NewsLocal News


'Gas station heroin': Colorado man in recovery urges Congress, state lawmakers to ban tianeptine

Patrick Mazzola was the first person admitted for tianeptine addiction at AspenRidge Recovery
Gas station heroin
Posted at 9:45 PM, Mar 22, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-25 15:12:18-04

LAKEWOOD, Colo. — A nationwide concern being called "gas station heroin" is hitting home in Colorado.

Inside a discreet Lakewood building, Patrick Mazzola sought treatment for his substance use disorder, and hopes it is the last time.

When Mazzola was a teenager in Ohio, he dislocated his shoulder while playing basketball. Once he could no longer play sports, he started drinking.

“That was the stepping stone. And then I remember taking my first Percocet," Mazzola remembered. “This was at the beginning of the opioid epidemic, right after high school for me. So I took a lot of painkillers prescribed. That was the beginning of the end for me.”

Mazzola said he spent the majority of last year sober, but was offered a new supplement while at a head shop one day. He had no idea what would happen next.

“For the first... about year of doing them, it was very light, doing a couple pills here and there, and then it escalated very fast. When my brain started building a tolerance to it, then we're up to about a bottle and a half," Mazzola said. “Neptune's Elixir, and there's a couple other goofy names for it, but they're being sold as a supplement. It's not a supplement. It is a drug and it is going to kill us.”

Mazzola decided he wanted to get better once and for all in February of this year.

"I had given up everything and, and looked inside myself and just asked if I wanted to keep living," Mazzola said. “And then I came here. And this is a fantastic place, and they have helped me tremendously with so much."

He was admitted to AspenRidge Recovery in late February. Mazzola was their first patient who came to the outpatient treatment center struggling with an addiction to tianeptine.

“This pill is the devil," Mazzola said. “The withdrawal is the worst thing God ever created. And I've withdrawn off drugs. It is awful. Death seemed better than this.”

Tianeptine is colloquially called gas station heroin.

“People call it gas station heroin, because it is a weak opioid antagonist that activates the same areas in your brain that opiates and opioids do as well. And if you take a high enough dose of it, you can get very similar effects," explained Steve Sarin, the communications director of AspenRidge Recovery. “You can get it at gas stations, not all gas stations, but you can buy tianeptine at gas stations, head shops, convenience stores. It's very widely available here in Colorado.”

The substance is sold under various brand names, and Sarin said it is marketed as a supplement.

“Tianeptine is a substance that was first developed in the 1980s to treat depression and anxiety," said Sarin. “It's been approved for use in a few countries around the world but it is not currently approved by the FDA for any use in the United States.”

In fact, the FDA has issued a warning to consumers about tianeptine due to "serious risks."

Members of Congress, including Colorado Congresswoman Lauren Boebert, signed a letter sent to the FDA urging them to immediately act on tianeptine. The letter stated that several states have taken steps to either ban or strictly control tianeptine, which include Alabama, Michigan, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, Florida, and Kentucky. Colorado has not.

“Ultimate responsibility lies with the United States Congress. The Food and Drug Administration lacks the authority to regulate most supplements, which tianeptine falls under. But, they've repeatedly asked Congress for the authority to do it," Sarin said. “The last time they [the FDA] asked for the authority to regulate substances like this was in 2022. But the trade groups that represent the manufacturers lobbied Congress and were successful at killing that aspect of the bill... Their 2024 budget request also seeks the authority to regulate these substances. It hasn't passed yet, hasn't been debated yet. So, we'll see if they make any progress on that.”

Sarin expects to see several states banning substances like tianeptine, but said it can be difficult because a manufacturer can tweak the chemical structure and keep selling what is essentially the same product.

“Right now, it's the Wild West when it comes to some of these unregulated supplements on the market. I think we should call on Congress to do what we all elected them to do, and look out for the American people," said Sarin.

Mazzola agreed, and said Coloradans need to know about tianeptine before the problem is too far gone.

“Why can't we make this illegal, at least give people a heads up?” asked Mazzola. “There's not one good thing coming from this drug, not one single good thing.”

This time, Mazzola believes his treatment is extremely different from in the past. He attributes it to AspenRidge's emphasis on mental health treatment alongside substance use disorders.

“Mental health is first and foremost, with any addict," said Mazzola.

To learn more about AspenRidge Recovery and their programs, call (855) 678-3144 or visit their website.

If you or someone you know is struggling, there are resources to help. You can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) confidentially, for free, at any time day or night. The number is 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

'Gas station heroin': Colo. man in recovery urges Congress to ban tianeptine

D7 follow up bar 2460x400FINAL.png
The Follow Up
What do you want Denver7 to follow up on? Is there a story, topic or issue you want us to revisit? Let us know with the contact form below.