AURORA | Democratic Congressmen Jason Crow and Joe Neguse have introduced a bill that would ban the use of ketamine during arrests, a practice that gained national scrutiny following the death of Elijah McClain in Aurora two years ago.
Aurora police and paramedics stopped and injected the 23-year-old Black man with 500 milligrams of the drug in August 2019. Since then, advocates and McClain’s family have called for an end to the practice.
The bill, dubbed the “Ketamine Restriction Act,” would prohibit the use of the drug during an arrest or a detention outside of a hospital setting. No law enforcement agency would be eligible to receive Byrne Grant funding or COPS Grant funding, two major federal grants for law enforcement, until it certified a prohibition on using ketamine.
The Colorado lawmakers are joined by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, Pramila Jayapal of Washington and Rep. Mondaire Jones and Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York in sponsoring the legislation.
Ketamine is a powerful anesthetic that can be used to rapidly sedate people. It is also being tested as an antidepressant. Outside of hospital settings, the drug is used by medics to control people who are struggling against police during arrests. A 2020 KUNC investigation found that Colorado medics and emergency medical technicians used ketamine 902 times from 2018 through the first half of 2020.
On Monday, the American Medical Association released a policy opposing excited delirium as a medical diagnosis and the use of drugs including ketamine “as an intervention for an agitated individual in a law enforcement setting, without a legitimate medical reason.” A statement from the AMA said that drugs such as ketamine can be dangerous when used outside hospital settings and are disproportionately administered to people of color.
“For far too long, sedatives like ketamine and misapplied diagnoses like ‘excited delirium’ have been misused during law enforcement interactions and outside of medical settings – a manifestation of systemic racism that has unnecessarily dangerous and deadly consequences for our Black and Brown patients,” said AMA President-elect Dr. Gerald E. Harmon in the statement.
The forensic pathologist who conducted McClain’s autopsy repeatedly mentioned the debated condition in his final report presented to the district attorney, wherein he deemed McClain’s cause of death to be “undetermined.”
McClain suffered a heart attack shortly after being injected with the sedative and was taken off life support six days later. Documents later revealed that the paramedic who injected McClain overestimated his weight by nearly 80 pounds.
Aurora Fire has not used ketamine since the Aurora City Council passed a moratorium on its use last fall. The local agency’s waiver to use the drug will expire this month, and the department does not plan to renew it, officials previously told the Sentinel.
The federal proposal comes just after state lawmakers passed a bill limiting the use of ketamine during arrests. Medics can only administer ketamine if they have properly weighed the individual, are able to monitor the individual’s vital signs after injection, and have received training in how to administer ketamine. The bill, which would go into effect at the beginning of 2022, is awaiting the governor’s signature.
Qusair Mohamedbhai, an attorney for Elijah McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, said in a statement that she “strongly supports” federal legislation to completely ban its use during arrests.
“This legislation will undoubtedly save the lives of many civilians who would otherwise be subjected to this highly dangerous drug,” he said. “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.”
The federal bill sponsors echoed.
“In far too many circumstances ketamine is being used to help effectuate arrests without a full appreciation of the health risks,” Neguse said in a statement. “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.”
Crow has also introduced the “Use of Force Accountability Act,” which would require states to have a law mandating independent investigations after law enforcement injures or kills someone. If passed, states that fail to comply could also have federal grant funds for law enforcement withheld.
“Elijah McClain should still be alive today,” Crow said in a statement Monday. “While no legislation can bring back Elijah or ease his family’s pain, we must learn from this injustice.”