Despite being used widely in humans and numerous other animals, describing the drug ketamine as 'horse tranquilizer' or 'horse drug' has now become almost universal across the media. From the tabloids to the broadsheets, the BBC to the leading news agencies, it is now unusual that ketamine is referred to as anything else*. Such is the hold of the 'ketamine is a horse drug' idea that a recent Mixmag cover-story on the drug actually pictured a 'clubber' wearing a pantomime horse head on the dance floor. Today even the UN Office on Drugs and Crime got in on the act with a report about how: 'A drug used to tranquillize horses has taken the world's dance scene by storm'.
Now, ketamine is indeed used as an anesthetic for horses, but it should also be pointed out that:
1. Ketamine is used extensively in humans
Ketamine is a dissociative and is a particularly useful anesthetic for the elderly, very young, and in emergencies as it does not suppress the respiratory system (although the powerful hallucinogenic effects - why it is used non-medically - are an unwanted occasional side effect). The UNODC report notes half-truthfully that it is 'used as a general anesthetic in developing countries' ; in fact it is used far more widely than that. Some of my anaesthetist friends inform me, for example, that it is widely used in the UK.
2. Ketamine is not just used in horses.
Ketamine is also used amongst a veritable Noah's ark of animals, including - in roughly descending size order: elephants, camels, gorillas, pigs, sheep, goats, dogs, cats, rabbits, snakes, guinea pigs, birds, gerbils and mice. Oh, and badgers.
So whats with the horse thing? Why do we never hear about the 'gerbil tranquilizer ketamine', or the 'badger tranquilizer ketamine'? Horses are obviously quite large (except those little shetland pony ones) and you can see why horse tranquilizer provides a more potent scary-drug narrative for the headline writers, than say, guinea-pig tranquilizer. But then why not go for gorillas or elephants?
Indeed why does ketamine get the animal/horsey treatment at all, given that many drugs, (including morphine and diazepam for example) that are used medically and non-medically in humans, are also used for animals, including horses. None are routinely referred to in the context of their animal use like ketamine. When did you last hear about the the 'sheep drug diazepam' or the 'dog drug morphine'?
To be honest I have no conclusive answer, having been unable to dig up a definitive first pop-cultural appearance of the horse tranquilizers / ketamine meme (submissions in the comment section please). The popularisation of a substance being strong enough to “knock out a horse” may hark back to the the legendary Groucho Marx dishing out horse pills to humans and himself to comic effect in the classic A Day At the Races. But I suspect that the modern link to ketamine specifically probably stems from media reporting in the mid 90s of the drug being stolen from vets and misused. If the first media reporting of the drug was of stolen veterinary tranquilizers (from a stables) it probably then just stuck with our lazy journalist friends - even though subsequently most of the drug was supplied from larger scale illicit or grey market imports from India and elsewhere. If the first thefts had taken place from a badger hospital, who knows?
Its not a massively big deal either, just rather a peculiar and irritating reflection on the curious sheep-like laziness of drug reporting in the media generally. And this sort of entrenched semantic misunderstanding is hardly going to help rational policy development, or for that matter educating young people about ketamine harms or other drugs' relative risks.
Transform briefing on Ketamine classification/criminalisation from 2005
See also the similar piperazine /worming-tablet meme (in its early days)
* The Frank website being a creditable exception