Dissociative Drugs: Types, Ways of Abuse, Long-Term Effects, Dependence & Tolerance
What are dissociative drugs?
Dissociative drugs (also referred to as ‘dissociative anesthetics’) are a class of psychedelic drugs. This class of drug is characterized by distorted sensory perceptions and feelings of disconnection or detachment from the environment and self. The word dissociative means detached from reality.
Types of Dissociative Drugs
The class of drugs known as dissociative drugs distort users’ perceptions of sight and sound and create feelings of detachment—or dissociation—from their environment and self. Although these effects are mind-altering, they are not technically hallucinations.
Two such drugs, PCP (phencyclidine) or Angel Dust and ketamine, were originally developed as general anesthetics to be used during surgery. DXM (dextromethorphan) is a common ingredient in cough suppressant medications, but taken in high doses can produce mind-altering effects similar to PCP and ketamine.
How Do Dissociative Drugs Work?
National Institute on Drug Abuse scientists believes dissociative drugs work primarily by disrupting the action of glutamate, a neurotransmitter, throughout the brain, thereby affecting the user’s perception of pain, responses to environmental stimuli, and memory.
Dissociative Drugs: PCP or Angel Dust
Of the three most commonly abused dissociative drugs, PCP probably produces the most unpredictable reactions, especially at higher dosages. PCP can be taken orally as a pill or capsule, snorted as a powder, or smoked when the powder is sprinkled over smokable substances like marijuana leaves. Some users will dip cigarettes or marijuana joints into liquid PCP and then smoke it.
PCP is considered an addictive drug because it can create cravings and psychological dependence on users. PCP users can become compulsive about seeking and using the drug and can experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop using it. PCP is widely known as “angel dust,” but it has also been called rocket fuel, Supergrass, and embalming fluid.
Dissociative Drugs: Ketamine
The drug ketamine was initially created as a replacement for PCP and when abused produces effects similar to PCP but less intense and shorter lasting. Known on the street as “Special K” or simply “K,” the drug is still used medically as for human anesthesia and a sedative for animals. It is also widely used for suicidal ideation when someone suffers from a major depressive disorder.
Ketamine is a powder that is snorted when used for nonmedical purposes but can also be smoked when sprinkled on tobacco or marijuana. The reaction that users get when abusing ketamine is very much dose-dependent. As low doses, users can experience side effects that include a loss of memory, learning ability, and a loss of attention. At higher dosages, ketamine can cause delirium, amnesia, and severe breathing problems.
One study found that three days after using ketamine, some users displayed “semantic memory impairment and dissociative and schizotypal symptomatology.”
Dissociative Drugs: Dextromethorphan
Dextromethorphan is a cough-suppressing ingredient found in many over-the-counter cold and cough medications usually marked “extra strength.” When taken as directed, it is a safe and effective cough reliever.
Known as “DXM” or “Robo,” dextromethorphan is a popular drug with adolescents because it’s more readily available than illicit drugs. When high doses are taken, the drug causes effects similar to those of PCP and ketamine.
Because it is contained in cough syrup, dextromethorphan is taken orally. Low dosages can produce a mild stimulant effect and possibly distorted visual perceptions. At higher dosages, users report experiencing a complete detachment from one’s body, like other dissociative drugs.
Additionally, because the cough syrup in which dextromethorphan is found usually contains antihistamine and decongestants also, high dosages of those drugs can produce other dangerous effects, including:
- Blurred vision
- Increased heart rate
- Lack of coordination
- Low blood pressure
How are dissociative drugs used?
Dissociative drugs are usually ingested via snorting, oral, intramuscular injection, or inhaled. The individual effects of each dissociative can vary greatly between each person using them.
Effects of dissociative drugs
It’s important to be careful when taking any type of drug. Dissociatives affects everyone differently, based on:
- Size, weight and health
- Whether the person is used to taking it
- Whether other drugs are taken around the same time
- The amount taken
- The strength of the drug (varies from batch to batch).
The individual effects and toxicity of each dissociative drug can vary greatly between each person using them. Many dissociatives have general depressant effects including drowsiness, slow ineffective breathing, pain relief, anesthesia, and loss of muscle control, as well as cognitive and memory impairment. Amnesia is an often-reported side effect. Some dissociatives affect dopamine release and the opioid systems of the body and may produce euphoria.
The effects of dissociative drugs can vary but generally speaking, they are short-acting, depending on the specific type of dissociative. The following may be experienced during this time:
- In a ‘hole’
- Visual or auditory hallucinations.
Long-term effects of dissociative drugs
Large regular doses of ketamine have been found to cause ‘ketamine bladder syndrome’ a painful condition that requires ongoing treatment. Symptoms include difficulty holding urine and incontinence, which can cause ulceration in the bladder. It is essential that any person suffering from ketamine bladder syndrome cease using the drug and see a health professional.
The inhalation of nitrous oxide commonly called nangs is considered to be relatively harmless, but regular long-term use can produce a deficiency of vitamin B12 which may cause nerve damage and some types of anemia.
Health and safety related to dissociative drugs
There is no safe level of drug use. Use of any drug always carries some risk – even medications can produce unwanted side effects Use of dissociative drugs is likely to be more dangerous when:
- Taken in combination with alcohol or other drugs, in particular benzodiazepines and opiates as these can slow breathing and increase the risk of overdose
- Driving or operating machinery, as a person’s ability to judge distance and space is extremely limited
- Alone (in case medical assistance is required)
- Used in unsafe environments such as nightclubs or festivals. There have been several reports of people hurting themselves whilst impaired and attempting to move around
- Used in large doses or repeatedly dissociatives may be neurotoxic, meaning toxic to the nervous system
- The person has a mental health problem.
Nausea can happen on many dissociatives, usually directly after dosing – usually only if there are stomach contents. It is best to not eat for 3-4 hours before dosing.
Dependence and tolerance to dissociative drugs
There is evidence to suggest that people who use dissociative drugs can develop dependence and tolerance to them. Tolerance means people need to take larger amounts to get the same effect.
Dependence on dissociatives can be psychological, physical, or both. People who are dependent on dissociative may find that using them becomes far more important than other activities in their life. People may crave the drug and find it very difficult to stop using it.
People who are psychologically dependent on dissociative may find they feel an urge to use it when they are in specific surroundings or socializing with friends. Physical dependence occurs when a person’s body adapts to the dissociatives and gets used to functioning with the drugs present.
Reclaim Your Life From Dissociative Drugs
Addiction to dissociative drugs is a serious condition that can cause major health, social, and economic problems that should not be taken lightly. We Level Up California can provide you, or someone you love, the tools to recover from this with professional and safe treatment. Feel free to call us to speak with one of our counselors. Our specialists know what you are going through. Please know that each call is private and confidential.
 National Institute on Drug Abuse. Hallucinogens and dissociative drugs. Research Report Series.
 National Institute on Drug Abuse. Over-the-counter medicines.
 Li, L. & Vlisides, P. (2016). Ketamine: 50 Years of Modulating the Mind