A new phenomena of “gas station drugs” is sweeping the nation. They’re perfectly legal and openly available. They go by exotic names like Tiana and ZaZa Red. There is no age restriction — anyone can walk in and buy them at the corner store or neighborhood gas station.
And in my 25-plus years of working in substance use disorder treatment, I’ve never seen anything more dangerous. Gas station drugs have been a scourge on our communities for years, luring youth into dangerous addictions and tempting those already suffering with substance use disorder with an alleged “solution” to their addiction. But these synthetic drugs — made from untested chemicals and unverified ingredients — are just as dangerous as methamphetamines, opioids, or heroin, often causing life-altering and even deadly reactions. It’s time immediate action is taken before more harm is done.
Legal does not mean safe
Far too many people assume that because these drugs are legal, that means they’re safe. But in my career, some of the scariest episodes and most permanent damage I’ve seen in patients have come from gas station drug use. People under the influence of these synthetic chemicals display symptoms often associated with serious mental health conditions: psychosis, delirium, hallucinations, severe depression, paranoia. They are a danger to themselves and others, and often have to be restrained for their own protection.
The way we know it’s the drugs at work is because the medications to treat psychosis work very quickly to resolve the symptoms, but they don’t work at all to counteract the effects of synthetic drugs. Those folks simply have to endure withdrawal, which can be painful and agonizing—to the point that they must be put into a medically induced coma once hospitalized to get them through.
Chemical evolution creates legal Whack-a-mole
It started with K2/spice, a synthetic substance that claimed to mimic the effects of marijuana. But it soon became so problematic, the DEA banned it in 2011. Next it was bath salts, which gained national notoriety for the extremely disturbing behavior it caused in users, even after it was also banned, as municipalities struggled to rein in its use.
Then along came kratom, which is still on the market, sold as a natural supplement to help with chronic pain, promote alertness, stimulate brain function and even fight addiction. And now, the latest product is ZaZa, aka Zaza Red, Tiana, Tiana Red — or more telling: “gas station heroin” — which is causing serious issues across the south, most notably in Alabama and here in Mississippi.
The problem with all of these substances is that it always leaves authorities one step behind. As soon as one is banned, the manufacturers scramble to change their formula, give it a new name and introduce the “new” drug to those who became hooked on the last iteration.
Preying on the vulnerable
Worse yet, these companies market directly to those already struggling with addiction, promising these products can help reduce the symptoms of opioid withdrawal.
The reality is people who fall into this trap are simply trading one addictive substance for another. Today, about 75 percent of the patients who come through our door at Oxford Treatment Center say they use ZaZa. Because it’s “legal” and marketed as an herbal supplement, they have the perception that it’s safe. The claim that it might help with withdrawal symptoms makes it even more enticing. As a person living in recovery myself, I have personally known people who have fallen victim to this scheme.
The fact these drugs don’t show up on routine drug screening is also problematic.
We must push back. Here’s how.
While law enforcement hands are tied until these gas station drugs become illegal, we must talk to our kids, our neighbors and even the store owners and clerks selling these dangerous chemicals, to make it clear they are not welcome in our communities.
We need to talk to our teens about the dangers of gas station drugs, emphasizing that just because they’re legal, does not mean they’re safe and that we have no way of knowing what is actually in those tinctures, shots and capsules because there’s zero oversight of the ingredients.
Finally, apply a bit of community pressure. Visit your corner gas station and ask them why they’re selling these dangerous drugs. Explain the risks and ask them to stop. Talk with local law enforcement. Some localities have taken action themselves to control these substances, absent any federal involvement.
The new drug dealer in town may not look like a scary dude with scars and tattoos in a dark alley. Instead, it’s a smiling cashier at the corner store who has no idea of the danger they’re selling to the neighborhood kids. By educating our kids and our communities about the dangers, we can protect them from the risks of gas station drugs and help curb the epidemic of addiction in our country.
Mark Stovall is CEO of Oxford Treatment Center, an American Addiction Centers facility.
You can help your community
Quality, in-depth journalism is essential to a healthy community. The Dispatch brings you the most complete reporting and insightful commentary in the Golden Triangle, but we need your help to continue our efforts. Please consider subscribing to our website for only $2.30 per week to help support local journalism and our community.