Drowning in 'Water': PCP Abuse in New York

"It makes you feel like Superman," reports user now in jail.

October 6, 2010, 11:00 AM

Oct. 8, 2010— -- It was a late spring night in Syracuse, N.Y., when Eric Bacon decided to go on a joy ride with some friends. Rolling the windows down, blasting up the sound system and lighting up a joint are the last things he remembered.

Hours later, he was attacking a man on the street.

"I don't know how, but I ended up with a gun in my hand and I ended up robbing people," Bacon, 25, told ABCNews.com.

It was all a fog, he recalls. Even today, five years later, Bacon says he does not clearly remember why he decided to attack and rob someone. All he could remember was that he had smoked a "water" joint earlier that night.

"Water" is the street name for a cigarette or marijuana joint dipped in liquid PCP, a hallucinogen also known as phencyclidine, or in embalming fluid laced with PCP.

Is use is on the rise in Syracuse.

"I ended up doing three-and-a half years of my life because of it," said Bacon.

Bacon spoke with ABCNews.com at the Onondaga County Jail, in the library area where the Clean and Sober pod, a group of inmates who receive counseling for their drug use and related crimes, meet.

While he said his drug of choice was ecstasy, he added that he's been using water ever since he was 18 and has done it more times than he can count.

Bacon is not alone. According to the Upstate New York Poison Control Center, incidents of people intoxicated with water have been on the rise, and police say it quickly has become the fourth most used drug in Syracuse, after marijuana, cocaine and heroin.

Water first took off in Syracuse in the 1960s and was known as "angel dust." At its height, it sold for $20 to $25 a stick, but its popularity faded with the influx of designer drugs such as cocaine and heroin. According to the 2008 National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, an estimated six million Americans, ages 12 and older, have tried PCP at least once.

The most recent survey states that the rate of new PCP users has decreased in recent years, dropping from 123,000 new users in 2002 to 45,000 new users in 2009. Syracuse, however, does not seem to be following this nationwide trend.

Marketing an "Exciting" New Drug

According to Frank Fowler, Syracuse's chief of police, the city started seeing a resurgence of water usage four years ago, particularly among men ranging from ages 16 to 25. Water now sells for $10 to $15 a stick and is known by a number of other names: "wet," "the wave," "black dust," "happy sticks," "horse tranquilizer," "embalming fluid" and "formaldehyde."

So why the resurgence now? Dr. Brian Johnson of Upstate Medical University Hospital said it's all about the marketing of a new drug.

"'Wet' sounds exciting," Dr. Johnson said. "It's also called water, which sounds kind of healthy. And then you can call it embalming fluid, which sounds kind of like death. So healthy, death, wet, it's exciting. It's all marketing to get stupid kids to buy drugs that are going to make them sick."

To obtain embalming fluid, drug dealers in Syracuse purchase it online; some have resorted to breaking into and stealing bottles from local funeral homes.

Onetha Gethers owns Gethers Funeral Home in Syracuse's Southside of Syracuse, a low-income, often rundown part of town. In the past two years, people have broken into her business in search of embalming fluid. The first time the robbers broke in, neighbors chased them away. But the second time, Gethers was not so lucky.

"I saw the rugs were disturbed," Gethers said. "And I continued and saw that the upstairs in the parlor area was mangled and out of order."

Before, Gethers stored her bottles of formaldehyde in cabinets in the room she calls her morgue, downstairs. Now, due to the demand for water, she only orders embalming fluid when she needs it, or hires outside trade embalmers.

Prosecuting use of embalming fluid is a problem. Because it is a legal substance, police cannot test and arrest someone for using it.

New York state senator David Valesky , however, is trying to change this. He recently drafted Senate bill S7542b that seeks to make the incorrect use of embalming fluid a Class A misdemeanor, which carries fines and jail time.

"We thought we ought to make it very clear from a New York State legal perspective that there's one use and only one use for this substance called embalming fluid," Senator Valesky said. "And anything else that it's used for is simply not gonna happen without penalties."

"It Makes You Feel Like Superman"

Valesky's bill passed through the State Senate unanimously in June 2010 and now awaits the vote in the Assembly.

Senator Valesky credits Helen Hudson, a community activist in Syracuse, with bringing the issue to his attention. Working as the community liaison for the city's chapter of the United Way and as president and cofounder of Mothers Against Gun Violence, she strives to get water off the streets. But her places of employment aren't the only reason for her struggle.

Hudson's 29-year-old son, Kareem Wofford, is a water addict, and she recalled the day she discovered this.

"He was standing in the middle of the street, and he was loud and he was pacing, and he was ranting and he was raving," Hudson said.

"And I looked at him and I asked him what was going on. ... 'What's going on with you?' I said. 'What have you had?' … And he looked at me and said, 'Water.'"

Hudson said that her son has been addicted to the drug for a year and that she no longer recognizes him. From the nauseating odor that emanates from his pores to his erratic behavior that has led him into fights in which he's been stabbed, it's become clear to Hudson that water has taken over her son's life.

But as some users say, the high is so incredible that there's no turning back.

"It makes you feel like Superman," Bacon said. "It makes you feel just like you're untouchable. Like someone can do something to you and you won't even feel it."

Because PCP is a hallucinogen, Dr. Johnson said users often experience this sensation of invincibility and perform crazy stunts while under the influence.

"It makes you scary, violent, hot. Often people take their clothes off," Dr. Johnson said. "Sometimes people are arrested while they're on phencyclidine because they strip off all their clothes and run around the streets naked. It puts you in a blackout."

Bacon's attack and robbery in 2005 is the prime example of this type of violent blackout. He said the only reason he didn't shoot the man he robbed was because the gun was jammed. When asked if he would have shot the man otherwise, he replied, "Probably... It's the drugs."

Unforgiving Streets

Sgt. Gary Bulinski of Syracuse Police Department's Crime Reduction Team has responded to a number of calls in which people were intoxicated with PCP. He told ABCNews.com about his first response to a PCP user in 1998.

"He ripped his shirt off … began yelling vulgarities .. and he started to approach me," Bulinski. "I sprayed him in the face with my pepper spray. It was uneffective. I sprayed him a second time. No effect again. He screamed, 'I'm going to f'ing kill you!' Nothing seemed to affect him."

Violent episodes caused by water are no longer rare events in Syracuse. Police Chief Fowler said violence in the city is increasing slightly, which is partly due to water users. Shootings and stabbings are topping the list of violent crimes.

"If they're high [on water] and they have this weapon in their possession, they're gonna use it," Chief Fowler said. "And when you talk about a shooting or a stabbing, it's not like they're gonna stab a person one time. One time is bad enough, but you're talking about a person that will probably repeatedly stab a person over and over and over again to the point where you lose count of how many times a person's been stabbed."

This combustible combination of drug use and violence is exactly why Hudson wants to get her son off the streets.

"I know how this is probably going to sound to a lot of people," Hudson forewarned, "But I'm hoping that if I can't get him into rehab at this point, jail would be best. Because he really needs to be put off the streets because he is putting himself in harm's way every day."

If Senator Valesky's bill passes through the Assembly and is signed by the Governor, this law could take effect in just a few months and may just be Wofford's saving grace.

"These streets are not forgiving," Hudson said. "He is either going to end up dead or someone is going to end up dead because of him."

ABCNews.com contributor Marlei Martinez is a member of the ABC News on Campus program in Syracuse, NY.

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