Facebook Instagram Twitter YouTube

Police are Drugging Black People to Death

Multiple U.S. police departments have relied on paramedics to inject people with the date rape drug ketamine, especially targeting Black people. Ketamine has been used to force defenseless people into submission, and sometimes it has been fatal.

Daniel Nath

July 20, 2020
Facebook Twitter Share
Image: The Denver Post

Ketamine is a powerful sedative that induces a trance-like state, blocking sensory stimuli and pain. It also causes loss of consciousness, willpower, and often memories. Doctors use it to sedate people during painful emergency room procedures or battlefield surgeries. Veterinarians also use it as a horse tranquilizer. Recreational users take the drug for an intense disconnection from the outside world. Finally, it is a common drug used by date rapists.

In Colorado

In late June, thousands of people marched on the Aurora, Colorado Police Department denouncing the murder of Elijah McClain. He was a 23-year-old Black massage therapist and violinist. On the night of August 24, 2019, he walked to a convenience store. Someone called 911 and said he was suspicious because he was wearing a ski mask and “waving his arms.” Family members say he wore the mask because he had anemia and often felt cold.

Three cops approached McClain. Even though one said on tape that he was not doing anything illegal, they ordered him to stop. He replied, “I have a right to go where I am going.” The three officers attacked McClain, and one of them put him in a carotid neck chokehold, slowing blood to his brain. The police later argued he “resisted contact” and pushed back with extreme strength as they pinned his arms. One said that McClain reached for his gun. Suspiciously however, all three cops’ body cameras “fell” off of their holders during their attack. Still they recorded McClain vomiting, saying “I can’t breathe, please,” and pleading that he was unarmed and not a violent person. 

After the cops subdued him, they called an ambulance. They then held McClain down and paramedics injected him with ketamine. Seven minutes after he was injected against his will, his heart stopped, causing brain death.

Elijah McClain was no less clearly murdered than George Floyd was. Yet, the coroner declared the cause of his death “undetermined.” “[McClain] was violently struggling with officers who were attempting to restrain him. Most likely [his] physical exertion contributed to death. It is unclear if the officer’s action contributed as well.” Prosecutors refused to charge the cops with any crime. Their department refused to fire them. The entire city government sanctioned McClain’s murder.

A paramedic on the scene was recorded saying, “When the ambulance gets here, we’re going to go ahead and give him some ketamine,” and a cop responded approvingly. Paramedics drugged McClain even though the cops had already choked him briefly into unconsciousness. They gave him 500 milligrams of the drug, the directed dose for a 220-pound person. McClain weighed 140 pounds, for which the directed dose was 320 milligrams. Still, Aurora Fire Rescue declared that the paramedics followed departmental rules. In Colorado, drugging someone with ketamine without their consent is a felony.

In Minnesota

In mid 2018, the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights produced a report revealing that emergency medical services had injected people under arrest with ketamine 62 times in 2017. This report was not immediately shared with the public but leaked to the press. It stated, “In many cases, the individual being detained or arrested was not only handcuffed, but strapped down on a stretcher in an ambulance before receiving ketamine.” It also revealed that, “[Police] reports indicate that multiple individuals stopped breathing and/or their hearts stopped beating after being injected with ketamine.”

Minneapolis cops were repeatedly recorded actually telling paramedics to drug arrestees with ketamine. They often held people down during the injections. People were drugged who verbally refused. In one case EMTs with police injected a thin, 5 foot, 4 inch tall man three times with ketamine while making jokes. After injecting him for the third time, a paramedic said, “We’ll have to end up putting a [breathing] tube in.” This person suffered respiratory and cardiac arrest before being revived. Paramedics injected an allegedly intoxicated woman while handcuffed to a stretcher. Police had maced her, and she was having an asthma attack. Rather than admitting any fault, top officials of the county EMS denounced the report and defended their use of ketamine.

In 2015, police in Robbinsdale, just outside Minneapolis, arrested John Powell, a 48-year old Black man, at gunpoint in a hospital parking lot. Paramedics then drugged him with ketamine. A nurse had reported seeing a possibly suicidal man loading a gun, describing this person as light skinned. Powell is very dark. Police nonetheless ordered him to the ground. They arrested him even after the witness directly told them he was not the person she saw.

According to Powell, when he demanded to be released a cop responded, “Shut up or you’ll be going out of here on a gurney.” The police department insisted that Powell was arrested because he was “verbally out of control.” One of the cops claimed he thought he saw Powell drop a revolver on the ground. The “revolver” proved to be his keys. After he was drugged, doctors had to put him into a medically induced coma and he nearly died.

Why Was No One Punished for These Actions?

Many police forces may be using ketamine as a weapon against defenseless people. In September, 2019, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina cops handcuffed and shackled James Britt (who was white) while he was extremely drunk, held his neck to the ground for twenty minutes, and called EMS “due to [his] continuing combativeness.” EMS injected Britt with ketamine, and he died of cardiac arrest. Dayton, Ohio cops had a handcuffed person drugged with ketamine in January, 2020.

This practice shows deeply racist and authoritarian patterns. After Elijah McClain’s murder, the Aurora Police Department said he was given a “standard medication routinely utilized to reduce agitation,” without saying that the drug was ketamine. Police often declare without evidence that suspects, especially Black people, must be high on drugs making them unrestrainable. They often claim Black suspects show superhuman strength and severe aggression even when evidence indicates otherwise. Suspects are clearly threatened just for perceived defiance. Police often claim suspects fought them severely but can show only minor injuries to themselves.

Authorities cynically maintained that paramedics administered ketamine for the medical benefit of those injected and not to assist police in subduing them. But these injections are often followed by respiratory and cardiac arrest. Hennepin County Medical Center EMS director, Jeffrey Ho, who is also employed by a sheriff’s department and by the Taser company, insisted that some people under arrest must be drugged to stop them from “exhaust[ing] themselves to death.”

Influential medical authorities have argued that people may need to be forcibly sedated due to an alleged medical condition they call “excited delirium” induced by stress, violence, and use of cocaine or other drugs. This is frequently the official justification for EMTs injecting ketamine as a “treatment.” But “excited delirium” is no more valid than 19th-century medical diagnoses of “hysteria.” It asserts that someone is irrational and belligerent yet at risk of sudden death from their own excessive emotional and physical “agitation.” Such an explanation can both justify violence against a suspect and blame them for their death even at a moment when they have been beaten, choked, and/or drugged. Police can describe someone as “agitated” virtually at will and clearly apply this label to Black people doing nothing unusual. The American Medical Association, WHO, and American Psychiatric Association do not accept the concept. But one of the four Minneapolis cops in the murder of George Floyd said he was “worried” about Floyd having excited delirium.

A system that has allowed police to use a date rape drug without any punishment must be dead-set against actually stopping abuse. If this system was capable of reforming itself, then Minneapolis would have taken real action against police brutality in 2018 when its Department of Civil Rights reported on the use of ketamine as a weapon. If action had been taken, George Floyd would be alive today. Not a single cop, paramedic, or official of any agency was punished or fired for these deadly and violating druggings. The police chief and Mayor Jacob Frey both placidly declared that with some policy changes police would never again order or intervene in “treatment” decisions by medics. The actual fact that police had deliberately used a mind-altering drug to bludgeon restrained Black people into submission was conveniently ignored. The head of the Department of Civil Rights announced that police oversight “worked exactly the way it’s supposed to work. I have nothing but kudos for the Police Department’s response to this.”

Public evidence of what happened in Minneapolis did not lead other U.S. police departments to stop using ketamine. After cops had Elijah McClain drugged, Aurora officials were happy to blame him for his own death. Later, three members of the police force were caught reenacting the chokehold used on McClain while grinning and taking photos. Many politicians, especially Democrats, say that they agree Black Lives Matter and acknowledge systemic racism. Yet they are disinclined to take any action against known cop murderers or address systematic complicity by other cops and by top bureaucrats in prosecutor’s offices, hospitals, and other government agencies.

Politicians are working to deflect the mass anger against police racism, but it won’t work. As one protester in Aurora said, “It doesn’t matter what racists in power say is the cause of [Elijah McClain’s] death…we know that it is through the paramedics, and those police officers and every person in power.” Police are given sweeping protection because they protect private property and the “orderly” status quo of capitalism. The U.S. regime that can’t bring itself to act as if anything is really wrong when Black people are drugged against their will cannot be reformed through discussion. It needs to be defeated, abolished, and replaced through revolutionary struggle, with the force of millions of workers acting together as a class.

Facebook Twitter Share

Daniel Nath

Daniel is a political writer, lives in the Midwest, and is forklift certified. He has covered topics including police crimes, borders, and why unions can't be apolitical

United States

Liberal Towns in New Jersey Are Increasing Attacks on Pro-Palestine Activists

A group of neighbors in South Orange and Maplewood have become a reference point for pro-Palestine organizing in New Jersey suburbs. Now these liberal towns are upping repression against the local activists.

Samuel Karlin

April 12, 2024

“We Shouldn’t Let this Stop Us”: Suspended Columbia Student Activist Speaks Out

Aidan Parisi, a student at Columbia University’s School of Social Work, was recently suspended and has been threatened with eviction from their graduate student housing for pro-Palestinian activism on campus. Aidan talked to Left Voice about the state of repression, the movement at Columbia, and the path forward for uniting the student movement with the labor movement and other movements against oppression.

Left Voice

April 11, 2024

The Movement for Palestine Needs Independent, Working-Class Politics

As the brutal genocide of Palestinians continues with the help of the Biden administration, there is maneuver underway to co-opt the movement for Palestine. We need to have a democratic and independent movement that relies on the power of the working class, the student movement, and mobilizations in the streets.

Tatiana Cozzarelli

April 7, 2024
A hand holds a phone which displays the TikTok Logo

We Don’t Want TikTok Under Control of U.S. Capitalists — Put It Under the Control of its Workers and Users

The U.S. government wants to force the sale of the incredibly popular Chinese social media app. A TikTok owned by U.S. capitalists will only make things worse. We want TikTok under workers' control!

Nathaniel Flakin

April 6, 2024


Thousands of Police Deployed to Shut Down Congress on Palestine in Berlin

This weekend, a Palestine Congress was supposed to take place in the German capital. But 2,500 police were mobilized and shut down the event before the first speech could be held. Multiple Jewish comrades were arrested.

Nathaniel Flakin

April 12, 2024

Fired by a German University for Solidarity with Palestine — Interview with Nancy Fraser

The University of Cologne canceled a guest professorship with the philosophy professor from The New School. In this interview, she speaks about Germany dividing between "Good Jews" and "Bad Jews," her politicization in the civil rights movement, and her time in an Israeli kibbutz.

Nathaniel Flakin

April 10, 2024

Pro-Palestine Activists in France Get Summons from Anti-Terrorist Police

As part of a repressive campaign against the movement for Palestine in France activists have gotten summons from “anti-terrorist” police. The movement for Palestine in the United States must oppose all repression of our movement here and in Europe.

Samuel Karlin

April 9, 2024

‘You Have to Change Things from the Root’: Interview With a Young Immigrant

Left Voice interviewed a 23-year-old immigrant, factory worker, and student, who told us about his experience crossing the border from Mexico to the U.S. and about the life of Latin American youth in the United States.

Left Voice

April 5, 2024