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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 Werst

July 20, 2020
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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.

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Daniel Werst

Daniel is a teacher, former carpenter, and long-term socialist living in Indianapolis.

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