Dissociative Drugs

Dissociative drugs are a class of substances with hallucinogenic properties and are known for inducing perceptual changes involving sight, sound, and connections with one’s surroundings. They also produce feelings of dissociation from both the environment and oneself. While many dissociative drugs have no approved medical purpose, some forms are used as an anesthetic and others can be obtained as over-the-counter (OTC) cold and cough medicines.

Common dissociative drugs include the following:

  • PCP (Phencyclidine) or Angel Dust
  • Ketamine (Special K)
  • DXM (Dextromethorphan)
  • Salvia divinorum

How Do Dissociative Drugs Work?

Dissociative drugs act on the brain by obstructing signals to the conscious mind from different regions of the brain. Research suggests that this blockage may happen as the drugs interrupt the functioning of glutamate, a brain chemical involved in processes such as cognition, emotion, and pain perception. This may explain the hallucinations, sensory deprivation, and dream-like states experienced by those who use this class of drug.

Also, some dissociatives have general depressant effects as well, which is why they are sometimes prescribed to sedate patients who are experiencing significant pain or for general anesthesia during an operation.

Additionally, dissociative drugs alter the activities of dopamine, a brain neurotransmitter that promotes the feelings of euphoria associated with drug abuse.

Short-Term Effects

Dissociative drug users report experiencing visual and auditory distortions and a sense of floating. They also report feelings of being detached from reality (dissociation). Often, dissociative drugs begin affecting the user within a few minutes of consumption and last for several hours.

Adverse effects may include the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Impaired motor function
  • Disorientation and confusion
  • Memory loss
  • Tremors
  • Numbness
  • Dizziness, nausea, and vomiting
  • Hallucinations
  • Increase in blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature, and respiration

In high doses, dissociative drugs use can result in psychological distress including intense feelings of panic, fear, paranoia, grandiosity, and aggression. Using these drugs combined with high doses of alcohol or other central nervous system depressants can lead to respiratory arrest, which results in death.

Each type of dissociative drug can have its own specific effects in addition to the aforementioned general effects. The severity of these effects is often related to the amount of the drug the user consumes. Like hallucinogens, the effects of dissociative drugs can be unpredictable.


At moderate to high doses, PCP use can lead to seizures and severe muscle contractions. Persons high on PCP can become aggressive, violent, and engage in psychotic behavior.


At moderate to high doses, Ketamine use can cause heavy sedation, immobility, and amnesia. Some users encounter a near-death experience also known as a “K-hole” in which they become severely detached from the senses and reality.

Salvia Divinorum

Users of salvia report experiencing emotional mood swings ranging from depression to uncontrollable laughter. These effects are incredibly intense but only last for up to about 30 minutes.

Although it’s classified as a dissociative drug, salvia divinorum works on the brain a little differently than other substances by activating the kappa opioid receptor on nerve cells.


Although safe when used as directed as a cough suppressant, DXM (dextromethorphan) can induce effects similar to PCP and ketamine when taken in extremely high doses (200 to 1,500 milligrams).

Because DXM is most commonly abused in the form of cough syrup, which may also contain antihistamines, effects can also include a heightened risk of respiratory distress, seizures, and increased heart rate.

Long-Term Effects

Some long-term effects of dissociative drug use can include memory loss, speech problems, depression, suicidal ideations, anxiety, and social isolation, and may persist for a year or longer after cessation of drug use.

Also, chronic users can develop a tolerance for dissociative drugs, and upon discontinuation, they experience withdrawal symptoms that include cravings, headaches, and sweating.

Treatment for Dissociative Drug Addiction

Dissociative drug addiction occurs when a person consistently uses a substance without a prescription from a physician, taking it in amounts higher or more often than directed, despite understanding its potentially harmful effects.

The long-term impact of dissociative drug use is not fully understood, and there is some debate as to whether these drugs are chemically addictive in the same way as, say, heroin or other opioids. However, there is little doubt that chronic use of these drugs can lead to psychological dependence and tolerance, two conditions that rapidly lead to drug-seeking behavior and addiction.

Persons who are abusing dissociative drugs face significant risks to their mental and physical health and should seek help immediately from addiction specialists and participate in an inpatient or outpatient treatment program. Our center offers both formats that include evidence-based approaches such as behavioral therapy, psychoeducation, counseling, and group support.

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