Hennepin Commissioner condemns misuse of ketamine by county emergency responders

Photo by Getty Images.

Hennepin County Commissioner Angela Conley condemned the misuse of ketamine by paramedics in a Reformer interview Tuesday, following new allegations that Hennepin Healthcare EMS used the controversial sedative on a Black man experiencing a diabetic seizure. 

“My reaction is sheer disgust, disbelief, because we shouldn’t even be using ketamine in that way anymore. Why are we still doing that? Why are we still going in and using ketamine on people? It’s gross. And these are primarily Black, Indigenous people,” Conley said. 

Over the weekend, the man’s girlfriend posted a widely shared story on Facebook describing an encounter she and her partner had with Minneapolis Police and Hennepin County EMS.

Abby Florence alleges that her boyfriend, Max Johnson, had to be put on a ventilator for two days after first responders gave him a potentially fatal dose of the powerful sedative when he was having a diabetic seizure in her apartment on the morning of Sunday, July 26.

Florence, who is white, described the incident as an example of  “the racism of Hennepin Healthcare EMS and MPD”

“This happened because Max is a 6’ 5” Black man. My whiteness was not enough to save him from the Hennepin Healthcare EMS and MPD’s egregious racism and life-threatening decisions,” Florence writes in the post, which by Monday morning had generated over two thousand comments and 10,000 shares. 

Conley cited the case as an example of structural racism in the health care system, saying that incidents like it undermine the trust medical institutions have been trying to re-establish in communities of color, a task made all the more urgent by COVID-19. 

“Black people often think twice about calling for help in medically fragile situations for the fear of the way that historically we’ve been treated by an institution,” she said. “And, you know, they’re not making it better for themselves by continuing to destroy the trust that we are starting to build.”  

The Minneapolis Police Department is conducting an internal review of the case, according to police spokesperson John Elder. 

State Rep. Mohamud Noor, DFL-Minneapolis, called for an investigation. 

“It is unacceptable that this man, who was experiencing a medical emergency, was given this dangerous drug that can result in life-threatening conditions — as it did in this case,” Noor said in a release. “An investigation must be opened immediately to determine why this drug was used instead of less dangerous stabilizing methods.”

Hennepin Healthcare issued a statement saying they were aware of the “social media discussion,” but cannot discuss individual cases.

The statement did not address the use of ketamine as a tool to sedate subjects for law enforcement, but did acknowledge larger issues of structural racism in health care. “We own this reality as a health system and are committed to working to ensure that health systems do not contribute to these harms,” Hennepin Healthcare said in the statement. 

The use of ketamine by MPD and Hennepin County EMS has been under scrutiny since a 2018 investigation by the Star Tribune revealed that a report by a division of the Minneapolis Department of Human Rights had found that officers had urged EMS workers to administer ketamine to subjects without their consent, resulting in heart and breathing failures, with several people needing to be revived or intubated. 

Elder said Minneapolis Police changed their policy before the release of the report. “We are not to provide medical advice to medical personnel,” he said. 

Nationally, the use of ketamine by police departments has gained more attention in recent months after the killing of George Floyd led to increased scrutiny of other recent deaths of unarmed Black people in police custody, including that of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist from Aurora, Colorado who died shortly after paramedics injected him with ketamine in August 2019. 

In her post, Florence says Johnson was given 500 mg of ketamine, the same dose that allegedly killed McClain. “Because of the ketamine, Max was on a ventilator in the ICU for a tortuous two days where we could not visit him, talk to him, or advocate for him. It was hell,” she wrote. 

Florence says Johnson is now back at home recovering, and that she plans to continue to speak out. “We won’t be quiet,” she wrote.