Ketamine bill in Colorado moves forward

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DENVER (KDVR) — A proposed bill that would increase regulations for the circumstances in which paramedics can administer ketamine to an agitated patient in a pre-hospital setting was heavily debated in Colorado’s House Judiciary Committee Wednesday night.

After five and a half hours of discussion, the bill passed 7-4 at 11:03 p.m.

“I don’t think ketamine itself, as a drug, is the problem,” said Rep. Leslie Herod, a democrat who serves as the bill’s prime co-sponsor.

“There are strong drugs that are being used by medical professionals every day. It is the administration of that drug for law enforcement purposes that has become the problem,” she said, explaining that her proposed bill underwent several changes in an effort to better regulate the use of ketamine by paramedics when they are in the presence of police.

The hearing, which started after 5:30 p.m. and lasted for several hours, included testimony from several dozen people, including Elijah McKnight and Jeremiah Axtell, two people who were sedated with ketamine following police altercations in 2019 and 2020.

“The whole use of ketamine while the police have people restrained is completely irresponsible,” said  Elijah McKnight, who testified on behalf of Rep. Herod.

A FOX31 Problem Solvers investigation was first to reveal McKnight had been injected with two doses of ketamine in 2019 after a police altercation.

During that incident, a sheriff’s deputy could be heard asking a medic if the medic could give McKnight some medication.

The medic replied that he had ketamine that would make McKnight sleep “like a baby.”  McKnight spent several days in the intensive care unit, on a ventilator, following the injections.

The bill would discipline officers who attempt to influence a medic’s decision to administer ketamine.

Qusair Mohamedbhai, an attorney for Sheneen McClain, the mother of Elijah McClain, also spoke about the bill.

In 2019, the FOX31 Problem Solvers uncovered records confirming McClain had been injected with ketamine prior to his death. A coroner said it was possible McClain could have had an adverse reaction to the drug but could not determine the cause of his death.

Mohamedbhai said McClain’s position on the bill is “neutral,” but she would like to see the use of ketamine banned in settings that occur outside of the hospital.

Multiple emergency medical services officials, including Scott Sholes, president of the Emergency Medical Services Association of Colorado, and Dr. Kevin McVaney and Will Dunn, members of the state’s Emergency Medical Practice Advisory Council (EMPAC), also showed up to the committee hearing to speak about the bill.

Colorado’s EMPAC makes recommendations to the state health department about whether to approve waivers allow for paramedics to administer ketamine.

“I think it’s a very, very safe drug. I appreciate that there’s some stories here that make it sound like it’s very unsafe, but I don’t think that’s true,” said Dunn, who explained that ketamine has been used in many effective ways. “Other drugs that are out there actually have more complications. We picked ketamine because we think it’s the safest, most effective drug for what we’re trying to do,” he said.

Dunn said his position on the amended bill was “neutral” but had some concerns about the bill’s plan to change the make-up of the state’s EMPAC by expanding the 11-person council to include more than just emergency medical services providers and experts.

The proposal would add a clinical psychiatrist and an anesthesiologist to the council. One member also must be a member of the state Emergency Medical and Trauma Services Advisory Council.

McVaney testified against the bill and expressed concerns about the bill’s efforts to penalize law enforcement officers who influence a medic’s decision to administer ketamine.

He worried the bill’s language would chill an officer’s willingness to cooperate and fully communicate with a medic.

“I’m absolutely lock-step, in union, that law enforcement should never direct medical care under any circumstances,” he said.

McVaney said he worried the progress that had been made in handling mental and behavioral health crises in Denver could be in jeopardy if more limits were placed on first responders.

“My fear with this bill is that if we move without knowing exactly what we’re doing…what we will have is a return to our previous deaths,” he said.

“Ketamine is the safest drug in this dangerous situation,” he said.

Republican Rep. Terri Carver also said she had concerns about the bill’s efforts to threaten a law enforcement officer’s certification if he or she attempts to influence a medic’s decision to administer ketamine.

“(It) criminalizes with a year in jail if the police officer provides information that is going to impact the decision making of the paramedic,” she said.

Anita Springsteen, a Lakewood City Councilwoman whose boyfriend, Axtell, received ketamine last year, said the bill is not enough.

“This bill is a start, but we need something stronger,” she said. “There is no appropriate use of ketamine. Ketamine should be banned.”

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