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What are Dissociative Drugs?

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

November 17, 2023

Table of Contents

Dissociative drugs powerfully distort your perception of both sight and sound. These drugs also trigger feelings of detachment or disassociation, for which they are named.

Now, these effects are not hallucinogenic. It would be more precise to label ketamine and PCP as dissociative anesthetics. As well as these two drugs, DXM (dextromethorphan) and salvia also fall in this class of drugs.

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We’ll kick off today’s exploration with a dissociative drug definition.

What Are Dissociative Drugs?

Broadly speaking, dissociative drugs are a class of hallucinogen, and they’re known for impacting your perception of sight and sound as well as your sense of connection with your surroundings.

When you take these drugs, you’ll experience a sense of separation from your environment and yourself, formally known as disassociation. Some dissociative drugs are no longer tolerated for any form of legal use, some are still used for anesthetic, while others can be found in OTC cough medications.

Dissociative Drugs Definition

Dissociatives (Also called ‘dissociative anaesthetics’) are a type of psychedelic drug. Dissociatives are characterized by warped sensory perceptions and detachment from one’s surrounding environment. Often,o usage of dissociative drugs causes a detachment from reality can can have a serious impact on ones mental and physical health.

The most common dissociative drugs include:

  • PCP (Phencyclidine)
  • Ketamine
  • DXM (Dextromethorphan)
  • Salvia divinorum

As well as triggering hallucinogenic effects, these drugs can cause a range of side effects when taken in high doses, including:

  • Blood pressure fluctuation
  • Heart and respiration changes
  • Memory loss
  • Panic
  • Aggression
  • Respiratory arrest

This is by no means the extent of the side effects you could experience when using this potentially dangerous class of drugs, either.

This class of drug works by blocking signals from various parts of the brain to your conscious mind. Some studies have suggested this might happen as dissociative drugs interfere with the way glutamate acts in the brain. Glutamate is a chemical that impacts emotion, pain perception, and cognition, and it in some way explains the trances, sensory deprivation, and hallucinations experienced when you take these drugs.

Doctors sometimes prescribe dissociative drugs for their depressant effects. They can be useful for patients in pain, and they are also used to promote general anesthesia during operations.

OK, we’ll now highlight the primary types of this class of drug so you can get an overview of how they differ and which characteristics they share.

Common Dissociative Drugs

The main forms of dissociative drugs are:

  • PCP (Phencyclidine)
  • Ketamine
  • DXM (Dextromethorphan)
  • Salvia divinorum

PCP (Phencyclidine)

PCP is also known as angel dust, Supergrass, embalming fluid, and rocket fuel.

Of all the commonly abused drugs in this class, PCP undoubtedly induces the most extreme and unpredictable outcomes, particularly at high dosages.

You take PCP orally as a capsule or pill. You can also smoke or snort PCP in powder form. The substance is typically sprinkled over substances like marijuana, although some users will lace marijuana joints with liquid PCP.

Due to the intense cravings and psychological dependence it can create, PCP is considered a dangerous and addictive drug. Users can quickly become compulsive about sourcing and using the drug. Withdrawal symptoms can be severe.

Usage of PCP in the US peaked during the 1970s. In the second half of the 2000s, though, there was a sharp increase in visits to ER related to PCP.

The drug was first brought to market as an anesthetic back in the 1950s. It was banned for use by humans in the US in 1965 due to a high rate of side effects. It was outlawed for use on animals in the United States in 1978.

The drug fell out of favor, then, and ketamine was discovered to be a superior and better-tolerated anesthetic.

More about this replacement for PCP, then…


Stepping in to replace PCP, ketamine produces similar effects to PCP when abused. That said, these effects are fleeting and much less intense.

Known as K or Special K, the drug is still used legitimately as a human anesthetic and as an animal sedative.

Ketamine is a powder. When used recreationally, you snort or smoke the powder. When snorted, the drug takes 15 minutes or so to kick in. Taking ketamine orally will mean the effects are slightly delayed, taking up to 20 minutes or more. The high lasts from 30 minutes to an hour or more, depending on how much you consume. You can expect to feel low for several days after using the drug.

It should be noted that the effects experienced depend largely on the amount of the drug you take. In lower doses, ketamine can cause memory loss, impaired learning, and a decrease in attention. When you take higher doses of K, you can expect amnesia, delirium, and possibly even severe breathing complications.

The FDA has approved the use of ketamine for the treatment of depression accompanied by suicidal ideation.

DXM (Dextromethorphan)

Dextromethorphan (DXM) is an ingredient found in many OTC cold or cough medications. They are typically the syrups marked “extra strength.”

If taken as directed, DXM is safe and highly effective in its capacity as a cough reliever.

DXM is also known as robo, and it’s extremely popular among teens as it’s far more readily available than most illegal drugs.

When taken in high doses, you will experience effects much like those of PCP or ketamine, up to and including a detachment from your body. In lower doses, users report some distortion of visual perception and a mildly stimulant effect.

You take DXM orally. Since the cough syrup DXM is found in also contains decongestant and antihistamine, the drug can also cause side effects in high doses including:

  • Blurred vision
  • Raised heart rate
  • Impaired coordination
  • Dizziness
  • Sleepiness
  • Low blood pressure

DXM might seem benign, but if you suspect your teenagers are dabbling with this dissociative, take prompt action to stop that.

Salvia divinorum

Last but not least, salvia divinorum, usually shortened to salvia for short, is an herb from the mint family, and it’s frequently used for its strong hallucinogenic effects.

The plant is native to southern Mexico and can also be found in areas of Central and South America.  It’s been used by the Mazatec Indians in traditional ceremonies for generations.

Its active ingredient, salvinorin A, is among the most potent naturally-occurring psychoactive drugs.

Expect effects to include dizziness, visual disturbances, and hallucinations

Although salvia might be legal in some states, don’t let this fool you. It’s a potent drug with potentially serious side effects and some possible risks. If you’re thinking of using salvia, we’d strongly advise you to reconsider.

Now that you have a solid overview of the various types of this class of drug, a few more words about the more generalized effects you can expect to experience.

Dissociatives: Generalized Effects

You should exercise caution when taking any type of drug, legal or illegal.

Dissociatives affect you differently, according to:

  • Your size and weight
  • Your health
  • Whether or not you’re accustomed to taking the drugs
  • How much you take
  • The strength of the drug

Both the effects and the toxicity of each type of dissociative drugs varies greatly from person to person.

Most dissociatives have general depressant effects. These include:

  • Slow and ineffective breathing
  • Pain relief
  • Anesthesia
  • Drowsiness
  • Loss of muscle control
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Memory impairment

You can also find dissociative drugs to increase dopamine release and some that impact the body’s opioid systems.

While the effects of dissociatives vary widely, they’re normally only fleeting and may include the following:

  • Euphoria
  • Floating
  • Relaxation
  • Happiness
  • Painlessness
  • Being unaware
  • Numbness
  • Unconsciousness
  • Feeling protected
  • Visual and auditory hallucinations
  • Feeling in a hole

How about the more long-term effects of this type of drug, though? Are they dangerous?

Dissociative Drugs: Long-Term Effects

When ketamine is taken in large doses, this has been shown to cause bladder issues. Symptoms include incontinence and trouble holding urine. If you experience this, you should immediately discontinue use of the drug and seek medical advice.

Dangers of Dissociative Drugs

All drug use carries some risk and the use of dissociatives will be even more dangerous if:

Taken with other drugs or with alcohol. This class of drugs reacts adversely with opiates and benzodiazepines. These drugs slow breathing and increase your risk of overdose if:

  • You’re driving machinery. Your ability to judge space and distance will be limited
  • You’re in a potentially unsafe environment like a club or a festival
  • Taken in large doses or used repeatedly. In these instances, dissociatives can be neurotoxic. This means they will be acutely toxic to your nervous system
  • You’re alone
  • You have a mental health problem

Nausea is a common side effect with many dissociatives, normally immediately after dosing. If you plan to use these drugs, you should refrain from eating for a few hours beforehand to mitigate this nausea.

Tolerance and Dependence

Some evidence suggests that tolerance and dependence can form when these drugs are abused. You’ll then need to use more and more of the drug to get the same effect.

In the case of dependence, this can be physical, psychological, or both.  When this occurs, the user becomes more interested in the drug than anything else. Cravings can be intense and stopping can be problematic without the proper medical care.

If your body adapts and becomes accustomed to functioning under the influence of these drugs, you’ll become physically dependent. Clearly this is not a good situation to find yourself in, but you can luckily take action.

Dissociative Drug Addiction Treatment

When used over time, dissociative drugs lead to cravings and also to addiction.

You could also acquire HPPD (hallucinogen-induced persisting perception disorder). This condition results in the flashbacks from the drug having more of an effect. If untreated, addiction to this class of drug can be fatal.

Long-term side effects can linger for some time after the drug is discontinued. These include:

  • Memory loss
  • Depression
  • Speech difficulties
  • Social withdrawal

Sometimes, these side effects remain for a year or more.

Luckily, with the right personalized and holistic treatment, you can put addiction aside and focus on long-term recovery. After your initial detox, the focus of care shifts to ongoing encouragement in your recovery along with tools to help prevent relapse.

What To Do Next

If you started out today with no idea about dissociative drug effects, that should have changed by now. As you’ll now be aware, while some of these drugs are used in a legitimate medical setting, specifically as anesthetic, when used illegally and recreationally, they can be devastatingly dangerous.

If you’re concerned about a loved one abusing dissociative drugs, you can call the friendly team at Renaissance Recovery at 866.330.9449 and we’ll be delighted to help out. Also, you can also get in touch online if you want help with any aspect of drug abuse and recovery in Huntington Beach, California.



At Renaissance Recovery our goal is to provide evidence-based treatment to as many individuals as possible. Give us a call today to verify your insurance coverage or to learn more about paying for addiction treatment.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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