Elijah McClain’s Death Is Forcing Paramedics to Rethink How They Use Ketamine

Colorado’s Department of Public Health is recommending a series of changes to how first responders use ketamine in hopes of preventing more fatalities. 
Left: Elijah McClain Right: Bottle of Ketamine (AP Photo/Teresa Crawford, File)
Left: Elijah McClain Right: Bottle of Ketamine (AP Photo/Teresa Crawford, File)

Elijah McClain was diagnosed with excited delirium by Aurora, Colorado, police the night paramedics gave him the dose of the powerful sedative ketamine that induced cardiac arrest in the Black 23-year-old. 

Now, Colorado’s Department of Public Health is recommending a series of changes to how first responders use the drug in hopes of preventing more fatalities. 

It’s widely accepted that race fueled cops’ assumption that McClain, who was walking home from work when police tackled and handcuffed him, posed a threat at all and needed to be sedated. It’s why the officers and paramedics involved in his death were charged with criminally negligent homicide as well as manslaughter and assault by a Colorado grand jury in September.

When paramedics arrived on the scene, police told them that McClain was experiencing “excited delirium,” a supposed state of hyper agitation and increased metabolic output that’s commonly used by police to describe Black people under duress. Taking their word for it, the paramedics used a dose of ketamine too powerful for McClain’s slender frame. He was taken to the hospital and declared brain-dead three days later. He was eventually taken off life support on Aug. 30, 2019.

In July, Gov. Jared Polis signed a law that essentially banned police from using ketamine themselves or even reccomending the drug be used to sedate people. It also severely limited paramedics’ ability to sedate people. After 16 months of review, an eight-person panel for the state department of health plans to go a step further: issuing clear guidelines for how the drug can be used in those limited situations.

The 126-page report recommends that the state create dosing standards based on patient body types to prevent overdoses and save medical professionals time, standardize statewide rules regarding when to use the drug, and immediately monitor any patients who are given ketamine for irregular respiratory and cardiac activity. 

Another bill, however, hasn’t made much movement in Congress since its introduction in June. Colorado U.S. Rep Joe Neguse introduced a law banning the substance’s use outside of hospitals altogether. The bill, known as the Ketamine Restriction Act, would prohibit the use of ketamine during an arrest or while someone is in custody for a federal offense. The law would only allow the drug to be administered in hospitals.

On the night of Aug. 24, 2019, McClain was walking home from work wearing a ski mask to keep himself warm. A resident saw McClain in the street and reported a “suspicious”-looking person to Aurora police. When police arrived, they called out to McClain, but he didn’t notice because he had headphones on.

The situation escalated as police mistook his failure to comply with resisting. The police tackled him to the ground, placed him in a chokehold, and wrestled him into handcuffs. During the struggle, McClain pleaded with officers to stop and told them he wasn’t aware he did anything wrong.

“I was just going home,” McClain can be heard telling the officers in body camera footage of the struggle. “I’m just different, I’m just different, that’s all, that’s all I was doing. I’m so sorry.”

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