Syrian crisis: the booming business of Captagon

During wars, psychoactive substances have always been the secret weapon of military troops. History reveals that this is true even if we go as far as the Napoleonic wars (1803-1815), where British soldiers were encouraged to drink alcohol to boost their immunity against diseases. In reality, the main reason was to boost the morale of the stressed and demoralized troops.

The increase of drugs production, consumption and illegal trafficking during conflicts, have three objectives: an economic resource for the country in war, funding of military and terrorist activities, and an increase in soldiers’ energy, alertness, motivation and pleasure to fight and kill.

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), drugs originating from Europe, and Middle Eastern countries like Turkey and Lebanon and heading to Gulf States, was transferred through Syria. But since the conflict, Syria became the biggest producer of an amphetamine-type stimulant (ATS), the Captagon, which is used by fighters from both sides, and Lebanon became the exporting country: a new front in the regional drug war was opened.

Captagon (or Biocapton) is the trademark name of Fenethylline, an amphetamine-type stimulant (ATS) used between the 1960s and 1980s, to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), narcolepsy and depression. Being highly addictive, it was withdrawn from the market.

After oral ingestion, Fenethylline is metabolized into two active molecules, amphetamine and theophylline, which induce the secretion in the brain of dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine, hormones respectively responsible of pleasure, reward, energy and stimulation.

The clinical effects, characterized by an increased energy and productivity, appetite suppression, sense of euphoria, enhanced self-confidence and talkativeness, appear only a few minutes after ingestion with a maximum at 15 minutes, and they last for 10 to 12 hours. Thus, fighters under the effect of Captagon feel energetic and are less vulnerable to pressure and fatigue.

Despite being manufactured in a simple and cheap process, using legally sold ingredients, fraudulent Captagon pills exist on the market, with unexpected physical and psychological effects.

The new drug epidemic in the Middle East?

Captagon (an amphetamine-type stimulant unknown elsewhere), is mainly consumed by fighters in Syria and by the youth in the wealthy Gulf states, in particular Saudi Arabia, and recently by Syrian refugees in Lebanon. As of 2012, Iranian youth widely replaced opium imported from neighboring Afghanistan, with methamphetamine.

Beside Cannabis, heroin, cocaine, the Middle East, as other regions around the world, reports an increase in the use of a variety of synthetic drugs such as amphetamine-like stimulants (ATS), methamphetamine and the 500 potentially harmful new psychoactive substances (NPS). Unfortunately, even at the international level, we lack accurate data concerning the varieties of NPS available as well as their health threat.

The increase in variety and in quantity of NPS, manufactured by the chemical manipulation of legal ingredients, is an uncontrollable global issue. Their consequences could be dramatic on society, individuals’ health, corruption, criminality, trafficking… thus, requiring an urgent new global approach.

Cheap and easy to manufacture, Captagon is a prosperous business directly benefiting from the war raging in Syria. Will it be replaced in the future and in response to market demands, by new psychoactive substances (NPS)?

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