Dissociative drugs are a class of psychoactive substances having hallucinogenic properties. They are known for causing perceptual changes in users involving sight, sound, and associations with one’s surroundings. As the name implies, they also induce feelings of dissociation from oneself and the environment. When abused, these drugs can have severe psychological side effects, including anxiety, panic, and psychosis.
Some dissociative drugs have no approved medical applications, but others can be used for general anesthesia in hospital settings (e.g., ketamine) or obtained over-the-counter (e.g., cold and cough medicines that contain DXM).
Common dissociative drugs include the following:
- PCP (phencyclidine) or “angel dust”
- Ketamine or “special K”
- DXM (dextromethorphan) or “Triple C”
- Salvia divinorum or “magic mint”
- Nitrous oxide or “laughing gas”
How Dissociative Drugs Work?
Experts believe that dissociative drugs work by blocking signals to the conscious mind send from different regions of the brain. Studies suggest that this blockage may develop as the drugs interrupt the functioning of glutamate, a neurochemical involved in vital processes such as cognition, emotion, and pain perception. If this conclusion is correct, it would explain the hallucinations, sensory deprivation, and detached mental states experienced by persons who use them.
Also, many dissociatives have depressant effects, which is why they are sometimes used for general anesthesia during an operation. Finally, dissociative drugs also alter levels of dopamine, a chemical messager in the brain that promotes feelings of euphoria and reward.
Common effects associated with dissociative drugs include sight and sound distortions as well as a sense of detachment from the environment, being out of one’s body, or floating. The effects of dissociative drugs can onset within a few minutes of use and persist for several hours.
Adverse effects may include the following:
- Impaired motor function
- Disorientation and confusion
- Memory loss
- Rapid heart rate
- High blood pressure
- High body temperature
- Rapid respiration
When used excessively, dissociative drugs can also result in emotional distress, including intense feelings of fear, panic, and paranoia, and hostility. Using these drugs combined with high amounts of alcohol or other CNS depressants can lead to profound, life-threatening respiratory depression and other severe complications.
Types of Dissociative Drugs
Ketamine (Special K)
Ketamine is a Schedule II substance as classified by the Drug Administration (DEA), meaning it is considered to have a lower potential for abuse than many other controlled drugs. However, when used in moderate-high doses, it can induce heavy sedation, immobility, and amnesia. Some users report having a dreamy, near-death or out-of-body experience (also known as a “K-hole”) in which they become severely detached from their senses and reality.
Ketamine can be used for general anesthesia in hospitals and can also be illicitly obtained on the black market. It is found in powdered or liquid form and can be consumed orally, snorted, smoked, or injected. Short- and long-term effects may also include increased heart rate and blood pressure, nausea, vomiting, numbness, hallucinations, depression, amnesia, and severe respiratory problems.
PCP is classified by the DEA as a schedule II substance, indicating that it has a relatively high potential for abuse but does have a limited medical purpose. PCP can be found in tablet, capsule, liquid, or powdered form, and has a distinctive bitter chemical taste. It can be consumed orally, smoked, snorted, or injected. A person using this drug may experience a distortion of sights, sounds, colors, self, and environment.
At moderate-high doses, PCP use has also been known to cause seizures and severe muscle contractions. And, a person who is under the influence of PCP can become aggressive, violent, and behave in ways that appear to be psychotic. He or she may also self-injure, attempt suicide, or harm others.
Divinorum is a psychoactive plant in the mint family that is on the list of controlled substances in most U.S. states. It can be smoked, consumed orally, and extracts can be placed under the tongue. Anecdotal reports from users of salvia include experiencing a wide array of intense emotional effects ranging from severe depression to uncontrollable laughter.
Still, these effects do not typically last longer than 30 minutes after the last dose. Compared to other dissociative substances, salvia appears to have a relatively low potential for abuse or addiction.
Although it’s technically classified as a dissociative drug, salvia divinorum works on the brain a bit differently than other substances, in that it activates the kappa opioid receptor on nerve cells. This type of receptor is believed to be responsible for pain relief and may also play a vital role in the regulation of perception.
Although considered safe when used as directed as a cough suppressant, DXM can induce effects comparable ketamine and PCP when taken in excessive doses (200 to 1,500 mg). DXM is most commonly abused as a cough syrup, which may also contain antihistamines. Effects can include an increased risk of respiratory distress, seizures, and elevated heart rate.
The abuse of DXM is commonly referred to as “robotripping” and is usually committed during adolescence. Teenagers looking to experiment with substances sometimes turn to DXM because it’s obtainable over-the-counter and more accessible to them than alcohol or other drugs.
Nitrous oxide is a colorless and odorless anesthetic gas. It has been found to induce dissociation of the mind from the body, including a sense of floating, as well as distorted perceptions and less commonly, visual or auditory hallucinations. When inhaled, this substance slows down the body’s reaction time, leading to a calm, relaxed, and euphoric feeling.
Nitrous oxide can be used to relieve pain and induce sedation and is sometimes used before dental procedures to reduce a patient’s anxiety and promote comfort. Also, the effects of nitrous oxide subside rapidly, so those to whom it is administered will not be under the influence long after use has been discontinued.
When nitrous oxide is given appropriately to a patient by a health provider, side effects are relatively uncommon and usually mild. Moderate to severe effects typically only occur when an excessive amount of the gas is inhaled or is inhaled too fast.
Common short-term side effects include the following:
- Excessive sweating
The long-term effects of dissociative drug use include memory loss, difficulty speaking, depression, suicidal thoughts or behaviors, anxiety, and social withdrawal/isolation. These issues may persist for a year or longer after drug use has been discontinued. Also, chronic users can develop a tolerance to these drugs, and upon cessation, may experience cravings and withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches and sweating.
Treatment for Addiction
Drug abuse occurs when an individual consistently uses a substance without a prescription from a physician, uses it in excessive amounts or too often, or does so despite understanding its potential for harmful effects. He or she may incur adverse consequences in multiple areas of life, including those that involve family, personal health and well-being, and legal or financial issues.
The long-term impact of dissociative drug use or abuse is not wholly understood. Moreover, it is not clear if these drugs are physically addictive in the same way as heroin or other potent substances. However, there is no debate that regular abuse of these drugs can lead to emotional dependence and tolerance, which are two conditions closely associated with compulsive drug-seeking behavior and addiction.
People who abuse dissociative drugs face significant risks to their mental and physical health and should seek professional help as soon as possible. Just Believe Detox and Just Believe Recovery centers offer comprehensive programs that include evidence-based services, such as behavioral therapy, substance abuse education, counseling, group support, aftercare planning, and more.
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