National

Deaths from 'gas station heroin' users bring renewed fears for parents, medical experts

NEW YORK — Across the country, medical experts and families in mourning are sounding the alarm over a substance that's become known as "gas station heroin," for how easy it is to find in most states.

Tianeptine has been marketed under different brands, with some claiming it brings "happiness in a bottle." It can easily be found online, in convenience stores and even gas stations.

"Tianeptine is used as an antidepressant in other countries. However, the more we learned about it, it turns out that it hits the same receptors that opiates hit," Dr. William Rushton, a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who is the director of the Office of Medical Toxicology, told ABC News.

Tianeptine acts like two medications; an antidepressant and an opioid.

The drug, however, has become a major health issue across the country as its opioid-like effects have led to users being addicted, according to medical experts.

Activists and medical experts have also warned of serious health risks with taking the pills.

Five years ago, Johnathon Morrison, a 19-year-old college student from Alabama, suffered a very bad migraine and went to a local gas station looking for a remedy, according to his mother, Kristi Terry. A store employee allegedly recommended tianeptine, and over the course of the night he took 12 pills, she told ABC News.

The bottle suggests taking two pills a day and not to exceed three per week.

Terry said she found her son in bed unresponsive and later he was declared dead.

"I knew that he took the pills for a headache. I had no idea that they would have took his life," she said.

Morrison's autopsy report showed he choked on his own vomit and he had his prescription medication for preventing migraines and seizures in his system, as well as a high level of tianeptine.

The medical examiner wrote that while there was no way of knowing what actually killed Morrison, but he'd seen a similar amount of tianeptine in someone's system before The person also died, according to the report.

The incident is not isolated, according to health data.

Poison control center cases involving tianeptine exposure jumped from 11 total cases between 2000 and 2013 to 151 cases in 2020 alone, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Three years ago, Alabama banned the sale of tianeptine, but products were still being sold in nearby Mississippi at the time.

Hanna Gilliam told ABC News that she would drive for hours from Alabama to Mississippi to purchase the drug and at one point was spending $350 a week on it.

"When I started doing them, I was like, there's no way that they're this bad for you if they're selling them over the counter," she said.

Gilliam, who said she battled addiction to heroin and painkillers, eventually stopped taking tianeptine but said the withdrawal symptoms made her recovery tough.

"I didn't think that I would live to see 21," she said. "I was either going to stay in active addiction until I died, or not be alive for my 21st."

Gilliam is now nearly two years sober and studying nursing.

Tracy Harper Morrison said her son, Christopher Harper Montgomery, and daughter also faced uphill battles in fighting their addictions to the drug. It was toughest on Christopher.

Morrison said she, his friends and others tried to help fight his addiction but he still struggled with cravings.

In February 2023, she found her son dead inside his apartment.

A toxicology report found tianeptine in his system.

"When we went back and picked up Christopher's ashes, I stopped by the store where he bought it, and I asked him [the store clerk] if he recognized Christopher because I had his picture. He said, 'Yeah, yeah.' I said he bought some of this stuff' and pointed to the tianeptine … 'Yeah,' [he said.] I said, 'He's dead,'" Morrison said.

A couple of months after Montgomery's death, Mississippi banned tianeptine, joining Alabama and seven other states.

ABC News reached out to some tianeptine manufacturers for comment, but none wanted to be identified out of fear of retaliation. In statements, the business owners claimed their products were safe.

But Morrison and other family members of people who battled tianeptine addiction said that more states and the federal government need to take action.

Tianeptine products can still be purchased online.

A bipartisan group of five House of Representatives members sent a letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asking the agency to see if tianeptine should be reclassified under the Controlled Substances Act.

When asked by ABC News if the FDA plans to toughen regulation toward tianeptine or kratom, a similar product widely sold, the agency said in a statement, "We have issued warning letters to companies unlawfully marketing kratom and tianeptine products as dietary supplements and drugs.

"We will continue to collaborate with federal partners to engage proactively in meaningful research to advance science-based regulatory decision-making," the FDA added.

Terry said she hopes that some action is done fast to prevent any more deaths.

"I don't want any other mother to go through what I'm going through, because it's a pain like nothing else," she said.

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