Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Ketamine: badger tranquilizer

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


Anonymous said...

When I was around the free party scene in London 10 or so years ago Ketamine was known by several names, chief amongst which were "Horse tranq", "Donkey dust" and "Mad cow powder", so it's not new. However, it was getting something of a reputation as a "dirty" drug back then.

It is interesting to note though that its use seems to have taken off in this country since becoming a so-called "controlled" drug, ie prohibited under the misuse of drugs act.

Blair Anderson said...

As I recall, prior to New Zealand Police's National Drug Intelligence announcing in all-points media yet another 'emerging drug threat coming to our shores'- citing the scary (another culture, in this case oriental) drug 'Yabba Yabba'. By citing some weak association stamped on the 'pill' making a reference to 'horse'. It is now known these were redirected veterinary supplies with a brand stamp, that in a legal market would have been quite innocuous.

Derek notes the association between prevalence and so called 'controlled'. It would be entirely fair to say the evidential data in New Zealand would support drawing the same conclusion. Where the rules are the same - so to are the outcomes.

Anonymous said...

The UNODC's agenda-setting report on Ket's growing popularity on the club scene comes just three and a half years after Druglink magazine came out with the same story - reported across the globe in 2005. keep up the good work

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid it is hard to see what harm is being done by this characterisation of ketamine. The "media" are after all factually correct ketamine IS used for horses and a certain ammount of illict supply IS vetinary ketamine. The sin, if any, is one of omission and of a far less serious nature than stories of the "Reefer madness" variety.

I have a huge ammount of respect for Transorm for remaining a pro-legislation organization without being tarred as a pro-drugs organization but I'm afraid this article reads somewhat as an encouragement to take ketamine.

Steve Rolles said...

Doug - TBF I do say that this isnt a big deal. It was really just a quick comment on the semantic strangeness of some of the discourse on drugs - and any levity isn't in any way implying it is safe or to be encouraged - It clearly isn't either . This is after all a comment page on reporting of drugs issues in the media, not a drug information site.

I have also linked a more detailed policy paper comment from Transform, and the relevant FRANK page.

Anonymous said...

I think you've pretty much summed it up. Drug names and associations that have an emotional connotation with 'dirty', 'grubby' etc will always appease media representation. Even the expression 'K Hole' implies a nasty darkness to ketamine. But it suits the suits as they say :)

Anonymous said...

Great discussion!

Ketamine is also labelled a 'date-rape drug' drug. Having reiterated several times to a journalist recently that the most common drug associated with aquaintance rape is alcohol, she promtly ignored my pleas and wrote 'Date-Rape Drug Ketamine' in her headline...no surprise there then!

Karenza Moore

Anonymous said...


Excellent example of media crassness in this field! You wonder why they bother speaking to experts when they're just going to say what they want anyway.

I was wondering about ketamine - do you think the 'horse tranq' label has an appeal to drug warriors though the subliminal connection to heroin? Just occurred to me.

Blair Anderson said...

"Horse Tranq" and labels.

Putting a pejorative label on a drug gives the prohibitor ownership of the issue. It is no longer methamphetamine in NZ, it is 'P' (for pure, which it is not).
Same with 'dope' for cannabis. Not that the craft of labelling is new. But I can find little evidence that actual users of meth, either pharmaciutical (which at least had purity) or home-baked (which NZ does very well 'volumetrically' speaking) called it 'P'. Being a primarily male domain... there is something quite disturbing to the average Joe, of popping outside, or into the loo's, for a P.

But don't underestimate the stupidity of prohibitors. Drug Czar Jim Anderton who would ban fun if he could, contested the NZ 2002 General Election's known as the Progressive Coalition Party. His literature sported the party logo 'Vote PCP'. Only the sincerely ignorant could miss that irony. No one suggested he was promoting Haight Ashbury!

Anonymous said...

How commonly would you guess ketamine is used to tranquilise badgers?

Relatively rarely I'd say. They don't tend to jump hazardous fences. Their well being is not worth much money, not even the thoroughbred badgers.

How often would a vet need ketamine to tranquilise a horse?

Fairly commonly, I'd say.

I think that should answer your question as to why ketamine is known as 'horse tranquiliser' and not 'badger tranquiliser'.

Blair Anderson said...

I think that on balance of evidence seen here, Anon's posting of jan05 is missing the point.

Ketamine is widely used across species, including domesticated dogs, but once an animal is inside the sanctury of a compassionate vetinarian surgery, its gene type is of little consequence. Badgers in the example quoted are the antithesis of Anon's horse.... and thus perfectly reflect the double standard irony.