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Colorado Congressional Reps Seek National Ban On Ketamine Sedations That Involve Police

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U.S. House of Representatives

Reps. Joe Neguse and Jason Crow are leading an effort to end the sedation of people with ketamine during police confrontations, a practice that has faced heavy criticism in the months following the death of Elijah McClain.

“The tragic death of Elijah McClain in Colorado underscores the clear need to rethink the use of this drug in cases of arrest and detention to ensure nothing like this ever happens again to a member of our community,” Neguse said in a statement.

The bill, dubbed the “Ketamine Restriction Act,” would require local and state law enforcement agencies around the country to certify that they prohibit the use of ketamine for arrest or detention. The bill aims to prevent its use in the field by paramedics. It would allow ketamine’s use in a hospital.

Agencies that fail to certify that they ban ketamine’s use for arrests or detention would face losing out on Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program funds. In the last fiscal year, $235 million in Byrne grants were awarded to agencies across the country.

Previous KUNC investigations found that paramedics across Colorado sedated people 902 times in a 2.5-year period, for extreme agitation and a rare condition called excited delirium, according to state records.

We could find no national data in subsequent KUNC/Reveal reporting on how often paramedics use ketamine to sedate people. In our own count, we found that at least 34 states across the country allow paramedics to sedate people for excited delirium.

The medical community is divided about the condition. Some emergency doctors say excited delirium is a condition where people can become so aggressive, displaying incredible physical strength, that in extreme cases they may exert themselves to death.

But this week, the American Medical Association issued a statement saying its House of Delegates is opposed to excited delirium as a medical diagnosis. The delegates warned against the use of "certain pharmacological interventions solely for a law enforcement purpose without a legitimate medical reason,” going on to name ketamine. The organization also raised concern about excited delirium as a justification in cases of excessive police force, saying the condition is disproportionately cited in cases where Black men die while being detained by police.

Neguse and Crow’s bill is meant to follow the lead of Colorado’s legislature, which recently put House Bill 1251 on Gov. Jared Polis’ desk for consideration. Colorado’s bill, sponsored by Reps. Leslie Herod, a key architect in a sweeping police accountability bill last year, and Yadira Caraveo, a pediatrician, would limit the use of ketamine in situations like the one involving McClain and Aurora police in 2019. Among the bill’s many provisions, paramedics would only be able to use ketamine when police are involved in “justifiable” medical emergencies. Police would be banned from “unduly” influencing paramedics to sedate someone and, if a paramedic uses the drug to help police sedate someone, it would be considered misconduct.

The national legislation offered by Neguse and Crow already has a long list of backers and supporters, including U.S. House Judiciary Chairman Jarrold Nadler, who said he is “deeply concerned about the use of ketamine or other chemical restraints during arrests,” and Rosemary Lytle, state president of the NAACP for Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, who said “it’s past time to regulate ketamine in police situations,” citing its impact on the Black community.

Sheneen McClain, McClain’s mom, “strongly” supports the Neguse/Crow bill, according to a statement from her Denver attorney, Qusair Mohamedbhai: “The use of ketamine on Elijah McClain contributed to his tragic, senseless, and brutal death. Ketamine is extremely dangerous and should never be used strictly for law enforcement purposes.”

After Aurora police stopped McClain in August of 2019, they restrained him on the ground in handcuffs. Paramedics then administered 500 milligrams of ketamine, more than one and a half times the dose he should have received based on state standards. McClain went into cardiac arrest and was later declared brain dead. Days later, he was taken off life support.