‘Weapons of drugs’: Police use of ketamine under scrutiny after Elijah McClain’s death | American Police

In the summer of 2019, 23-year-old Elijah McClain was stopped by police in Aurora, Colorado on his way home after someone called 911 because he looked suspicious.

The incident quickly turned violent, with three police officers piling up the 140-pound boy and putting him twice in a stranglehold that has since been banned. After vomiting, going in and out of consciousness, and begging for breath, paramedics arrived and injected McClain with an excessive dose of ketamine, a powerful sedative.

He immediately went limp and went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital, where he died a few days later.

The three police officers and two paramedics have since been charged with negligent murder, and McClain’s family — who was Black — was recently awarded $15 million in a civil lawsuit against the city of Aurora, the second largest of its kind, just behind the one assigned to George Floyd’s family.

McClain’s death cemented America’s reckoning with racism and police brutality, but it also sparked a national debate over the use of ketamine — a medical anesthetic, popular club drug, and psychotherapy — in law enforcement situations, leading to the state’s ban. Colorado, and possibly across the country.

“We’re talking about weaponizing drugs,” said Mari Newman, the attorney representing McClain’s family. “It might as well be a taser or a gun.”

Newman says McClain showed none of the signs of “excited delirium syndrome” — a controversial diagnosis that legally justifies a ketamine shot — and that police officers mistakenly used “code words like ‘he had superhuman strength’” that she says were an attempt to kill paramedics. to give the injection (and justify their own use of excessive force).

The police are not legally allowed to administer ketamine. Paramedics can, but only if a patient shows symptoms of “excited delirium.” The controversy surrounding this diagnosis — which is characterized by aggressive behavior, superhuman strength and hyperthermia — stems in part from its rise during the drug war in the 1980s and is disproportionately applied to the autopsy of black men murdered by the police. The condition is not recognized by the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders or the American Medical Association.

A report from public radio station KUNC revealed that over the past 2.5 years, Colorado medics injected 902 people for excited delirium, leading to serious complications in 17% of cases. The American Society of Anesthesiologists recently stated that it “strongly opposes the use of ketamine or any other sedative/hypnotic agent to chemically incapacitate someone for law enforcement purposes and not for a legitimate medical reason”.

A Minnesota doctor filed a whistleblowing lawsuit last year alleging that police pressured him to inject someone with ketamine during an arrest, adding that such acts are not uncommon (in Minneapolis, ketamine use grew from an average of four law enforcement incidents per year. to 62 , from 2015 to 2017).

Following McClain’s death — and a similar incident involving the Aurora Police Department — the state of Colorado passed legislation last June banning the use of ketamine for aroused delirium, clarifying that police should never influence medics to use it. “EMS is responsible for patient care, not law enforcement,” Governor Jared Polis said in a signing statement. “Ketamine should not be used for law enforcement purposes.”

A similar federal bill was introduced shortly afterwards and is under consideration by Congress.

The president of the Emergency Medical Services Association of Colorado, Scott Sholes, says ketamine, when used according to protocol, is the safest alternative to force or other sedatives available to paramedics, and if they take it out of their toolboxes , they incur a serious loss.

“I can tell you horror stories about physically restraining people for hours, back in the day,” Sholes says. “For the first ten years of my career, I tied people to a board, sometimes I would turn the board over and sit on it to control people, and eventually we got drugs that we could use.”

Beginning in the early 1990s, Shole says, medics were able to use antipsychotics like Haldol and later benzodiazepines like Valium or opioids like fentanyl to restrain those who pose a threat to themselves or others. But it often took 30 minutes for these drugs to take effect, and sometimes they had the intended opposite effect.

“By comparison, ketamine takes three to four minutes, is easy to dose, has the safest profile, and has remarkable success in sedation,” says Sholes. “With everything we’ve seen in the media about ketamine, no one is looking at the data.”

Sholes points to a study released last summer showing that of the 11,291 patients injected with ketamine by paramedics, “patient deaths were rare. Ketamine could not be ruled out as a contributing factor to 8 deaths, representing 0.07% of those given ketamine.”

Sholes emphasizes a kind of church-and-state separation between medics and law enforcement, and that paramedics should never cooperate with police in carrying out their duties. However, he admits that there have been instances where this line has been blurred, in violation of the EMS protocol.

And in Elijah McClain’s case, he says Aurora’s paramedics failed to follow basic ketamine administration practices.

“I’ve been a paramedic for 40 years, and that video [of McClain’s death]”If you think it’s bad from a layman’s point of view, it’s amazing to me,” said Sholes. “Ketamine is not often used, for example… In that video I see paramedics who have not examined the patient. By the time they injected him, he wasn’t moving, he certainly wasn’t fighting. He got a lot more [ketamine] than the protocol required. ”

Ketamine, first approved by the FDA for use as an anesthetic in 1970, has been a popular medical device for decades for pain relief and sedation in humans and animals.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the illegal use of ketamine (or “special K”) was popularized by the New York City club kid rave scene, who used it for its euphoric, hallucinogenic properties. In recent years, it has shown remarkably promising results in the treatment of mental disorders, creating an industry of “ketamine clinics” in the US.

“The effects of ketamine operate on a spectrum,” says Desmond Wallington, a psychologist and chief of mental health in Colorado for Klarisana, a ketamine clinic. “At the low dose, it is a psychotic drug; so time, space and reality dissolve briefly around you. And then there’s a psychedelic experience, where those effects last for about an hour, and at the other end there’s an anesthetic [unconscious] experience. We operate in the first two domains.”

Wallington says he “cringes” at the idea of ​​ketamine being used in a law enforcement context, especially because of its growing association with police brutality against young black men.

“You don’t want to give ketamine to someone with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder — you could send them into a delusional state and leave them worse than you found them,” he says. “If they’re already on a stimulant, you’re at risk of stroke.”

McClain’s family attorney Mari Newman says she believes ketamine injections are being used by law enforcement to silence an unruly suspect.

“If someone disagrees with an officer, what better way to silence them than knock them out right away?” she says.

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