Three Types of Dissociative Drugs and Their Effects

Overuse of these drugs can be harmful

Man Lighting a Joint
© Getty Images

Dissociative drugs distort perceptions of sight and sound and create feelings of detachment or dissociation from a person's environment and self. Although these effects are mind-altering, they are not technically hallucinations.

Drugs in this class can have harmful effects on the body, especially when taking in higher dosages. These effects range from blurred vision and dizziness to increased heart rate and severe breathing problems.

Dissociative Anesthetics: Mechanism of Action

Dissociative drugs are thought to work by disrupting the action of glutamate (a neurotransmitter) throughout the brain, thereby affecting perception of pain, responses to environmental stimuli, and memory.

Types of Dissociative Drugs

Phencyclidine (PCP), ketamine, and dextromethorphan (DXM) are three common types of dissociative anesthetics. Both PCP and ketamine were originally developed as general anesthetics to be used during surgery. Dextromethorphan is a common ingredient in cough suppressant medications.

Phencyclidine (PCP)

PCP is no longer used as a surgical anesthetic. It is not manufactured legally, except for small amounts for research purposes.

PCP can be taken as a pill or capsule, snorted as a powder, or smoked (the powder is sprinkled over smokable substances like marijuana leaves). Some people dip cigarettes or marijuana joints into liquid PCP, then smoke it.

PCP is considered an addictive drug because it can create cravings and psychological dependence. People who use this dissociative drug can become compulsive about seeking and using the drug, and they 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.

Ketamine

Ketamine was initially created as a replacement for PCP. Known on the street as Special K or simply "K," this dissociative drug is still used medically as human anesthesia and a sedative for animals. It is also widely used and FDA approved for suicidal ideation in depression.

When used for nonmedical purposes, ketamine is a powder that is snorted. It can also be smoked when sprinkled on tobacco or marijuana.

Dextromethorphan (DXM)

Dextromethorphan is a cough-suppressing ingredient found in many over-the-counter cold and cough medications and in products usually marked "extra strength." When taken as directed, this dissociative drug 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. Because it is contained in cough syrup, dextromethorphan is taken orally.

Other Dissociative Drugs

Nitrous oxide, or "laughing gas," is another example of a dissociative drug that is often used as an anesthetic. So is Salvia divinorum, a plant in the mint family that can create feelings of detachment after being smoked, chewed, or consumed in a juice.

Effects of Dissociative Drugs

Of the three most common dissociative drugs, PCP produces the most unpredictable reactions, especially at higher dosages. PCP can cause schizophrenia-like symptoms, along with a variety of cognitive impairments.

When abused, ketamine produces effects similar to PCP, but they are less intense and shorter-lasting. The reaction that users get is very dose-dependent. At low doses, users can experience loss of memory, reduced 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."

Low dosages of DXM can produce a mild stimulant effect and possibly distorted visual perceptions. At higher dosages, DXM causes effects similar to those of the other dissociative drugs, including feeling detached from one's body.

Because cough syrups usually also contain antihistamines and a decongestant, taking them in high dosages can produce other dangerous effects as well, including:

  • Blurred vision
  • Dizziness
  • Increased heart rate
  • Lack of coordination
  • Low blood pressure
  • Sleepiness

Long-Term Effects of Dissociative Drugs

Research is somewhat lacking on long-term effects of dissociative drugs. That said, some studies have looked at the lasting effects of PCP and found that they can include:

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Hallucinogens and dissociative drugs research report.

  2. Lodge D, Mercier MS. Ketamine and phencyclidine: the good, the bad and the unexpected. Br J Pharmacol. 2015;172(17):4254-76. doi:10.1111/bph.13222

  3. Matthew S. The evidence for ketamine in mood disorders. Healio Psychiatric Annals. 2020;50(2):44-45. doi:10.3928/00485713-20200108-02

  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Salvia: What is salvia?

  5. Fujigaki H, Mouri A, Yamamoto Y, Nabeshima T, Saito K. Linking phencyclidine intoxication to the tryptophan-kynurenine pathway: Therapeutic implications for schizophrenia. Neurochem Int. 2019;125:1-6. doi:10.1016/j.neuint.2019.02.001

  6. Curran HV, Morgan C. Cognitive, dissociative and psychotogenic effects of ketamine in recreational users on the night of drug use and 3 days later. Addiction. 2000;95(4):575-90. doi:10.1046/j.1360-0443.2000.9545759.x

  7. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Over-the-counter medicines.

  8. National Institute on Drug Abuse. What are the effects of common dissociative drugs on the brain and body?.