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Captagon: German bust shows drug becoming common in Europe

December 21, 2023

The psychostimulant drug is a huge concern for countries in the Middle East, and increasingly in Europe. What is Captagon, and where does it come from?

Captagon pills hidden among tea leaves
A report suggests Europe could become a key hub for a synthetic drug called CaptagonImage: Hussein Malla/AP/picture alliance

German customs investigators have seized large amounts of the drug Captagon near the city of Aachen.

The 300-kilogram (660-pound) haul is thought to be worth over €60 million ($65.7 million), and is the largest Captagon drug bust in Germany to date.

Captagon, commonly known as "poor man's cocaine," has emerged as the drug of choice among young adults throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

This latest bust in Germany indicates the drug could be more common in European countries than previously thought.

Captagon was made illegal in 1986 in most countries and discontinued in medical markets. However, an illicit version of Captagon emerged in eastern Europe and the Middle East in the early 2000s.

What is Captagon?

Captagon is a synthetic drug, originally manufactured in Germany in the 1960s and 1970s where it was intended to treat attention deficit disorders.

Use of captagon is prevalent among youngsters in the Middle East, most commonly as a party drug.

A Syrian soldier flashes the victory sign while standing on a tank
Syrian fighters are reportedly using Captagon to enhance combat enduranceImage: Ammar Safarjalani/Xinhua/IMAGO

Reports also suggest fighters in the Syrian conflict commonly use the drug to boost combat performance and reduce fatigue.

The pill contains fenethylline, a synthetic amphetamine, caffeine, and other stimulants. Fenethylline is metabolized by the body into two molecules: amphetamine and theophylline, both of which are stimulants.

How addictive is Captagon?

Its effects on the nervous system are similar to amphetamine. As a psychostimulant, Captagon can induce euphoria, increased wakefulness and increased physical and mental performance.

However, heavy use carries risks of impaired cognitive function and cardiovascular defects. It can also be addictive.

A major issue is that some of the pills being produced in illicit labs contain high quantities of fenethylline. The makeup of today's Captagon can vary wildly, and the lack of knowledge increases the risk of them containing toxic chemicals.

Where is Captagon made?

Syria has become the largest producer and exporter of Captagon over the last decade, leading experts to name it the Middle East's narco state.

A UK government statement estimated that 80% of the world's Captagon is produced in Syria.

Captagon's popularity skyrocketed in Syria following the 2011 Arab Spring protests. Investigative reports by major media outlets like the BBC have revealed how the Syrian drug industry facilitates all stages of Captagon production and smuggling.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has denied any organized efforts by his government to profit from the drug.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with Sky News Arabia
President Bashar Assad's government has been permitting illicit production and export of CaptagonImage: via REUTERS

With severe international sanctions in place since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Captagon has become an economic lifeline for the Syrian government. In 2021 alone, the Captagon drug trade had an estimated worth of $5.7 billion (€5.35 billion) in Syria.

The drug is predominantly exported to Gulf countries and neighboring Iraq and Jordan, often hidden in products like grains and fruits.

Hezbollah in Lebanon, a close ally of the Assad regime, is also reportedly a large manufacturer of the drug.

Where is Captagon exported?

Captagon has become a major concern for countries in the Middle East like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

All surrounding countries have strict anti-drug laws, with harsh penalties for those caught in the trade. However, Captagon is still smuggled in large quantities from Syria and Lebanon.

Jordan is a serious player in the fight to stem the illegal trade. The country's foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, announced in July that more than 65 million Captagon pills had been seized over the last two years.

The Jordanian army has reportedly instituted a "shoot-to-kill" policy against drug smugglers along its border with Syria.

In August 2022, Saudi authorities seized over 46 million pills being smuggled in a shipment of flour passing through the Riyadh Dry Port.

Is Captagon spreading elsewhere?               

Reliable statistics on the use of Captagon are nonexistent, and authorities remain blind to how widespread the drug is around the world.

However, there are rising concerns Captagon is increasingly becoming an issue for European countries as well.

A recent report from the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) suggests Europe could become a key transshipment area for Captagon bound for the Middle East. The latest bust in Germany gives credence to the report. 

The report states that around 127 million tablets (1,773 kilograms) of the drug were reportedly seized by EU member states from 2018 to 2023. The largest seizure of 84 million tablets was in Salerno, Italy, in 2020.

Drug dealing and smuggling in Berlin

Captagon is reportedly also being produced in the EU, predominantly in illegal laboratories in the Netherlands. The drug is most commonly produced from amphetamine powder.

The EMCDDA report also underlines the need for coordinated EU action to tackle the production of Captagon within the EU, and prevent the EU being used as a transshipment zone for Captagon produced in the Middle East.

At the time of writing, no data was available on the estimated usage of the drug in EU countries and the Middle East.

This piece was first published on September 19, 2023. It was updated on December 21, 2023 to include details of the drug bust by German authorities.

Edited by: Sushmitha Ramakrishnan

DW journalist Fred Schwaller wears a white T-shirt and jeans.
Fred Schwaller Science writer fascinated by the brain and the mind, and how science influences society@schwallerfred