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Minnesota man's lawsuit seeks to ban police department's use of ketamine on suspects

The Elk River man went into a coma and went into kidney failure after being injected with ketamine while struggling with police, according to the complaint filed in Minnesota U.S. District Court.

ketamine_10ml_bottle.jpg
Bottles of the anesthetic ketamine.
Contributed / Drug Enforcement Administration
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ST. PAUL — A Minnesota man who went into a three-day coma after he was injected with drugs by first responders while being arrested has launched a lawsuit seeking to prevent his city’s police from using the drug to subdue suspects.

Brandon Currie, 35, of Elk River, Minnesota, filed a lawsuit in Minnesota U.S. District Court this April seeking damages for alleged civil rights violations stemming from an interaction with police over two years ago that put him on temporary life support.

In September 2019, police responded to a report of a person moving objects around at a gas station in Elk River, about 35 miles northwest of Minneapolis, according to the civil complaint. The caller was concerned the person might return. When police arrived, they approached and spoke to Currie, but when he started to put his gloves on officers interpreted his actions as resisting and subdued him, the complaint claims.

At this point, a first responder on the scene injected Currie with the anesthetic ketamine in order to sedate him. It is unclear exactly who administered the drug, though usually, a paramedic must be the person to give an injection.

Currie lost consciousness and was placed on life support, and his kidneys shut down from the ketamine, the complaint said. He woke up in the hospital days later.

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At the time of the arrest, Currie had a prescription for a medication to treat schizophrenia, which he took every night before bedtime, the complaint said. While the medication Currie was taking is known to have negative or even dangerous interactions with many other medications, it’s unclear if the ketamine interacted and caused the coma and kidney failure. The lawsuit alleges first responders did not ask if Currie was on medication.

Currie's attorney, Nico Ratkowski with the St. Paul-based law firm Contreras & Metelska, said even if Currie had no preexisting conditions or medication interactions, it can be hard for first responders to know what a safe dose of ketamine is during a high-stress situation.

“In a lot of these law enforcement-EMT related scenarios where they’re basically administering people who they deem as profoundly agitated, it’s usual, from what I can tell in my research, that they aren’t necessarily doing that out based off of someone’s body weight or anything like that,” Ratkowski said.

Currie is now suing his city and its police, alleging they violated his civil rights. He claims they violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure and use of force, as well as his 14th Amendment rights to due process and equal protection under the law. The city of Elk River, the Elk River Police Department and police officers Brandon Martin and Clayton Aswegan are named as defendants in the complaint.

The city of Elk River said it does not comment on pending litigation.

In addition to stopping the city of Elk River’s law enforcement from using ketamine on those being arrested, Currie is seeking monetary damages.

Ketamine and law enforcement

Ketamine is an anesthetic that can cause amnesia, disassociation and sometimes hallucinations. The drug was developed in the 1960s and has been used in surgery and in veterinary medicine for decades. It’s also used illegally as a recreational drug. At high doses, ketamine can send users into a trance-like dissociative state often called a “K-hole.” It's also recently been approved by the Food And Drug Administration as an in-clinic-only treatment for major depression.

Ratkowski said law enforcement use of ketamine can introduce unnecessary danger into arrest situations.

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“Ketamine use in Minnesota by police officers and EMTs has been a problem for a while now,” Ratkowski said. “It’s time for this to stop being used as a tool to gain behavioral compliance. That’s not what ketamine was meant for and it leads to all kinds of problems.”

Law enforcement's use of ketamine injections to subdue “profoundly agitated” suspects has come under scrutiny in recent years and received national attention after the 2019 death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain in Aurora, Colorado. While trying to subdue McClain, police directed paramedics to inject ketamine, stopping McClain’s heart, and putting him in a coma before he died.

American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota Legal Director Teresa Nelson said the conduct alleged in Currie’s lawsuit was an extreme use of force with no justification.

“I think it’s deeply disturbing particularly because this individual was not accused of any criminal conduct, there was no probable cause, there wasn’t really even reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct,” she said. “This was just somebody who was acting maybe strangely in a store.”

The Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2018 published a report on the Minneapolis Police Department’s use of ketamine on people in their custody. Police are not allowed to directly inject the drug, but can direct paramedics to do so. The city police department's conduct manual classified ketamine as a "date rape drug," the newspaper reported at the time.

A group of doctors and other health care workers at Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis did not support the practice and started a petition in 2021 to probe the use of “medical force” against uncooperative patients, including arrestees brought to the hospital. It gathered more than 1,200 signatures and gained the support of the ACLU.

The Minneapolis Police Department has been the focus of recent scrutiny in Minnesota for its use of drugs that are often known in law enforcement as “chemical restraints,” but other departments have had trouble with the practice in the past. The Duluth Police Department and St. Mary’s Hospital in Duluth faced a wrongful death lawsuit in the 2005 death of David Croud.

Police brought the 29-year-old Croud to the hospital after a “combative arrest” according to Duluth News Tribune archives . Medical staff at the direction of police administered the antipsychotic medication Haldol to Croud, who had a blood-alcohol content of .31%. He died six days later. The hospital and city of Duluth settled the lawsuit with the family.

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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