Colorado Anesthesiologists Urge Halt of Drug Used in Arrests

Ketamine was used in Colorado about 900 times in the last 2 1/2 years, with nearly a quarter of the cases leading to complications, the group said

In this Oct. 2, 2015, file photo, a syringe sits in a bottle of Ketamine inside the operating room at the Pratunam Polyclinic in Bangkok, Thailand.
Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A group of Colorado anesthesiologists wants paramedics to stop injecting people with a powerful sedative when police believe suspects are out of control until officials finish a review launched nearly a year after the death of Elijah McClain, a Black man put in a stranglehold by officers and injected with ketamine.

Ketamine is being used too often and with too many complications in cases of “excited delirium,” a condition that might not even exist, the Colorado Society of Anesthesiologists said in a statement Tuesday. The widely contested medical term has varying definitions but is associated with substance abuse and mental illness.

The group recommended the state health department suspend a program that allows paramedics and health agencies to use ketamine outside a hospital and requested that outside experts conduct an independent review of how the drug is administered.

Ketamine was used in Colorado about 900 times in the last 2 1/2 years, with nearly a quarter of the cases leading to complications, the group said.

The Colorado health department last month announced a review of ketamine's use almost a year after McClain's death, which fueled calls for racial justice and police reform and raised concerns about the drug's use during arrests.

Health officials said Wednesday that they received the anesthesiologists' letter and will review it.

McClain was stopped by police in suburban Denver in August 2019 after a 911 call reported a suspicious person wearing a ski mask and waving his arms. Aurora officers put the 23-year-old in a stranglehold, and paramedics later injected him with 500 milligrams of ketamine — 1 1/2 times the correct dose for his weight. He suffered cardiac arrest and was later taken off life support.

An Associated Press analysis of policies and cases where ketamine was used during police encounters uncovered a lack of police training, conflicting medical standards and nonexistent protocols that have resulted in hospitalizations and even deaths.

Paramedics inject the drug as a sedative despite safety concerns for medical staff or the patient. Typically, it’s used on people exhibiting “excited delirium,” which the group of anesthesiologists wrote “is not recognized by most medical authorities, and there are legitimate questions on whether or not it actually exists.”

The group's statement also says “use of chemical incapacitation to treat agitation is demonstrably hazardous” given the health department’s own data on previous complications from ketamine.

The anesthesiologists added that they oppose using ketamine or other sedatives or hypnotics “for a law enforcement purpose and not for a legitimate medical reason.”

Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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