On Tuesday, comedian Roseanne Barr compared former White White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett to an ape—then came up with a head-scratching excuse for tweeting a racist slur so abrasively awful that her show was kicked to the curb within hours.
Her defense? She was “ambien tweeting.”
guys I did something unforgiveable so do not defend me. 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-it was egregious Indefensible. I made a mistake I wish I hadn’t but...don’t defend it please. Ty
After an instant backlash, Roseanne deleted the tweet and came back with yet another explanation for her behavior:
That Barr “explained” her tweet to Ambien—the sedative meant to help treat insomnia—prompted the drug’s parent company, Sanofi, to tweet that one of its side effects was definitively not racism.
Sanofi has a point there, in that while all drugs have side effects that uniquely affect every human being’s different composition, blaming a sleep-aid for a racist tirade is irresponsible. Zolpidem, Ambien’s root pharmaceutical, has been tested for decades and has proven side effects, ranging from anxiety, dizziness, and nausea to diarrhea, allergic reactions, and memory loss. And while there are some rare reports of people experiencing hallucinations or becoming disoriented on the drug, the fact is that it does not magically alter a person into a racist bigot tweeting that a black woman is the offspring of the “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes.”
Medical professionals debunked Barr’s theory that her Ambien pill somehow led her to sleep-tweet a racist tirade:
Barr is certainly not the first person to blame their ill-conceived actions on the drug. Elon Musk, famous for his tweetstorms, went on one in June 2017 after a shareholder’s meeting gone awry. He later apologized:
Former House Rep. Patrick Kennedy reported taking Ambien before slamming his car into security barricades near the U.S. Capitol in 2006. His excuse? Ambien. In March, actor Sean Penn had a woozy interview with Stephen Colbert that sparked speculation he was drunk. The next morning, Penn blamed Ambien.
The past few months, especially, have volleyed Ambien back up into the limelight, with former White House physician-turned-Veterans Affairs nominee Ronny Jackson allegedly earning the nickname “candy man” for dispensing Ambien to politicos without a prescription. While some said the reputation was unfair, others pointed to the harried lifestyle of Washington, D.C., and the need to traverse time zones within hours, as reasons why the tiny pill might be attractive to the political set.
Ambien has somehow transformed in the past few years from something to help people with chronic insomnia to being a drug of choice among the rich and famous. It’s a pill that’s not quite as strong as opiates—and something that even regular Americans can easily obtain with the help of a prescription and a complaint at the doctor’s office about not being able to sleep.
That’s the thing about Ambien: It’s accessible, and it aids one of the most basic actions that we know how to do from the moment we are born. The fact that it can (very occasionally) cause people to feel disoriented makes it an easy scapegoat for accidents, like ramming a car into a barricade or having a wacky onstage presence.
It’s true that the chemical building blocks of Ambien can affect a person’s mental clarity, and impair their ability to drive or walk or talk. But can it ultimately change the very nature of who they are, alter their personality, make them a racist? No. Barr can blame Ambien for her late-night tweets and run-on sentences, but she can’t blame them for showing the world the ugly prejudices that lay beneath.