A decade ago, the North Laurel-Savage area was seen as the PCP capital of the region. Multimillion-dollar drug labs thrived in southeastern Howard County along Interstate 95, churning out the dangerous, mind-altering substance.
Changing tastes in drugs, along with tough law enforcement -- including the April arrest of an Elkridge man charged with importing PCP from California to Howard County -- have broken the PCP trade for now, police say.
"There are no big PCP dealers left in Howard County that we know of," says Sgt. Keith Lessner, who has worked the narcotics ZTC beat at the Howard County Police Department for 9.5 years. "I think things are pretty calm right now."
But police fear there could be a new upswing in the use of the cyclical drug when former dealers get out of prison and new users take up PCP, unaware of its danger.
Originally used as an animal anesthetic, PCP (phenylcyclohexylpiperidine) is a mixture of six chemicals that can be made by an amateur chemist, says Sergeant Lessner.
An ounce of PCP liquid usually sells for as little as $350, he says, and is packaged in vanilla extract or food coloring bottles, which give accurate measurements and protect the potency of the drug because of the dark color of the bottles.
But most users buy it sprayed on parsley, which lets the user roll it up and smoke it. One ounce of the pure liquid is enough to treat a quart bottle filled with parsley leaves, police say. PCP in that form sells for about $50 for a 35 mm film canister full.
The drug is capable of causing frightening hallucinations, unusual behavior, mental disorders and death.
"People have done some bizarre things to themselves, like gouge out their eyes," says Joyce Brown, the county's substance abuse coordinator. "People's perceptions are totally distorted. That's what's scary about PCP."
Following are some local examples:
* On Jan. 13, 1991, Melvin McMains, then 37, was arrested and charged in the stabbing deaths of his live-in girlfriend and her 7-year-old son.
McMains, who was convicted of murder, told police he killed the boy because he thought the child was the Antichrist.
It was determined that McMains was under the influence of PCP when he committed the crimes.
* On April 26, 1993, James Collins, 25, of Ellicott City was pronounced dead at his home after witnesses saw him acting out of control, running outside his home and shouting. Toxicology tests showed that PCP killed him.
* Three days later, David Shipley, then 24, of Baltimore was shot several times by Howard County police during an arrest in the 8600 block of U.S. 1.
Shipley was convicted of assault ing a Howard police officer. Test results determined that he was under the influence of PCP at the time of the incident.
"PCP is probably the worst drug on the street," says Sergeant Lessner.
Despite its hazards, however, PCP retains a niche. Its users tend to be white, blue-collar people in their 20s and early 30s, based on court cases and police and expert testimony.
Robert "Bobby" Foster, 29, of Savage first used PCP while in his early teens. He says he stopped using it after being arrested twice in 1993 and spending a year in jail on a PCP possession conviction.
The dangers associated with PCP didn't seem to matter when he was using it, he says.
"That was just my choice of drug," he says. "Why do some people use crack? Everyone has their preference."
Ms. Brown said the North Laurel-Savage area became a convenient magnet for drug activity because of easy access to U.S. 1 and I-95, which allows traffickers to move drugs quickly to the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan areas.
Manufacturers shut down
In the early to mid-1980s, however, Howard County police and agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration shut down several manufacturing plants that produced tens of millions of dollars worth of PCP in North Laurel homes.
Dozens of people were arrested in those raids and convicted on drug trafficking charges.
A decade later, that area remains the primary site of the county's remaining PCP cases, although the flow of the drug has been reduced to a trickle. Of the 67 PCP cases that have gone to Howard County Circuit Court since 1992, 45 were the result of arrests along the U.S. 1 corridor in southeastern Howard County.
Among the most recent arrests was that of an Elkridge man in April. Police arrested 33-year-old Roarke Boulton after DEA agents seized a package containing 40 ounces of what authorities said was liquid PCP.
Mr. Boulton is charged with possession with intent to distribute PCP, which carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000. He remains in the Howard County Detention Center in Ellicott City, pending trial in Circuit Court next month.
Police say PCP makes up a small portion of the local drug market, which they say is also small. In all, county police logged 664 drug-related calls last year, less than 1 percent of the 96,000 calls the Police Department received.
Marijuana used most
"While we have a representative problem of all drugs, I don't believe it's out of control," said Lt. Jeff Spaulding, commander of the vice and narcotics division. Marijuana is the most widely abused drug, he said. Marijuana arrests made up about 66 percent of all county drug arrests last year, up from 54 percent the year before.
Still, investigators worry that PCP could make a comeback. One thing they are watching for is the use of marijuana mixed with PCP, a combination called "killer weed" or "love boat."
They also are concerned about the major PCP dealers who were locked away a decade ago. Some of them soon will be released, and police say they will be watching to see whether the former dealers return to their trade.
"If these guys get out and start cooking again, we'll catch them," Sergeant Lessner says.