Seriously, folks: please don't take "gas station heroin."
As Axios reports, a bipartisan group of lawmakers including TikTok star Jeff Jackson and local theater patron Lauren Boebert has signed a letter to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) urging the regulator to take action on tianeptine, or the widely-available-yet-non-FDA-approved antidepressant better known as "gas station heroin."
Often marketed as a cognition-boosting supplement, the unapproved drug plays on the same neuron receptors that dangerous opioids like oxycontin do, giving users a similar — and highly addictive — feeling of euphoria that's long been associated with opioids. Prominent tianeptine products include decidedly gas station-y titles such as Zaza, Tianaa Red, and Neptune's Fix, and although these products' availability online and at locations like gas stations and weed shops might trick buyers into thinking the drug is safe, it's anything but.
According to a 2023 study led by researchers at Harvard and Louisiana State University, tianeptine-linked overdoses and suicide attempts have already been recorded. And withdrawal symptoms, as a harrowing Vice report from last year revealed, are extreme. (These symptoms have been acknowledged by the Drug Enforcement Administration.)
"When people come in and they're using it, they go through what we see as opioid withdrawal," Lantie Jorandby, a chief psychiatrist at a Jacksonville-based rehab facility, told Vice last year. "They look like they have a bad case of aches and pains. They'll have diarrhea. They'll have chills and sweats."
As The New York Times reported earlier this month, the drug's dangers are due in part to tianeptine's addictiveness as well as to the nature of its formulation. Sold in pill form as well as shots similar to 5-hour Energy, tianeptine is often mixed with unlabeled and harmful substances including synthetic cannabinoids — a potent and potentially consequential concoction.
"Tianeptine is an emerging threat," Kaitlyn Brown, the clinical managing director of America's Poison Centers, told the NYT. "We have people who are able to get a substance that's not well regulated, that has abuse potential and that, in high doses, can cause similar effects to opioids, leading to really harmful outcomes."
These dangers aren't news to the FDA. The regulator issued multiple warnings for the drug last year, admonitioning the substance as an "unapproved drug associated with serious health risks and even death" in a February 2023 bulletin and later, in a November statement, urging consumers to stay away from "any" product with tianeptine.
But while the FDA is well aware of tianeptine's hazards, these warnings are still just that: warnings. And according to their letter, lawmakers want more.
Sold "under brand names like Zaza and Tianna," the legislators wrote in the letter, tianeptine "has opioid-like qualities and is extremely addictive."
"We urge the FDA to take immediate action," they continued, "to research and provide guidance on tianeptine use."
Among other queries, the representatives ask whether the FDA has "taken any steps in conjunction with the [Drug Enforcement Administration] to research whether tianeptine should be scheduled under the Controlled Substance Act." It's a fair ask. As it stands, according to the Axios report, a total of nine states moved to either restrict or outright ban the drug's sale. And after all, if most experts — the FDA included — are collectively, regularly, and urgently comparing an available compound to opioids, it's probably worth considering a redesignation that could keep it off of all-too-easily-accessed shelves.
"Tianeptine is the devil," a tianeptine-addicted woman who went only by her first name, Kristin, told Vice last year. "I want the whole world to know these things are evil."
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