Colorado health officials will resume their review of a program allowing ketamine to be administered outside of hospital settings, an investigation initially announced after the death of Elijah McClain in police custody.
The 23-year-old Black man died in August 2019 after paramedics administered the powerful anesthetic during a confrontation with police. A grand jury investigation into McClain’s death was announced earlier this month.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) first announced the ketamine program review last summer, about a year after McClain’s death, before “pausing activities to reassess the scope, in deference to other investigations,” the agency said in a news release Friday.
Without reviewing individual cases, the CDPHE said it would evaluate authorization for “ketamine use in Colorado, in the prehospital setting and associated outcomes at a statewide level.”
“This more clearly defined scope will allow us to do a review that examines the health outcomes of ketamine administration by EMS providers in the field, broadly,” CDPHE Executive Director Jill Hunsaker Ryan said. “We will focus on the program as a whole rather than any individual incidents involving the use of ketamine administered in the field.”
Ketamine has been used illegally as a club drug. The medication, which is used in hospitals primarily as an anesthetic, generates an intense high and dissociative effects.
EMS providers in Colorado need a waiver from the CDPHE to use ketamine in the field.
The drug is allowed to be administered for patients “with a presumptive diagnosis or excited delirium,” a condition doctors have described to CNN as one in which a person is so violently agitated they can essentially exercise themselves to death.
McClain died after encounter with Aurora police
Paramedics administered ketamine to McClain after he was stopped one night in August 2019 by three White Aurora police officers as he walked home from a convenience store.
A 911 called had reported a “suspicious person,” according to a police news release that said McClain “resisted contact” with officers before a struggle ensued.
McClain is heard in footage from an officer’s body camera telling the officers, “I’m an introvert, please respect the boundaries that I am speaking.”
At one point, one officer is heard telling another, “He just grabbed your gun dude.” One officer tells McClain that he will “bring my dog out and he’s going to bite you” if McClain keeps “messing around.”
Video shows an officer wrestle McClain to the ground. A letter from the Adams County District Attorney said an officer placed McClain in a carotid hold, which restricts blood flow to the brain. McClain briefly lost consciousness, the letter said, but continued struggling after officers released the hold.
Paramedics arrived and administered ketamine, the letter said. McClain was taken to a hospital but suffered a heart attack on the way, and he was declared brain dead three days later, the letter said.
The autopsy conducted by the county coroner did not determine the cause of death but noted “intense physical exertion and a narrow left coronary artery” were contributing factors.
The report noted McClain’s history of asthma and the carotid hold, though the autopsy did not determine whether it contributed to McClain’s death. The concentration of ketamine in his system was at a “therapeutic level,” the report said.
The district attorney declined to file criminal charges at the time, but the case attracted renewed attention last summer after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
As protests took place across the country, demonstrations in the Denver suburb focused on McClain and his family’s calls for justice, and Gov. Jared Polis tapped Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser to review the case.
Weiser announced this month he was opening a grand jury investigation into McClain’s death, “an investigative tool that has the power to compel testimony from witnesses and require production of documents and other relevant information.”