Ambien Zombies, Murder, and Other Disturbing Behavior




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Ambien is one of a number of Controlled Schedule 4 agents designed as sedative hypnotics. Like other sedative hypnotics they are usually effective for about two weeks, largely to relieve persisting insomnia. These agents, especially Ambien, are linked to sleep-driving, eating, and even sex.

Sedative hypnotics impact mostly the neurotransmitter, GABA, which is inhibitory in its psychokinetic impact. As with other psychotropics, there is a darker side of the experience, though rare.

On March 29, 2009, Robert Stewart, 45, stormed into the Pinelake Health and Rehab nursing home in Carthage, North Carolina and opened fire, killing eight people and wounding two. Stewart’s apparent target was his estranged wife, who worked as a nurse in the home. She hid in a bathroom and was unharmed.

Stewart was charged with eight counts of first-degree murder; if convicted, he could face the death penalty. Even though there was evidence that Stewart’s actions were premeditated (he allegedly had a target), Stewart’s defense team successfully argued that since he was under the influence of Ambien, a sleep aid, at the time of the shooting, he was not in control of his actions. Instead of the charges sought by the prosecutors, Stewart was convicted on eight counts of second-degree murder. He received 142 – 179 years in prison.

After its approval, Ambien quickly rose to dominance in the sleep aid market. Travelers swore by it to combat jet lag. And women, who suffer more insomnia than men, purchased it in droves. Sanofi, Ambien’s French manufacturer, made $2 billion in sales at its peak. In 2007 the generic version of Ambien was released, Zolpidem, and at less than $2 per pill, it still remains one of the most prescribed drugs in America, outselling popular painkillers like Percocet and prescription strength ibuprofen.

Not all prosecutors will consider the Ambien defense, and its position within established criminal rules is tenuous. It does not really fall under “voluntary intoxication,” in which someone is responsible for his own intoxication and any events that occur as a result of that intoxication.

Image via Corepics VOF / Shutterstock.

Richard Kensinger, MSW

Richard Kensinger, MSW, has over forty years of clinical experience in behavioral healthcare as a psychotherapist, trainer, consultant, and faculty member in the Psychology Department, Mount Aloysius College. He has also taught at Penn State, University of Pittsburgh, and Temple University. He is also a lover of "football", known in the USA as soccer. He is currently associated for over 30 years with youth "football", 26 as a referee.
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