WASHINGTON, D.C. — In the grainy cell phone video, the scene is tense. Surrounded by onlookers, a Washington Metropolitan Police Department officer points his unholstered gun at Renita Nettles who nevertheless continues to advance with blurry, if potentially deadly, objects in both hands.
“Tase her!” one of the many onlookers yells.
Firefighters carrying a heavy hose rush, bewildered, in the background as they attempt to put out a fire Nettles started in her mother’s apartment.
“Don’t shoot her!” other bystanders cry out.
At one point, the then 22-year-old’s mother runs into the frame and attempts to wrestle — what we later learn is a knife — out of her hand. Nettles fights her mom off.
“I’m ready to die,” Storm — Nettles’ nickname — reportedly told the officer.
She continues advancing towards the officer who then fires, causing Nettles to instantly fall to the pavement.
The shooting, which occurred in 2015 and left Nettles in the hospital with a gunshot wound to her left shoulder, presents a confusing set of circumstances, unless you spoke to the mother.
Following the armed standoff, Angelenia Nettles told police and local reporters that her daughter had long struggled with bi-polar disorder. In the days preceding the incident she had been self-medicating with synthetic marijuana and, more dangerously, with PCP.
In 2018, an average of 32.6% of adult arrestees who tested positive for drugs had PCP in their system
While PCP — or Angel Dust — has faded into obscurity from its peak in popularity in the seventies, eighties, and nineties, in certain communities in the nation’s capital, it remains as popular as ever.
“PCP is so regional,” a veteran of D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department (or MPD) told The News Station on the condition of anonymity, because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the topic with journalists. “It’s very popular on the West Coast from what I understand, but on the East Coast D.C. is the only stronghold.”
Over the last couple of decades there have been occasional large scale busts in New York and Baltimore, but there is no question that D.C. is the epicenter of the PCP trade on the East Coast. In 2003, police raided a house in northwest Baltimore and seized enough material that — when turned into PCP — could have brought in between $50 and $100 million, according to officials at the Drug Enforcement Administration. At the time, then-Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris called the house “one of the biggest PCP labs of its kind on the East Coast.”
In 2011, then-Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office James McJunkin, Chief of the Metropolitan Police Department Cathy L. Lanier, and US Marshal for the Eastern District of New York Charles G. Dunne, announced the sentencing of the individuals in a large-scale drug ring that operated in Washington and along the East Coast up to New York City that was responsible for distributing more than 50 gallons of PCP.
Some may find it ironic that although nationwide usage has faded to almost zero, just miles from the White House and the marble halls of Congress the use of one of the world’s most dangerous street drugs continues essentially unchecked. A 2018 survey by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) found that nationwide, less than 3% of adults 26 years of age and older reported having tried PCP.
In Washington, on the other hand, in 2018 the Pretrial Services Agency reported that an average of 32.6% of adult arrestees who tested positive for drugs had PCP in their system, making it second only to cocaine, which encompasses the popular street drug crack. That same year the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health listed PCP as a primary drug of choice — even beating out alcohol — in terms of treatment services provided.
“Liquid PCP has always been an issue in this area and continues to be so,” Kristen Metzger, the MPD Deputy Director of the Office of Communications, recently told The News Station. “MPD will continue efforts with our federal partners on sources of supply that originate from the western United States.”
The supply chain that originates on the West Coast is one reason for the drug’s continued popularity. Just do the math: By the time the drug hits the streets of D.C. it usually has at least a 300% markup.
PCP, or the dissociative anesthetic Phencyclidine, has been found to be used as early as the sixties, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. While sometimes mistaken for psychedelics, such as LSD or psilocybin (i.e. shrooms), PCP is different. It’s particularly dangerous because, in addition to seemingly removing users from reality, it often dulls or eliminates their ability to feel pain.
This combination of factors leads to some disturbing outcomes, such as Nettles confronting a police officer with a knife in one hand and a hammer in the other, while yelling, “I’m ready to die!”
PCP incidents often result in users hurting themselves and/or others, often reporting having no recollection of their actions once the drug wears off.
“In winter time on Benning Road we had a naked man who ripped a wooden stop sign out of the ground and started swinging it,” the veteran beat cop recalled. “Finally he dropped it, took off running from us, and when an officer went to go tackle him, he slipped and fell and scraped his genitals, getting road rash, but didn’t feel it at all.”
Just last year an Uber driver and his passenger were murdered in Oxon Hill, Maryland — a suburb of Washington — by a man high on PCP who was also ride-sharing the vehicle. The murderer, Aaron Lanier Wilson, Jr., later confessed. He said he knew neither the driver nor the other passenger.
Sadly, none of this is new or novel to D.C. police officers — even those who patrol close to the seats of power for the strongest country in the world. While MPD has the largest per capita budget of any police force in the United States, federal officials’ decades-long, dismissive, and punitive attitudes towards drug use and treatment often dictate the results of these local efforts to stymie drug-related crime in the city.
In most large, urban areas social workers are overwhelmed trying to alleviate the raging opioid epidemic, helping families struggling with child services, protecting battered women, and, of course, dealing with substance-abuse issues. But in the nation’s capital, PCP is something counselors also have to train for.
Randall Rankins is a social worker with Metropolitan Education Solutions — a permanent housing support program. His responsibilities typically include helping the un-housed find long-term places to live and providing them the support needed so they can maintain their housing. He’s usually responsible for about 20 clients at a time. He estimates that on average more than 50% have some sort of substance-abuse issue.
“If it’s a drug, I’m pretty sure somewhere in my caseload I have a client that has either tried it or is continuing to use it,” Rankins told The News Station.
Over the years, he’s worked with clients addicted to all the substances you might expect: crack cocaine, heroin, and alcohol, etc. Those are par for the course in his line of work.
However, he says, PCP is different. Although he’s helped several clients over the years enter treatment, once they’re back on the street, his clients almost always come back to it.
“They’ll be fine for a couple of months or maybe a couple of weeks, and then something will happen and you’re right back in the same situation over again,” Rankins said. “The ones that do PCP and continue to use PCP simply refuse to stop using PCP, because they can’t find anything that can induce a high or a mind-altering state the way that PCP does.”
“The real story is about a disconnected,
fragmented system of care.”
Ultimately, for PCP users to achieve long-term sobriety, Rankins believes, the treatment system need structural changes.
When Rankins encounters a client too high on PCP to be dealt with safely, he calls a psychiatric professional, who typically takes them to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital or to The Psychiatric Institute of Washington for detox and what is hopefully the beginning of long-term treatment.
“The question is not D.C.’s prevalence over other cities,” Larry Gourdine, a program manager at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington (PIW), told The News Station. “The real story is about a disconnected, fragmented system of care that does not invest nor have the infrastructure or the capabilities to put in effective prevention.”
One unfortunate gap occurs between the criminal-justice system and treatment centers. Many individuals suspected of being high on PCP are never arrested, and there just aren’t many long term treatment centers equipped to deal with this special class of addicts.
“We technically [are supposed to] charge them with public intoxication, but it’s not a good look because the courts don’t do a good job of diverting people,” the veteran beat cop said, before lamenting how resource-intensive dealing with PCP users is. “If I arrest you, two officers have to sit and guard you until you come down off your high, and it’s a minor misdemeanor charge that no one will ever do jail time for.”
Even when clients are taken to St. Elizabeth’s or PIW, Gourdine said a complex set of factors create non-ideal treatment outcomes. One glaring issue is that the nation’s and region’s detox systems are based around alcohol. They’ve been broadened of late to include substances that have a physical dependency, such as heroin, but mental health and substance abuse treatments are often years behind other medical treatments. Experts say it doesn’t have to be this way.
None of this is new to police officers, paramedics, social workers, and local elected officials.
“[We’re] just not changing fast enough to meet the need,” Gourdine said. “What can you say about PCP addiction today that wasn’t there in the eighties when you had that first spike?”