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NC House considers ban on 'gas station heroin'

The drug tianeptine is sold in retail stores under brand names like "Neptune's Fix."
Federal Drug Administration
The drug tianeptine is sold in retail stores under brand names like "Neptune's Fix."

North Carolina lawmakers are considering restrictions on a new opioid drug sold in convenience stores.

Tianeptine is marketed as a dietary supplement under brand names like Za Za and Neptune's Fix. But it's also been referred to as "gas station heroin" because it's addictive and can cause deadly overdoses.

A state House committee on substance abuse issues met to discuss the drug Tuesday and will plan to hold additional hearings.

Penny Shelton of the North Carolina Association of Pharmacists spoke to the committee about the drug. She said the packaging describes it as a dietary supplement.

"And it helps you focus and concentrate better — that's how it's marketed on the package," she said. "But when you actually get in these websites, and you're looking, it's going to share things with you that indicate that you can essentially get high off of it."

That's prompted several other states to ban retail sales of tianeptine, including Tennessee, Georgia and Kentucky. The FDA has warned that it's been linked to overdoses, seizures and even deaths.

"Tianeptine is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for any medical use," the agency said on its website. "Despite that, some companies are illegally marketing and selling products containing tianeptine to consumers. They are also making dangerous and unproven claims that tianeptine can improve brain function and treat anxiety, depression, pain, opioid use disorder, and other conditions."

Rep. Wayne Sasser, R-Stanly and a pharmacist, said he wants the opioid added to pending legislation to regulate hemp products and other new drugs.

"We’re outlawing kratom in that bill," he said. "And the Senate could add this drug to that bill very easily. I don’t think we need to make it a controlled drug, we just need to outlaw it."

Tuesday's hearing included audio testimony from an unnamed user of tianeptine who says he tried it to increase his energy level. He went on to become "extremely addicted to what I would call a very evil substance," he said. "After a couple of days of not having any, I didn't sleep for seven days ... I began to hallucinate and I hallucinated that I was going to die."

North Carolina's legislature could take action when it returns to Raleigh in April. The bill Sasser mentioned is awaiting a hearing in the Senate.

In addition to kratom, the bill would regulate the sale of "hemp-derived consumable products," which would require licenses to sell the products and ban sales to people under age 18. The products would need to contain less than 0.3% THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.