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‘He was just crazy’: Maryland father recounts son’s addiction to tianeptine

<i>WBAL via CNN Newsource</i><br/>A Maryland father recounts his son's addiction to the drug tianeptine.
Lawrence, Nakia
WBAL via CNN Newsource
A Maryland father recounts his son's addiction to the drug tianeptine.

By Mindy Basara

Click here for updates on this story

    BALTIMORE, Maryland (WBAL) — What’s known on the streets as gas station heroin — which is just one of its names — is legal in Maryland for anyone to buy, and there’s a good chance it’s sold at a smoke shop or gas station near you.

It goes by many names — Tianna, Pegasus, Zaza — and it’s easy to buy. In high doses, it can be dangerous.

The substance, tianeptine, is sold as a supplement to help with anxiety and depression, but as a Maryland family found out, it can be very addictive.

Now, some are calling for this unregulated supplement to be banned nationwide.

A Maryland father told 11 News Investigates how his adult son ended up in the hospital. WBAL-TV 11 News Investigates is referring to the father, who asked to remain anonymous, as Tom.

“I mean, he was just crazy,” he said. “Almost psychotic (was) how he was acting.”

Tom figured his son — who has had substance abuse issues in the past — had taken something, but he had no idea what. So, Tom checked his son’s car.

“(In) his car, the bottles come up to the seats. There was probably 100 or more — empty,” he said.

The bottles were labeled “Zaza Red.” Tom had never heard of it, and neither had the hospital staff.

Tianeptine is easy to find

Jimmy Leonard, the director of clinical services at the Maryland Poison Center, told 11 News Investigates that tianeptine is not approved for medical use in the U.S., but it’s sold in smoke shops and gas stations as an unregulated supplement.

“The chemical name for it is tianeptine. It is an antidepressant that has been used in countries that do not include the United States,” Leonard told 11 News Investigates. “Over the last few years, it was noted that it gave people a euphoric effect, similar to opioids. It actually functions like an opioid in high doses. It’s not illegal.”

Tianeptine is easy to find under a variety of brand names. Tom’s son said he bought it at a gas station, and 11 News Investigates found various kinds at smoke shops in the Baltimore area.

There are also plenty of websites that sell tianeptine online — a bottle of 15 capsules can cost between $30 and $45.

Leonard told 11 News Investigates that the number of tianeptine-related calls to the Maryland Poison Center is not high but is growing. In 2016, there was just one call. By 2023, there were 12.

Nationally, in 2018, there were 88 calls to poison centers. By September 2022, there were 286.

Several people have died.

“They’re buying it and buying it, and then, they ran out of money or decided, ‘I want to stop using this substance.’ And then, they show up to the hospital in opioid withdrawal. They really have a lot of issues with diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, really sweaty, and frankly, uncomfortable,” Leonard said.

Nine states have banned tianeptine, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee.

When 11 News Investigates contacted the Maryland Attorney General’s Office to determine where Maryland stands, the office declined an interview.

Leonard said tianeptine is likely not even on state leaders’ radar, as they have their hands full with another drug.

“We have so many fentanyl deaths every single month, it’s overwhelming,” Leonard told 11 News Investigates.

The Food and Drug Administration has issued a warning about tianeptine, but as many as five members of Congress from Colorado, North Carolina and Tennessee and have sent a letter to the FDA, urging the agency to review the supplement and its presence in the U.S.

Tom’s son is off of tianeptine and doing well, but it wasn’t easy.

“He later told me it was harder to get off this than it was opioids,” Tom told 11 News Investigates.

Tom said he wants everyone to know about tianeptine, what it can do and how easy it is to get.

“(I’m) really angry about this, really angry that there’s not more awareness about this. It could have killed him, you know?” Tom said.

WBAL-TV 11 News Investigates called the company listed on the label as the distributor for Zaza products to offer an opportunity to comment on this report but received no response.

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Article Topic Follows: CNN - Regional

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