Captagon, commonly known as “poor man’s cocaine,” has become the drug of choice among young adults throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Captagon was made illegal in most countries in 1986 and no longer available in medical markets. However, an illegal version of Captagon appeared in Eastern Europe and the Middle East in the early 2000s.

What is Captagon?

Captagon is a synthetic drug originally made in Germany and intended to treat attention deficit disorder.

Captagon use is widespread among young people in the Middle East, most commonly as a party drug.

Fighters in the Syrian conflict reportedly frequently use the drug to increase their 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 effect on the nervous system is similar to that of amphetamine. As a psychostimulant, Captagon can produce euphoria, increased alertness, and increased physical and mental performance.

However, heavy consumption carries the risk of impaired cognitive function and cardiovascular defects. It can also be addictive.

A major problem is that some of the pills manufactured in illegal laboratories contain large amounts of fenethylline. The composition of today’s Captagon can vary greatly, and the lack of knowledge increases the risk that they contain toxic chemicals.

Syrian fighters are reportedly using Captagon to improve combat endurance. Image: Ammar Safarjalani/Xinhua/IMAGO

Where is Captagon made?

Syria has become the largest producer and exporter of Captagon over the past decade, leading commentators to call it the drug state of the Middle East.

According to a statement from the British government, 80% of the world’s Captagon is produced in Syria.

Captagon’s popularity skyrocketed in Syria following the 2011 Arab Spring protests. Investigative reports from major media outlets such as the BBC have revealed how the Syrian drug industry facilitates all phases of Captagon production and smuggling.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denies any organized efforts by his government to profit from the drug.

Captagon has become an economic lifeline for the Syrian government. Strict international sanctions have been in place against Syria since war broke out in 2011.

In 2021 alone, Captagon’s drug trade in Syria was worth an estimated $5.7 billion (€5.35 billion).

The drug is exported primarily to the Gulf states and neighboring Iraq and Jordan, often hidden in products such as grains and fruits.

Lebanon’s Hezbollah, a close ally of the Assad regime, is also reportedly a major producer of the drug.

President Bashar al-Assad’s government has allowed the illegal production and export of Captagon. Image: via REUTERS

Where is Captagon exported to?

Captagon has become a major problem for Middle Eastern countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

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

Jordan is a serious player in the fight against illegal trafficking. The country’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, announced in July that over 65 million Captagon pills had been seized in the last two years.

The Jordanian army has reportedly introduced a shoot-to-kill policy against drug smugglers on the border with Syria.

In August 2022, Saudi authorities seized over 46 million pills smuggled in a shipment of flour through the dry port of Riyadh.

Is Captagon spreading elsewhere?

There are no reliable statistics on Captagon use and authorities do not know how widespread the drug is worldwide.

However, there is growing concern that Captagon is increasingly becoming an issue for European countries.

A new report from the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) suggests that Europe could become an important transit point for Captagon to the Middle East.

According to the report, 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 occurred in Salerno, Italy in 2020.

Captagon is also reportedly manufactured in the EU, mostly in illegal laboratories in the Netherlands. The drug is most commonly made from amphetamine powder.

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

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

Edited by: Sushmitha Ramakrishnan

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