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.
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 where it was intended to treat attention deficiency disorders.
Use of Captagon is prevalent among youngsters in the Middle East, most commonly as a party drug.
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 make-up 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 in the last decade, causing commentators to name it the Middle East's narco state.
A UK government statement estimated 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 denies any organised efforts by his government to profit from the drug.
Captagon has become an economic lifeline for the Syrian government. Severe international sanctions have been in place on Syria since the outbreak of the war in 2011.
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 neighbouring 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 UAE.
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 over 65 million Captagon pills were seized during 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 non-existent and authorities remain blind to how widespread the drug is around the world.
However, there are rising concerns that Captagon is increasingly becoming an issue for European countries as well.
A new report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) suggests Europe could become a key transshipment area for Captagon bound for the Middle East.
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.
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.
Edited by: Sushmitha Ramakrishnan