were wrong--that King was high on PCP. The officers yelled out, "He's dusted," according to Officer Timothy Wind, one of four officers indicted in the case.

When he first observed King, Sgt. Stacey Koon said, his mind raced with stories he had heard about the superhuman strength of PCP suspects. He has told investigators that he feared King could, in a moment, turn into the "Hulk," grabbing away police weapons and putting officers in a "death grip."

A videotape of the notorious police beating of King has touched off national outrage and prompted the filing of criminal assault charges against the officers.

At their trial, likely to begin this summer, the specter of PCP is expected to play a leading role in the defense strategy, with defense attorneys arguing that King's beating was justified on the grounds that police thought he was high on PCP or having a PCP "flashback."

Defense attorneys are likely to dwell on King's "strange behavior," which the officers and other witnesses have already described in statements they provided to investigators: that he failed to follow directions promptly, that he appeared disoriented and stared ahead blankly, that he resisted handcuffing by pushing away officers, that he laughed inappropriately, that he circled his arms wildly, shook his buttocks at an officer, and exhibited few signs of pain during his beating. Police investigators later concluded King was legally drunk at the time of his arrest.

The jury also will have to reconcile differences of opinion about the medical effects of PCP--to distinguish fact from fiction about the dangers of this drug.

Many law enforcement officials and prominent medical researchers and clinicians are convinced that PCP is the most dangerous drug ever to hit the streets of America.

Others are more skeptical. They say that the shocking stories about PCP are based more on myth than reality. Whenever a new drug sweeps the nation, they say, the reaction is always the same--to vilify it in dramatic tales of wanton violence that will justify the use of extraordinary measures in subduing its users.

New York City College pharmacologist John Morgan, who has sharply criticized the media's portrayal of PCP, contends that every new drug experience in America is reported by the media in a way that emphasizes "individual tales of dangerous, criminal or self-destructive behavior."

"The myth is newly erected and slightly embellished with each new drug," Morgan said. "The best model seems to be the Frankenstein monster who advances impervious to pain, bullets and . . . fire, in order to murder (or) dismember . . . men, women, children and the household pets."

In his seminal book that reviews the history of drug abuse in America, Yale psychiatrist David Musto describes how cocaine, for example, gained a foothold among Southern blacks in the early 1900s. He cited anecdotes that circulated about the sexual rapaciousness, criminal tendencies and superhuman strength cocaine instilled in blacks--providing what he said was yet another excuse for their repression.

A "myth that cocaine made blacks almost unaffected by mere .32-caliber bullets is said to have caused Southern police departments to switch to .38-caliber revolvers," Musto asserted.

Attorney Carol Watson, a member of the board of the Police Misconduct Lawyers Referral Service in Los Angeles and who has represented citizens in police abuse cases for a decade, said that in years past, when PCP was more popular, it was "not uncommon" for police to use PCP as a justification for their excessive force in making arrests.

She said police use PCP as an excuse because "they believe the public will go along with any use of force if they make a claim the person was under the influence of PCP. The perception is that PCP is so dangerous that any means are justified to subdue the person."

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