'The Ambien Made Him Do It?' Puh-lease

Remember the infamous “Twinkie Defense”? Dan White, accused of the 1978 murders of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk, had an enterprising defense lawyer who found a psychiatrist willing to testify that the ingestion of Twinkies and Coca-Cola may have worsened White’s depression and thrown him into a homicidal frenzy.

There was general outrage as the urban myth of the Twinkie defense began to spread. Urban myth? You betcha. According to Wikipedia and, the celebrated Twinkie defense is an urban legend. says “Contrary to popular belief, however, White’s defense in fact argued that this consumption was unusual for him and reflected already existing mental instability; White would later commit suicide.”

We can all breathe a sigh of relief that sugar and preservatives have not, yet been enlisted as an excuse by a clever trial lawyer to getting his client out of hot legal water. But equally bizarre “devil made me do it” excuses are starting to pop up for a few folks who can’t seem to grasp the concept of personal responsibility.

The latest? The "Ambien defense," thanks in no small part to Rep. Patrick Kennedy’s recent nighttime excursion around Capitol Police barricades in Washington, D.C. True to form, Kennedy dodged severe legal and political ramifications with clever lawyers and the novel notion that "the Ambien made him" get behind the wheel of a 2,000-pound automobile and nearly mow down a Capitol Police officer.

When used improperly (as in abused, without a prescription, or with alcoholic beverages) Ambien, as with virtually any drug, and particularly one for sleep disorders, will have adverse affects. Hence the labels pasted all over every prescription bottle and warnings from doctors about taking Ambien or any sleeping pill at home and without interference from alcohol or other drugs. Pretty simple stuff, really.

It doesn’t stop at the Patrick Kennedy joy ride, however.

Here’s a story about a hideous accident in which a mother loses a limb—a LIMB—because this cretin decides not to be a normal human being in need of medication to combat a sleep disorder and take just one Ambien as directed. Instead, he ignores labels and warnings and downs FIVE Ambien. Oh, and did he have a prescription for this medication? No.

According to the story in the Washington Post:

Paris Gebrkidan was loading her son’s birthday presents into her car when a silver Honda Civic careered down the Alexandria street toward her. At the wheel was Brian Riley, who had been fighting a chronic sleep disorder and had taken the prescription drug Ambien. He was, by all accounts, asleep.

Riley’s car plowed into Gebrkidan that January evening. Yesterday, an Alexandria judge convicted the 32-year-old salesman of driving under the influence of sleep medication — the Ambien — and of maiming in a crash so severe that Gebrkidan’s leg had to be amputated below the knee. Riley faces up to six years in prison when he is sentenced Sept. 21.

Who takes five sleeping pills of ANY kind unless he has a death wish to begin with? It is nothing but reckless and abominably stupid behavior. But rather than deal with the underlying psychological causes for why someone would swallow a handful of prescription drugs and hop in the car, the Washington Post veers off this critical point and instead writes, “The crash highlighted the increasing national problem of people sleepwalking and driving while under the influence of popular prescription sleep medications.”

To blame the drug, though, would be the wrong course of action. Luckily, the court did the right thing here.

No doubt the Ambien defense could become a clever trial lawyer’s way of earning his exorbitant hourly fee. But courts across the land should reject this legal course of action as they have the frivolous lawsuits against gun manufacturers and instead, opt for the personal responsibility lesson instead.

According to, there isn’t exactly a rash of Ambien-induced sleep-driving or even fatalities:

In 2004, over 24 million prescriptions for Ambien were written. Let’s say that each contained 30 pills. That’s 740 million times people took this sinister drug in 2004. Timothy Morgenthaler, a Mayo Clinic researcher, reported five cases FO sleepwalking in 2002. Nineteen cases were reported by one center last year. Since 1997, a whopping 207 sleepwalking incidents have been reported, most of which physicians can’t link to Ambien. In fact, only 48 have been linked to this killer drug.

Further, Dr. Robert Goldberg writes at

It’s well known that adverse incidents are under-reported, so let’s assume a factor of 100. That is, there are 100 times more incidents that are reported. Okay, we get out our calculator and multiply 48 incidents times 100. Wait a minute. Got it, that’s 4800 incidents over, say, 8 years or 600 a year. Wow! No wonder it got banner headlines. But wait. The drug is used 740 million times a year, which means your odds of sleepwalking from using the drug are 0.00008% or something like 1/80,000th of a percent. Another way of thinking about it is that if you take the drug 80,000 times, you have a 1% chance of sleepwalking.

Note to Washington Post: stop the madness! Let’s hope the Ambien defense goes the way of the Twinkie defense — a bad idea that was mistakenly tried one time and is nothing more than a legal urban legend.