It's marketed as a dietary supplement to help you relax. But it's also highly addictive, and in some cases, deadly. The street name is "gas station heroin," and as News Channel 3's Peter Daut uncovered, it's very easy to get.
The capsules are sold under names like "Zaza Red," "Pegasus," and "Tianna." The drug is called tianeptine, and it's advertised as a supplement to help users reduce anxiety and stress-- while increasing alertness and focus. As the name suggests, gas station heroin is sold at gas stations, smoke shops and convenience stores across the nation.
"It's pretty addicting," Dr. Alta DeRoo, the Chief Medical Officer of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, said. She added tianeptine gives users an opioid-like high if taken in large doses. But the effects wear off after only a few hours, leaving users chasing the same euphoria by popping more pills.
"How dangerous is this drug?" Daut asked Dr. DeRoo. She replied: "There are some case reports of poisoning and overdoses that we see with tianeptine. If you stimulate that opioid receptor a lot, it's going to be much like heroin or fentanyl."
Tianeptine is unapproved for medical use, but that's not stopping people from using it. We found an online forum, where anonymous users are sharing their experiences with the drug. Comments include: "The addiction to it is insane. I've been fighting it for almost two years now," "I'm sure I spent over $20K in a year easily. It will literally take over your life," and "I'm here to say this is the worst drug ever. Stay far far away. I am currently de-toxing off of it and it is hell."
The FDA has issued a warning saying in part: "Tianeptine is an unapproved drug associated with serious health risks and even death... Consumers should avoid all products containing tianeptine, including those claiming to treat an ailment or disorder… ”
The agency also said it sent warning letters to companies that sell tianeptine, and is trying to stop tianeptine shipments at our borders.
Despite the FDA's warning, vendors continue to market and sell the drug. And though we did not find any stores selling it in the Coachella Valley, Daut was able to easily order it online. One little bottle cost $47, and it arrived in the mail just a few days later.
Tianeptine-related calls to poison control centers have skyrocketed over the last few years: from just four cases in 2013, to 246 cases in 2022 alone. Officials said the numbers are likely much higher, because many drug overdoses go unreported, making it difficult to get local numbers.
Meanwhile, some states are now cracking down on these products. So far the drug is banned in Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.
"Do you anticipate we'll be seeing more people hooked on gas station heroin?" Daut asked Dr. DeRoo. She replied, "I think we will. It's just the fact that there's just more opioid use disorder out there, and so people are going to turn to this gas station heroin as a way for them to cope with their opioid withdrawals. Stay away from them, and tell the person that you're next to what they are."
Daut reached out to the Riverside County District Attorney's Office, which said it is not aware of tianeptine yet. And since the drug is currently not illegal in California, there's not much that can be done about it.