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Young Man Tries Legal 'Gas Station Heroin' Pill - Soon He's Taking Six Bottles a Day

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It’s a powerful antidepressant that’s used for major depressive disorder in other countries. It also acts as an opioid, meaning it can provide the same kind of high as codeine, Vicodin or heroin. Some users describe the withdrawal effects from the drug as more intense than all those.

And you can buy it, in many cases, at your local Shell station.

The chemical name of the substance in question is tianeptine. Originally developed in France, it’s a tricyclic antidepressant marketed in Europe, Asia and Latin America and used primarily to treat major depressive disorders.

In the United States, it’s never been approved for medical use by the Food and Drug Administration. However, that means it falls under a strange loophole in U.S. law — one that, according to Vice News, has earned the drug the moniker “gas station heroin.”

“It’s not a controlled substance and is typically sold in the U.S. as a dietary supplement, nootropic (a chemical that improves cognitive function), or a research chemical under brand names like ZaZa Red, TD Red, and Tianna,” Vice reported on Dec. 12. “It can be found in gas stations or easily bought online.”

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Tianeptine isn’t the first psychoactive substance that falls into a legal gray area, allowing it to be sold easily and legally. “Bath salts,” a series of synthetic cathinone designer drugs also sold in gas stations, became a serious public health issue in the early 2010s.

Tianeptine also isn’t the only drug to be controlled by prescriptions in other countries but freely available in the United States because of how the country’s drug laws work.

Etizolam, a sedative similar to Xanax and Valium, is a prescription medication in Japan, India and Italy but is sold as a “research chemical” in the United States, the Drug Enforcement Administration noted in 2020.

Phenibut, a Russian-developed tranquilizer with similarly addictive effects, is legally sold in the United States as a nootropic or supplement.

Should this chemical be made illegal?

Tianeptine, however, is unique given its legal status in most states — according to Vice, it’s been banned in only six (Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Tennessee) — and the role it plays in America’s current opioid crisis, being so similar to other opioid drugs.

“People are using it either to manage or withdrawal from harder, harsher stuff, or they’re kind of starting their journey and developing an unhealthy relationship with it based on its effects — and its effects are opioid-like effects,” Dr. Patrick Marshalek, an associate professor at West Virginia University’s School of Medicine, told the outlet.

The first route, naturally, is neither medically approved nor advisable, even anecdotally. The latter route is equally problematic. In both cases, no one knows what he or she is really getting, since the supplements are “proprietary blends” — meaning the exact dosage isn’t clear to the user.

“Tianeptine is part of a broader story of people taking a bunch of crap and not knowing what they’re taking,” said Kirsten Smith, a researcher with the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

In the case of Hunter Barnett, he didn’t know what he was getting into.

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According to Vice, the 26-year-old was addicted to opioids in the past because of a painful esophagus condition. This past January, he moved to Florida from Alabama and noticed people buying a tianeptine blend called ZaZa Red whenever he went into the gas station.

“I’m sitting there thinking it’s a gas station, this s*** ain’t gonna be any good,” Barnett said.

It was good enough for him to keep at it and eventually buy a different blend called TD Red — which provided a high he compared to a combination of Percocet and cocaine.

“They were amazing. Like, wow, it took away all the pain,” he said.

But, of course, it didn’t last. It took less than a week for him to start increasing his dose, from three every few hours to swallowing an entire bottle of 15 pills at once.

Now, Barnett said, he goes through up to six bottles of TD Reds a day, each costing $30. While he has a job delivering groceries for Instacart, he said he’s broke because of the cost of the drugs.

“It was definitely one of the biggest mistakes in my life. I wish I would have never touched them,” he said. “I’ve spent about $50,000 since January on these.”

Not only is tianeptine addictive, but its high also wears off quickly, leading to withdrawals in a matter of hours. Barnett described taking some pills before bed and still waking up in the middle of the night to take more just to stave off withdrawal symptoms.

Vice reported that when it talked to Barnett, “he said he’d just come off a 10-day detox that was more difficult than when he came off opioids like oxycodone, fentanyl, and buprenorphine. He said he experienced nausea, sweats, vomiting, fever, body pain, and relentless chills.”

“The withdrawal, I can honestly say, is the absolute worst experience of my life,” he said.

And yet the marketers of these “supplements” don’t tell you that side of the story. An online ad for ZaZa Red said it was “great for pain relief” and “provides a euphoric and energizing mood lift.” Meanwhile, another ad put it this way: “In just one capsule, your stress, your anxiety all melt away almost instantly.”

The hell that it provides later, however, remains unmentioned. Just ask Barnett, who “celebrated” his 10-day detox by using 12 more tianeptine pills.

“I just wanted to celebrate a little bit,” he said.

How did it feel?

“Amazing. But it doesn’t last very long.”

Barnett said he planned to move back to Alabama, where the drug is banned. He said he supports a nationwide ban — or, at least, less-deceptive marketing.

“Be honest on the d*** bottle and be like, ‘This is super f***ing addictive,’ you know what I mean?” he said. “Don’t call them dietary supplements, because they’re not.”

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C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014.
C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014. Aside from politics, he enjoys spending time with his wife, literature (especially British comic novels and modern Japanese lit), indie rock, coffee, Formula One and football (of both American and world varieties).
Morristown, New Jersey
Catholic University of America
Languages Spoken
English, Spanish
Topics of Expertise
American Politics, World Politics, Culture