BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — It’s a common sight in gas station convenience stores across the country: so-called “natural supplements” on display.

“Starting in 2014, I had an opiate aisle,” said Brandon Stinson, who has struggled with addiction to these “gas station drugs” in the past.

Tianeptine and phenibut are chemical additives in supplements sold under brand names like Tianaa, Za Za and Phrenze. In 2016, former Gov. Robert Bentley outlawed the sale of Kratom. On March 15, Gov. Kay Ivey signed a similar bill into law banning the retail sales of tianeptine and phenibut. 

Locally, no matter which of the four neighboring states you travel to from Alabama, you can legally buy these products over the counter. Experts say they mimic powerful drugs like opiates in how they make people feel while using them. They also carry withdrawal symptoms similar to opiates.

That’s why there is an effort to get a national ban on the retail sale of these supplements and closing the state-line loophole for buying them.

‘In the middle of an opioid epidemic’

Stinson is two years into his recovery and has battled addiction since he was teenager. His use of these over-the-counter drugs forced him into treatment.

“You can go all out and say that opiates are killing America when you’re not making any money off of it,” Stinson said. “It’s just funny that for years now, people can go in a gas station and get high and the regulation on that particular product is about three or four years too late when people have gotten hooked on them.”

Stinson said he’s been hooked on over-the-counter products Kratom, Tiana, and Za Za. At the height of his addiction, he would go through 250 bottles in a month.

Those at the Jefferson County Department of Public Health said they have been seeing overdose deaths increase due to synthetic opioids as prescription opioid rates decrease.

“Let’s face it: our country is in the middle of an opioid epidemic,” said Brandon Lackey, chief programming officer for the Foundry Ministries. “Here in Jefferson County, Alabama, we just had two of the worst months in our country in our entire history of tracking that data. More people died in March and April of 2021 than any other month that we have tracked those statistics. And so the epidemic has taken a back seat to the pandemic, but here in treatment and recovery services, it is very much front and center.”

Alabama has banned drugs containing phenibut from retail sales, but not before law enforcement encountered bizarre behavior from those who took them.

“We’ve had people overdose on this, completely delusional,” said Lt. Craig Parker of the Tuscaloosa Police Department, adding that tianeptine can act as a synthetic opioid that can cause psychosis and acute psychiatric distress. “We’ve had people naked running in the streets, fighting cars, things along those lines it leads to a condition called excited delirium.” 

Closing the loophole

Through his work with the Alabama Association of Christian Ministries, Lackey has worked to get products like these out of gas stations. However, he’s recognized a pattern with these drugs.  

“We banned Kratom and they pushed tianeptine into the retail space and five days after banning tianeptine, they pushed Phrenze, which has been documented to send people into overdoses,” Lackey said. 

That’s why Lackey is pushing for the Food and Drug Administration to do more to stop products like Kratom, tianeptine, and phenibut from being sold in retail stores and gas stations. The FDA has identified all three substances as illegal additives that are not for human consumption for the public. Companies that are importing them often do so under the label of “Not for human consumption,” such as with Kratom.

“The products that we’re talking about that Alabama has successfully removed from retail sales are already illegal,” Lackey said. “They are illegal products that have been sold for years because the FDA has not or could not actually police the market.”

That’s what has created a loophole at the state line. People can travel to Georgia, Mississippi, Florida and Tennessee to legally purchase the products that are now illegal to buy over the counter in Alabama.

Stinson is aware of the widespread availability of the drugs.

“We have an opiate aisle now,” Stinson said. “Drinkers have an alcohol aisle, sections coolers, freezers with awesome flashy things that take you over there. I’d never had an opiate aisle, but starting in 2014, 2015 I had an opiate aisle, and it’s just not good. The whole store is set up it caters to addicts and it’s ran by people that act like they are just completely ignorant of the whole thing.”

The road to recovery

Stinson said he’s found recovery in his faith and building a network of like-minded people to support him.  Stinson looks back on his years in addiction this way,

“It (relapse) will happen again if I get away from my program, if I get away from what I know to be true, if I pull away from my network, if I pull away from what God has put in my life,” he said. “You leave me long enough it will happen again.”

Stinson’s network of support includes Gary Coody, residential Coordinator with the Anniston Fellowship House, Inc. 

“We do recover if you thoroughly work this program with Narcotics Anonymous,” Coody said. “I spent almost 36 years in active additions and today I get to be there for someone. Today, I get to say I’m a person in recovery. I’ve been able to lift the stigma that society has put on me.” 

Stinson said there are no shortcuts.

“Recovery is a decision, followed by a process,” he said. “It’s a process that’s ongoing. You don’t get a certificate for it and by this time I know it’s something I’ve got to do. This keeps me clean.”

Stinson said he would like see a national ban on the over-the-counter sale of drugs that people are getting high on at gas stations.

“Until we get it out of the gas stations and we are not threatened by this stuff, nothing is going to change,” he said. “It can be another product that comes, and they’ll wait three years to research it, but those three years it’s on the shelf, you’re going to have another bunch of Me’s in there that’s done destroyed themselves.”