An amphetamine popular in the Middle East has found a new home in Syria. The war-torn country is a safe haven for producing, consuming and selling cheap counterfeit versions of the illicit drug.
While many industries in Syria have been curtailed by the fighting, production of Captagon, a synthetic stimulant originally created in the 1960s and used to treat attention-deficit disorder, has enjoyed burgeoning demand.
As the conflict in Syria slogs through the winter months, Captagon has become a popular respite from the war, helping combatants dig in for long, grueling battles, Reuters reports.
With porous borders and little oversight in many areas of the country, Syria is a lucrative production hub for brewers and smugglers of the illegal amphetamine.
Banned in nearly every country by 1986, Captagon is most popular on the Arabian Peninsula, where more than half of those seeking treatment in Saudi Arabia are addicted to the stimulant. A 2013 World Drug Report conducted by the U.N. found that nearly 30 percent of amphetamines seized by narcotics agents worldwide came from Saudi Arabia.
The United Arab Emirates is also a large consumer, as late last month 4.6 million Captagon pills—worth $31 million—were seized within its borders. One Lebanese Captagon smuggler told NPR that he liked crossing Syria on his way to the Arabian peninsula because, with the ongoing lawlessness, he could easily pay off Syrian officials if confronted.
The Syrian Captagon trade does not seem to be one-sided, either. While a Sunni family in a rebel-controlled region of Homs was arrested for manufacturing the amphetamine, Hezbollah-affiliated traffickers, loyal to Syrian Pres. Bashar Al Assad, have also been known to operate in Syria.
Lebanon, specifically the Bekaa Valley, has traditionally been a large producer and exporter of Captagon, but the war in Syria seems to be attracting Syrians and Lebanese drug-makers alike to its chaotic cities.
Earlier this month, anti-drug officials in the Bekaa arrested four Lebanese and two Syrian men near the border with Syria for possession of an electrical Captagon pill-producing machine as well as 300 liters of amphetamine, the primary ingredient of the pills.
Additionally, last week Lebanese officials confiscated 3.4 kilos of Captagon pills from a Syrian man at Beirut’s airport. The man had booked a flight the same day to Saudi Arabia. The seizure seems to suggest that production has shifted from Lebanon to Syria.
Production of Captagon in Lebanon fell 90 percent in 2013 from two years earlier, according to one pill trafficker, who also attests the drop to a transfer in production to Syria. Seizures of Captagon in Syria reportedly add up to hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
The market in Syria has been growing, as well, as the effects of Captagon include euphoria, increased energy and lack of appetite—all desirable by combatants. Counterfeit Captagon pills have also been reported to be much stronger than the real deal. The fakes include not only amphetamine, but also caffeine and other adulterants.
With poverty, hunger, and depression on the rise among soldiers and civilians in Syria, it’s no wonder that the drug is so appealing.