From high-profile cases like Representative Patrick J Kennedy1 and actor Charlie Sheen2 to the average citizen accused of murder,3 people are often quick to blame their prescription medications for otherwise uncharacteristic behavior. The most recent person to claim that “Ambien made me do it?” Roseanne Barr.
Following a (now-deleted) racially charged tweet in which Ms Barr referred to Valerie Jarrett, a former advisor to President Obama, as “muslim [sic] brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby”4 and the cancellation of the revival of her hit ABC sitcom, Roseanne, Ms Barr apologized for her behavior. The now-deleted tweets acknowledged that Ms Barr “did something unforgivable,” but placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of Ambien, writing:
“It was 2 in the morning and I was ambien tweeting-it was memorial day too-i went 2 far & do not want it defended…” — Roseanne Barr (@therealroseanne) May 30, 2018
Ms Barr was widely mocked by her choice to blame Ambien, and but she doubled down on the explanation:
no, i didnt i blamed myself. stop lying. Yes, I have had odd ambien experiences on tweeting late at night-like many other ppl do. I BLAME MYSELF OK? It’s just an explanation not an excuse, Ok, bully?
— Roseanne Barr (@therealroseanne) May 30, 2018
Before things could escalate further, drugmaker Sanofi stepped in:
People of all races, religions and nationalities work at Sanofi every day to improve the lives of people around the world. While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.
— Sanofi US (@SanofiUS) May 30, 2018
While the National Institutes of Health factsheet5 acknowledges that Ambien may cause patients to see, hear, or feel things that are not there, along with severe confusion, drowsiness, and muscle weakness, the medical community isn’t buying Ms Barr’s excuse.
Physicians chimed in on Twitter in response, ranging from the serious to the tongue-in-cheek:
Ambien has quite a few side effects but racism isn’t one of them. Even if Roseanne wanted to claim she had an Ambien blackout and was sleep tweeting, that racism had to come from somewhere deep within.
— Eugene Gu, MD (@eugenegu) May 30, 2018
I did a quick literature search on Ambien-induced racism pic.twitter.com/BCqSPd5v5f
— David Juurlink (@DavidJuurlink) May 30, 2018
However, in an interview with Time magazine,6 John W. Winkleman, chief of the Sleep Disorders Clinical Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, MA, acknowledged that Ambien can — and does — cause some to behave uncharacteristically erratic.
“People are not thinking as clearly, certainly,” Dr Winkleman told Time. “I don’t think we really know whether this is what people really think, or whether people might do or say things that they don’t actually mean. It’s impossible to know.”
In a STAT News article,7 Allen Frances, MD, Professor Emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine, was less understanding.
“Medications or mental disorder can be contributing factors to bad behavior, but that’s rare,” he wrote. “Allowing fake medical excuses to go unchallenged has 3 harmful consequences: encouraging more bad behavior, discouraging those who really need medications from using them, and unfairly stigmatizing the mentally ill.”
As Ms Barr deals with the consequences of both her tweets and her explanations, only one thing is certain: It’s only a matter of time until the next Ambien Excuse is brought to public trial.
- Rhode Island Democrat points to prescription medication. CNN.com. http://www.cnn.com/2006/POLITICS/05/04/kennedy.accident/. May 4, 2006. Accessed June 5, 2018.
- Martinez E. Charlie Sheen in 20/20 interview: “I’m not normal.” CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/charlie-sheen-in-20-20-interview-im-not-normal/. March 2, 2011. Accessed June 5, 2018.
- Loughnan A. The drugs made me do it: can prescription side-effects be an excuse for crime? The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/the-drugs-made-me-do-it-can-prescription-side-effects-be-an-excuse-for-crime-45821. July 8, 2016. Accessed June 5, 2018.
- Dessem M. Roseanne Returns to Twitter to Explain: It Was Late, She Was On Ambien, and “It Was Memorial Day Too.” Slate. https://slate.com/culture/2018/05/roseanne-returns-to-twitter-to-explain-it-was-late-she-was-on-ambien-and-it-was-memorial-day-too.html. May 30, 2018. Accessed June 5, 2018.
- Micromedex Consumer Medication Information. PubMed Health. Zolpidem (by mouth). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMHT0012721/?report=details#side_effects/ May 1, 2018. Accessed June 5, 2018.
- Ducharme J. Roseanne Barr Just Used the ‘Ambien Defense.’ So Have Accused Murderers and Drunk Drivers. TIME Magazine. http://time.com/5295281/ambien-defense-history/. May 30, 2018. Accessed June 5, 2018.
- Frances A. The devil didn’t make me do it — it was Ambien. Nice try, Roseanne. STAT News. https://www.statnews.com/2018/05/30/roseanne-tweet-ambien/. May 30, 2018. Accessed June 5, 2018.