In 2009, 35-year-old Jordan was deployed in Afghanistan when a mortar pounded his military base. He went blind in one eye and developed chronic pain in both ankles. As a result, the VA prescribed him handfuls of Norco, a powerful pain medication that he promptly got addicted to.
Against all odds, Jordan managed to quit, and he successfully worked as an Alabama police officer for years before rolling an ankle in a foot chase. “Back on pain pills,” he tells me — another round of Norco. “It didn’t take long before I was addicted again.”
Jordan left his job and eventually landed in rehab. “I just loved the pills too much,” he explains. While he managed to get sober, his ankles were still in constant pain, so his brother-in-law suggested ZaZa, a “dietary supplement” commonly sold at gas stations. “I thought to myself, they’re from a gas station; they can’t be that bad,” Jordan says. “Man, was I in for a surprise.”
ZaZa goes by several names: Stablon, Tianna Red, Pegasus, Coaxil and “gas station heroin.” In some states like Georgia, where it’s legal, you can find at least one of these brands in almost any gas station, head shop or convenience store. In other states, you’re more likely to find it at lesser-known mom-and-pop operations.
The active ingredient is tianeptine, an antidepressant that’s approved in several European countries, but not in the U.S. As a 2020 study on a spike of tianeptine-related calls to poison-control centers explains, it’s abusable “due to its strong affinity at the mu-opioid receptors,” which are the targets of opioids like morphine and oxycodone. “Those pills give me the same feeling that pain pills gave me,” Jordan says.
But people take ZaZa for many other reasons, too. Some claim that it boosts alertness and cognition, although there’s no scientific evidence for that. Others use it to improve their mood.
At standard doses, tianeptine doesn’t produce a high, but people who abuse tianeptine are taking far, far more than they’re supposed to. “I was taking up to eight bottles a day,” says Jordan. “Fifteen pills come in a bottle, and I was spending $23 to $25 per bottle.” Interestingly, tianeptine isn’t even that good of a painkiller — it wears off quickly, hence the reason why people like Jordan end up taking way more than they’re meant to.
All of this, however, was before Alabama banned tianeptine in April. Now, Jordan drives to Tennessee or Mississippi to get his ZaZa fix. Each trip, he spends $1,800 — nearly a whole paycheck — to make sure he doesn’t run out. “The withdrawals are 100 times worse than when I quit pain pills,” he says. Agitation, anxiety, muscle twitches and gastrointestinal distress are common withdrawal symptoms.
While there have been reports of overdose deaths related to tianeptine, many have been inconclusive. A 1995 study found that even high doses (up to 337 milligrams) aren’t fatal (12.5 milligrams is a standard dose). Along those lines, a 1992 study found that patients who attempted suicide by slamming tianeptine and taking alcohol or other drugs all survived.
That said, in 2019, Michigan passed a bill banning tianeptine. The bill described how many users were buying it on “nootropics” websites, and how when you buy a drug like this online, you never know exactly what you’re getting, making it all the more dangerous. (Jordan says some people use ZaZa instead of opiates because it flies under the drug-test radar.)
Still, the more considerable problem seems to be addiction and withdrawal, not necessarily ODing. However, if a ZaZa user tries to taper off the pills, it’s possible they’ll turn to something more dangerous, like actual heroin, to reduce their withdrawal symptoms. “I still have to take those every day just to function,” Jordan explains. “They’ve taken over my life. I wish like hell they were never introduced to Alabama.” The QuittingTianeptine subreddit, which has more than 2,500 members, is filled with similarly depressing stories.
The thing is, tianeptine isn’t all bad. Again, it’s a prescribed antidepressant outside of America, and a 2010 study suggests that it has several advantages over SSRIs — namely, a lower likelihood of side effects like sexual problems, nausea and grogginess. French studies also claim that it’s less addictive than opioids.
In other words, we may eventually see tianeptine prescribed in the U.S. for certain conditions — the Center for Science in the Public Interest has urged federal officials to take a closer look at the drug — and it might even be tremendously helpful under the guidance of a doctor. For example, a 2012 study found that it works as well for irritable bowel syndrome as the frequently prescribed amitriptyline, and with fewer side effects.
But without proper regulation and management, anyone who snags ZaZa online or from a gas station can quickly end up taking far more than they should, and the results can be disastrous. “My wife left me, all because of these pills,” Jordan says. “I’m at the point where I think the only way I can get off of them is for Mississippi and Tennessee to ban them. I wish they would, but at the same time, I’m afraid I’ll turn to something else to ease the withdrawals.” The FDA released a warning about tianeptine in 2018, but we haven’t seen much action — or a federal effort to ban it — since then.
The good news is, tianeptine is attracting more attention, so Jordan doesn’t have to quit on his own. “I’m working so hard to come off of them,” he says. “That’s why I reached out to Reddit.” He recently posted on r/QuittingTianeptine, where he was welcomed with open arms.
Moreover, there are documented cases of successful drug-assisted withdrawal from tianeptine misuse, meaning doctors have examples to follow. Still, it’s safe to say that if Jordan were to do it all over again, he’d never grab that first bottle of ZaZa from his local gas station. “I want to stop this so bad,” he concludes. “I’m 35 years old, I’ve done a lot with my life, and I have nothing to show for it because of those damn pills.”