Neguse Bill Would Prohibit Jurisdictions From Using Ketamine In Law Enforcement Situations

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Rep. Joe Neguse at the Martin Luther King Day Marade in Denver, Jan. 21, 2019.

Rep. Joe Neguse is introducing a bill that would ban the use of the sedative ketamine during arrests and detention.

Use of the drug in non-hospital settings has been under intense scrutiny after the death of Elijah McClain. Paramedics injected McClain with ketamine after Aurora police tried to arrest the young, black man. McClain went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital. 

It was McClain’s death that drove Neguse to act. 

“His death underscored for me, and I think many others, the need for state, federal and local policy makers to take the necessary actions to prevent a tragedy like this from ever happening again,” he said. 

Carmelo Nieves
Vince Ballentine painting a mural of Elijah McClain in New York City.

While Congress has been grappling with the issue of police reform since last year, Neguse thought there was a gap that still needed to be addressed — regulating the use of ketamine in law enforcement contexts, which has been on the rise in recent years. 

Neguse’s bill would prohibit a state or local government from receiving funding from two Department of Justice programs, the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program or the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Grant, unless they certify they have a law or policy in place that “prohibits the administration of ketamine to an individual during an arrest or detention other than in a hospital” or for medical reasons. Bill sponsors include Reps. Jason Crow, Jerry Nadler, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Sheila Jackson Lee and Mondaire Jones.

In the 2020 fiscal year, Colorado and communities in the state received more than $34 million in Byrne grant funding and $2.7 million in COPS funding.

For Neguse, it’s a common-sense proposal. He thinks what happened to McClain would be enough to “convince lawmakers to rethink the use of ketamine in cases of arrest and detention."

The bill builds on a piece of legislation Colorado’s state legislature passed this year, one that limits the use of ketamine by first responders. Democratic state Rep. Leslie Herod sponsored the bill, and supports Neguse’s effort to take it nationwide. 

Herod said some people believe ketamine just lulls a person to sleep, but the drug can carry significant risks. 

“It’s deadly,” she said. She noted people have suffered negative responses to ketamine administered in the field, like Elijah McKnight, who spent days in the hospital after being given ketamine after an altercation with law enforcement in Arapahoe County. 

Herod described ketamine as a weapon, and said it should be regulated as such. “It is being used to restrain people who law enforcement deems as uncooperative,” she said. “Just like using a baton, a gun, or a taser, it is causing harm… and it needs to be restricted.”

The Emergency Medical Services Association of Colorado last fall said they oppose the use of ketamine or any other sedative to incapacitate someone solely for law enforcement purposes. 

“Medical emergencies must be handled by emergency medical professionals. EMS personnel often encounter people who are agitated and may pose a threat to themselves and others,” the association wrote in a position paper explaining why the drug might need to be administered outside of a hospital. “While EMTs and paramedics work closely with law enforcement officers in many situations, we do not allow law enforcement or other non-medical persons to dictate our medical care.”

Law enforcement organizations opposed Herod’s bill; they said the decision to administer ketamine is already in the hands of medical professionals and that placing new restrictions on it would chill communication between officers and EMTs.

Some police and first responders argue that the use of ketamine in the field is sometimes necessary for public safety, that the drug is in wide use, and that EMTs are trained and know how to administer it. 

Neguse can appreciate their views, but based on the data he has seen, he said many medical professionals don’t think “excited delirium” is a diagnosis, and therefore isn’t a reason to use ketamine during an arrest.

He said he consulted with various stakeholders in drafting the bill, including medical professionals. 

The House passed the George Floyd Police Reform Legislation in March. A small group of Democratic and Republican lawmakers have been negotiating over a compromise bill for months. 

Neguse thinks his bill will go through the regular committee process. He also could see it included in the police reform bill, if an agreement is reached. 

“The struggle to ensure that justice and equality is a reality for everyone in this county, including Black Americans, is an incredibly important struggle,” he said. “And part of that means taking sensible, common sense steps to ensure lives can be saved and that our communities are protected.”

Neguse is hopeful that this bill will be a step toward that goal.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include bill sponsors.