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DUI from Ambien? Why Some States Criminalize Sedation Behind the Wheel

— June 24, 2022

Ambien intoxication is a divisive issue in the United States.

Ambien is one of the most popular medications on the market to treat insomnia and sleep disorders. While this drug is a popular choice, it comes with various side effects, ranging from mild, dangerous, and outright strange. While some of the strange side effects are almost comical based on the accounts of Ambien users, the drug is hardly anything to play around with. 

In fact, some states deem Ambien use worthy of a DUI (driving under the influence) charge if you are found behind the wheel while under the drug’s influence. Here’s a rundown of how states criminalize Ambien use behind the wheel and what it tells us about this sedative drug’s dangers.

A Different Kind of Intoxication

No level of intoxication is acceptable. While this rule of thumb for drunk driving is the safest deterrent to avoid danger to ourselves and others, the evolution of intoxication has gone through various changes over the years. Starting back in 1910, New York rolled out its DUI law with conviction, landing you in jail for a year and requiring you to pay up to $1,000 in fines. 

Several states followed suit, but there was no direct standard for intoxication because breathalyzers were not in use yet. This technology did not come into play until Robert Borkenstein’s “drunkometer” a few decades later. The initial blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) standard for intoxication began at .15%, but today the official legal limit is 0.08%. But while the BAC standard has dropped from what it initially was, the understanding of what intoxication is has expanded in stricter directions.

While some attorney’s offices boast of their ability to defeat DUI charges for Ambien in Florida, this is not the case on the other side of the country. California, for example, considers driving under the influence of Ambien worthy of a DUI arrest, which can include jail time, license suspension, and up to five years of probation. The technical term for this is called the DUID law (driving under the influence of drugs), and this law is in place in 15 states in the country, including California, Illinois, Michigan, and Utah. 

Bad Press or Proven Fact? 

Ambien intoxication is a divisive issue in the United States. Not only does it serve as a negative news headline for crashes and assault crimes, but it also haunts the record of public officials who are hired amid protests for their DUI history with Ambien, although the individual’s toxicology report stated that the Ambien levels were within the therapeutic range. But is this simply an example of bad press, or is there some warrant to the concerns about this drug?

Doctor Makes Patients Share Pills with His Wife
Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash

When looking at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s warning label for Ambien, a few things stand out that support state laws (and opinions) about this drug. According to the FDA, “complex behaviors such as ‘sleep-driving’ (i.e., driving while not fully awake after taking a hypnotic) and other complex behaviors (e.g., preparing and eating food, making phone calls, or having sex), with amnesia for the event, have been reported in association with the use of hypnotics.” 

What might surprise people is that this is stated on the FDA’s labeling for Ambien, even within the bounds of legal use, according to prescription instructions. In other words, you don’t have to abuse Ambien to experience these symptoms. It’s also worth noting that the warning includes “sedative-hypnotics including zolpidem,” which emphasizes that this risk goes beyond Ambien. While Ambien is the most popular sedative, people using other sedative drugs, such as Lunesta and Sonata, can also be at risk for these symptoms. 

Amnesia is also a reported symptom of Ambien on the FDA’s labeling, which highlights the risk of memory loss from Ambien use. This is especially dangerous because amnesia could kick in before, during, or after driving a vehicle while under the influence of the drug. Obviously, this is one reason why it can impair someone’s ability to drive responsibly and why some states deem it a criminal offense. While amnesia from Ambien is scary enough to think of as a possibility, the use of other drugs is something that might slip under the radar as a concern for people. 

If someone experiences amnesia while using Ambien, this could also contribute to using alcohol unknowingly. Since alcohol and Ambien are both CNS depressants, the FDA label warns that mixing these two can “cause additive psychomotor impairment.”  Mixing alcohol with Ambien can highly increase the dangers of impairment. In short, using both together can push the brain into overdrive, resulting in excessive sedation, dizziness, slowed breathing, hypoxia, coma, and even death.

Going Forward

We’ve learned a lot about the danger of driving under the influence of alcohol over the years. Sadly, much of what we’ve learned has come at the expense of others. Only after tragedy takes place are laws put into place to avoid repeating history. With Ambien, there is still much to learn, and today, states are divided over how to handle the issue of getting behind the wheel after using this medication. However, the FDA labeling is a clear example of what we do know about the drug and its dangers. We know that safe, “legal” use can still bring on the risk of psychosis, seizures, heart damage, memory damage, and mood disorders, especially when taking Ambien long-term. From this information alone, we should take the same approach that we take with alcohol: no level of intoxication is acceptable, especially behind the wheel. 

However, what is true about Ambien and other drugs is the issue of addiction. Like alcohol use disorder, Ambien addiction is not something that willpower or discipline can control, especially when getting behind the wheel is such a normal part of life for most American adults. Knowing the risks is only half the battle. The rest has to do with getting help if you or someone you know has an Ambien addiction. This drug might not come in a can or a glass bottle, but the risk of intoxication is just as dangerous.


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