PCP vs. Ketamine: Similar but Very Different

PCP vs. Ketamine: Similar but Very Different

If you’re just beginning to research psychedelics, you may have found that ketamine has some chemical similarities with PCP. However, there are clear differences when comparing PCP vs. ketamine.

Psychedelic drugs have recently taken center stage in the health industry. Recent research suggests that some psychedelics could help with conditions that are otherwise hard to treat. Ketamine is one such drug that could be a non-conventional treatment option for mental illnesses. This includes using ketamine for depression and ketamine for anxiety, among other issues.

Concerns around the use of psychedelics as treatment options are understandable: They can cause irreparable harm when taken in large, uncontrolled doses.

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For this reason, it’s important to be informed about the effects and uses of various psychedelic drugs, particularly when considering them as a potential treatment for mental illness.

Here, we explain the similarities between PCP vs. ketamine, as well as what makes them so different from one other.

A Breakdown of the Main Differences Between PCP and Ketamine

Chemical StructurePhencyclidine, a dissociative anestheticKetamine Hydrochloride, also a dissociative anesthetic but with a different structure from PCP
Primary EffectsDissociation, hallucinations, euphoria, altered perceptions of time and spaceDissociation, hallucinations, pain relief, transient euphoria
LegalitySchedule II in the US: illegal for recreational use, but available for certain medical uses under strict regulationsSchedule III in the US: illegal for recreational use, but available for certain medical uses under regulations
Medical UsesHistorically used as an anesthetic, but largely discontinued due to severe side effectsUsed in anesthesia, treatment-resistant depression, and certain chronic pain conditions
Risks and Side EffectsHigh potential for abuse, addictive, can cause severe psychological effects, overdose can be fatalLess potential for abuse compared to PCP, but can still lead to dependence and has similar psychological risks
Mechanism of ActionNMDA receptor antagonist, affecting glutamate transmissionNMDA receptor antagonist, similar to PCP, but also interacts with other neurotransmitter systems
Psychological EffectsAltered states of consciousness, severe mood swings, potential for psychotic episodesCan induce a trance-like state, feelings of detachment from the environment and self, less likelihood of psychosis compared to PCP
Physical EffectsIncreased blood pressure and heart rate, nystagmus, ataxiaAnesthetic effects, can cause confusion and disorientation, impaired motor function
Potential for AbuseHigh, with significant psychological dependence and cravingModerate, with lower incidence of dependence compared to PCP
Therapeutic ApplicationsLimited due to severe side effects and risk of abuseEmerging evidence supports its use in treating depression and PTSD, in addition to its anesthetic properties
Duration of EffectsVaries, but effects can last for several hoursShorter than PCP, typically lasting for less than an hour for immediate effects
Historical ContextDeveloped in the 1950s as an intravenous anesthetic, its use declined due to the prevalence of side effectsIntroduced in the 1960s for medical use, its therapeutic potential for psychiatric disorders is being actively researched

PCP vs. Ketamine: The History

Experts initially created PCP (or phencyclidine) to act as a general anesthetic and analgesic for humans. Researchers quickly realized that the adverse effects of the drug would be too severe for human use.

The unfortunate side effects associated with PCP ultimately led to the synthesis of ketamine. Researchers continued experimenting with compounds similar to that of PCP and, in the 1960s, synthesized ketamine.

Today, ketamine is a common medication used to induce and maintain anesthesia in medical settings worldwide. Continuous investigations suggest that ketamine is an effective treatment for depression, especially TRD (treatment-resistant depression).

RELATED: Ketamine vs MDMA – A Deep Dive Into Two New Therapies

Both ketamine and PCP are known as dissociative anesthetics, and they do have some additional similarities. Both are capable of causing the following.

  • Unconsciousness
  • Analgesia
  • An altered state of consciousness

Unfortunately, both drugs have addictive potential, and PCP is especially notorious for illicit use on the streets of the U.S. Both substances are also combined with other drugs when used illicitly.

Street names for ketamine:

  • Special K
  • Kit-Kat
  • K

Common street names for PCP:

  • Angeldust
  • Rocket fuel
  • Elephant tranquilizer

But with all the similarities between the two, you may be curious about what distinguishes ketamine from PCP.

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PCP vs. Ketamine: The Differences

Apart from being hallucinogens, what differences are important to know when comparing PCP vs. ketamine?

Addictive Potential

You may think that abuse potential is something the two drugs have in common: both can lead to addiction.

While both ketamine and PCP have addictive potential, the potential for the two varies. Ketamine is classified as a schedule III drug, while phencyclidine is classed as a schedule II.

But what does this mean?

Drug scheduling refers to one of the ways in which the government classifies drugs. There are five categories that drugs fall into, which run from schedule I drugs (associated with the highest abuse potential) up to schedule V which has the lowest abuse potential. This means that PCP abuse has a higher potential for dependency than ketamine.

The Law And FDA Approval

Another key difference lies in legality. While the illicit use or abuse of both drugs is illegal, ketamine is illegal in medical settings.

PCP is not legally manufactured, and the use thereof is not allowed in medical settings. If the authorities find PCP in your possession, you can face jail time or a fine depending on state laws.

Ketamine is also FDA-approved as an anesthetic, and an antidepressant nasal spray made from ketamine was approved as well. FDA approval means that the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research reviewed the effects of a drug and declared it safe for people to use for specific conditions.

Physicians often prescribe drugs off-label (meaning it is not FDA-approved for that specific use), but PCP is simply illegal – even off-label use is prohibited.

The Severity Of Side Effects

The likelihood of experiencing side effects is a reality when using most (if not all) drugs. The same applies to ketamine and phencyclidine. Due to their similarities in structure, the side effects experienced are relatively similar.

Side effects shared by the two drugs include the below.

  • Hallucination
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Impaired motor function
  • Unconsciousness

A risk that is not shared is that of possible aggression. The use of PCP often leads to violent outbursts, and in one self-reported study from 1989, researchers found that people under the influence of PCP are more aggressive.

The effects of PCP also tend to linger longer than that of ketamine. Ketamine’s effects generally last around 45 minutes to 90 minutes. The effects of PCP, on the other hand, can last anywhere from six to twelve hours. However, we do not recommend or encourage the illicit use of ketamine and entirely discourage PCP use.

Antidepressant Effects

Ketamine is gaining popularity, as therapeutic benefits of the drug continue to emerge. One of these benefits is the antidepressant effect of the drug.

Extensive research covers the topic of ketamine for depression, and the results of many studies show promise.

A 2019 study examined how ketamine therapy affects depression by observing 25 subjects with severe depression. The subjects received six doses of ketamine over two weeks. Results of the study show that researchers observed improvements after the first dose. Overall, the findings of the study prove that ketamine significantly improves depressive symptoms.

The findings of a 2020 review are similar. Researchers compared several studies dealing with sub-anesthetic doses of ketamine for treatment-resistant depression (TRD). Treatment-resistant depression refers to a type of depression that is unresponsive to therapy and conventional antidepressants.

The researchers found that across all the studies they looked at, ketamine has a rapid antidepressant response.

Researchers have not recorded any antidepressant effects from PCP and instead found that it may induce manic depressive symptoms.

Sian Ferguson

View all posts by Sian Ferguson

Sian Ferguson is a freelance writer based in Cape Town, South Africa and she has written for publications such as Healthline, Greatist, and Psych Central to name a few.

Her work focuses on health and wellness, and she's particularly passionate. She believes health content should inform and empower readers, not confuse them!

Dr. Ben Medrano

This post was medically approved by Dr. Ben Medrano

Dr. Ben Medrano is a board certified psychiatrist specializing in Integrative Psychiatry, Ketamine Assisted Therapy and Psychedelic Harm Reduction and Integration. He received his MD from the University of Colorado School of Medicine with additional training in the Urban Underserved Track (CU-UNITE). Dr. Medrano is most known for his work with ketamine assisted therapy and is the former Senior Vice President and US Medical Director of Field Trip Health - the largest in-office ketamine assisted therapy practice to date. He continues to sponsor Field Trip clinics as a local medical director at multiple sites on the East Coast allowing him to further the field of psychedelic assisted therapy and research.

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Comments (1)

  • mike
    June 22, 2023 at 3:51 am Reply

    Well, Dr Ben needs a proofreader bec this is a rather blatant contradiction. Ketamine is ILLEGAL in medical settings?
    “Another key difference lies in legality. While the illicit use or abuse of both drugs is illegal, ketamine is illegal in medical settings.”

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