Definition Of Dissociative Drugs

This kind of drugs are also referred to as dissociative anesthetics because they cause anesthesia by causing the brain to dissociate.  They are related to sedatives and hallucinogens, but are not the same thing as these drugs.  They act on the brain to create a sensation of disconnection to the world and a dream-like state.

One of the more popular drugs of this class is called salvia divinorum.  This is a plant substance in which the users generally get the effect of the drug by chewing the leaves, smoking the leaves, or by holding the leaves of the plant beneath the tongue. 

Synthetic drugs were first synthesized about a half millennium ago, when ether was invented.  Ether was used as a medical anesthetic for surgeries and for the use of pain relief while painful procedures were being performed.  Because it exhibited euphoric properties, there were many instances where physicians or others who had access to ether developed an addiction to the drug.   

In today’s time, the most common synthetic drug is nitrous oxide, which is widely used in dentistry as an anesthetic for surgical dental procedures.  It is relatively safe when used in the proper dosages and is used for both adults and children needing dental procedures. 

Common Drugs

There are several dissociative drugs, some of which are legal while some are considered an illicit drug.  These include the following:

  • Phencyclidine, which is also referred to as PCP, ozone, rocket fuel, angel dust, hog, love boat, super weed, and embalming fluid.
  • Dextromethorphan, which is also known as robo or DXM.
  • Ketamine, which is also referred to as simply K, special K, kit kat, or cat Valium.
  • Nitrous oxide, which is also referred to as nos, nitrous, or hippy crack.

Using Synthetic Dissociative Drugs

The various synthetic agents may be in powder form, or may come as a liquid or a gas.  Nitrous oxide is used in gas form, and while it occurs in nature, it is synthetically produced for medicinal purposes.  Those who use nitrous oxide for recreational use usually find nitrous oxide as a whipping cream in bottles known as whippits. These can be purchased legally without a prescription at restaurant supply stores or head shops but is only sold to people over the age of 18 years.

A whippet is contained within a reusable dispenser that originally held whipped cream.  It releases the gas into a bigger metal chamber, where it is inhaled directly from the dispenser.  The use of nitrous oxide this way is not as preferable because the gas that comes out of the container is under high pressure and is extremely cold.  Rather than directly inhaling it, most people dispense the gas from the whipped cream dispenser into a rubber balloon before inhaling the nitrous oxide from the balloon.


Many drugs work by blocking the action of glutamate, which is a neurotransmitter found in the brain in high quantities.  Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter, which means that it causes the neurons to send chemical signals to nearby nerve cells.  Dissociative drugs act by going up to the neuron and blocking the receiving receptor.  This prevents glutamate from binding to the nerve cell and the signal is not received. 

This kind of drugs have an anesthetic effect by blocking the signals in the nerves.  The cause the user to feel detached, dissociative, and removed from his or her surroundings.  Typical effects of dissociative drugs include the following:

  • Muscle twitches or tremors
  • Nausea, vomiting, or salivating
  • Redness of the skin
  • Alterations of blood pressure and heart rate
  • Dilatation of the pupils
  • Mania
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Dizzy feelings
  • Derealization, in which you feel as though your surroundings are not real
  • Depersonalization, in which you feel as though you are not real and not in your body
  • Feeling dreamlike
  • Having delusions or paranoia
  • Having an increased mood
  • Being euphoric
  • Having a loss of memory
  • Having hallucinations
  • Having an altered perception of the time
  • Having distortions of images or sounds
  • Being immobile
  • Being unable to feel pain or having a sensation of numbness

The Action

Research suggests that many drugs, including dextromethorphan, ketamine, and PCP act by reducing the activity of the neurotransmitter glutamate at certain brain receptors known as NMDA receptors (which stands for N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors) on neurons in all parts of the brain.  We need glutamate for learning, emotion, pain perception, and cognition.  It also acts on pain-regulating cells outside of the brain. PCP also changes the activity of dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that regulates feelings of euphoria and produces the “rush” experienced by many drugs of abuse.

Salvia divinorum acts in a different fashion.  It is classified as a drug but acts by activating the kappa opioid receptors on the neurons.  These receptors are different from those that are activated by the typical opioid drugs, including morphine and heroin.

Short Term Effects

This chemicals have the ability to produce auditory and visual distortions.  They also create a sense of dissociation or the feeling of being detached from reality.  The drugs can also result in memory loss, tremors, numbness, and anxiety.  These effects are unpredictable and depend on the amount of drug the person takes. They can begin within a few minutes of taking the drug and may last for several hours.  Some have effects that last for several days.   

Typical short term effects of dissociative drugs in low to moderate doses include the following:

  • Feelings of detachment from the environment
  • Hallucinations
  • Changes in body image, time, shapes, sound and sight
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Disorientation
  • Confusion and a loss of coordination
  • Numbness
  • Blood pressure, heart rate, temperature, and respiratory rate

Typical effects of dissociative drugs in high doses include the following:

  • Extreme psychological distress, such as anxiety, paranoia, fear, and extreme panic
  • Dangerous alterations in heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and respiration
  • Memory loss
  • Hallucinations
  • Respiratory depression if used with alcohol
  • CNS depression if used with alcohol

Besides these general side effects, the different dissociative drugs have the ability to cause a variety of dangerous and specific side effects.  An example is PCP, which can result in convulsions, aggression, violent behaviors, and muscle contractions.  Some can have psychosis, which leads to symptoms suggestive of schizophrenia.

At moderately high dosages, ketamine can result in amnesia, immobility, and sedation.  At very high doses, those who use ketamine recreationally report feelings of near complete sensory detachment, similar to a near-death experience. This is a terrifying experience that is similar to having a bad trip with LSD. 

Users of salvia often indicate extremely intense effects lasting up to thirty minutes in length, in which they experience intense mood swings that range from laughter to sadness.

Dextromethorphan, which is both safe and effective when used as a cough suppressant at doses ranging from 15-30 milligrams, can cause serious side effects when they are abused.  Doses of dextromethorphan in the range of 200-1,500 milligrams can cause dissociative experiences that are similar to those found in ketamine and PCP.  They increase the chances of dangerous CNS and heart-related effects, including depression of respirations, convulsions, and an increase in heart rate.

Long Term Effects 

The long term use of many dissociative drugs has not been studied to a great degree.  Research indicates that using PCP over the long term results in tolerance to the drug and the development of substance abuse that has withdrawal symptoms that include sweating, headaches, and drug cravings when the drug is discontinued. Other long term effects of using PCP include memory loss, suicidal ideation, speech difficulties, anxiety, and social isolation that can last for up to a year after the chronic use of the drug is discontinued.