High current discharge channels can neutralize both current and space charge of very intense ion beams. Therefore, they are considered an interesting solution for final focus and beam transport in a heavy ion beam fusion reactor. At the Gesellschaft fuer Schwerionenforschung accelerator facility, 50 cm long, free-standing discharge channels were created in a 60 cm diameter metallic chamber. Discharges with currents of 45 kA in 2 to 25 mbar ammonia (NH3) gas are initiated by a CO2 laser pulse along the channel axis before the capacitor bank is triggered. Resonant absorption of the laser, tuned to the v2 vibration of the ammonia molecule, causes strong gas heating. Subsequent expansion and rarefaction of the gas prepare the conditions for a stable discharge to fulfill the requirements for ion beam transport. The influence of an electric prepulse on the high current discharge was investigated. This article describes the laser–gas interaction and the discharge initiation mechanism. We found that channels are magnetohydrodynamic stable up to currents of 45 kA, measured by fast shutter and streak imaging techniques. The rarefaction of the laser heated gas is studied by means of a one-dimensional Lagrangian fluid code (CYCLOPS) and is identified as the dominant initiation mechanism of the discharge. © 2002 American Institute of Physics.