Middle East in grip of Captagon contagion

Even though the production of the drug ceased, it's illegal manufacture continued and spread far and wide

By Ehtesham Shahid

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Published: Tue 21 Jun 2022, 11:37 PM

Last updated: Wed 22 Jun 2022, 11:00 PM

Last checked, Captagon was a synthetic stimulant called fenethylline prescribed to stimulate the central nervous system and increase alertness and concentration.

Presented in the 1960s as an alternative to amphetamine and methamphetamine – then used to treat chronic sleep disorders, fatigue, and behavioural disorder – the drug was banned a couple of decades later, in 1986. The ban was attributed to its addictive qualities.

This was when the real trouble began. Even though its production ceased, the drug’s illegal manufacture continued and spread far and wide. Fast forward to today, and Captagon has become a menace in the Middle East. Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon are incessantly on alert. Beyond drug use, it has the potential to turn into a serious public health threat, considering the lack of de-addiction infrastructure. Drug addiction is a relatively new phenomenon in this part of the world, so the know-how to deal with it is still in its nascent stages.

According to a Newlines Institute study, Captagon trade is a rapidly growing illicit economy in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. “While the trade had an estimated value of $3.46 billion in 2020, based on large-scale seizures alone, the potential value of the retail trade in 2021 is estimated at over $5.7 billion,” says Newlines’ April 5, 2022 report. The drug’s production patterns in Syria have shifted “from smaller, fragmented operations in rebel-held areas to industrial, containerized operations.” Captagon has even been described as “a new Syrian-Iranian weapon that threatens the region.”

Terror outfits have jumped on the bandwagon to consume it and smuggle it to make money. Indeed, it is poisoning a generation, the most obvious collateral damage. It also makes neighborly relations – already fragile due to terror and tyranny – even more tense. The lack of a functioning regional mechanism to deal with the challenge collectively makes it difficult to disrupt the criminal networks involved in the drug trade.

The circumstances are not ideal for countries where youth are already confronted with the dreadful choice of staying alert or staying alive. It is more so in countries embattled by decades-old brutal conflict with teens forced to become child soldiers and mercenaries struggling to put food on the family’s table.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that approximately 36.3 million people need treatment for drug use disorders (DUDs) globally. Yet, only one in eight in need has access to treatment. According to UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly, the Covid-19 pandemic has pushed over 100 million people into extreme poverty, greatly exacerbating unemployment and inequalities, as the world lost 114 million jobs in 2020. “In doing so, it has created conditions that leave more people susceptible to drug use and to engaging in illicit crop cultivation,” Waly says in the World Drugs Report of 2021.

Nowhere has the menace manifested in the region more than on the borders between Jordan and Syria. The two countries cannot see eye-to-eye on the subject of drug smuggling. It has been going on for some time, growing in scale and intensity and potentially spiraling out of control. Going by these dire circumstances, the two sides have no choice but to pool their resources, use negotiation skills, find collective solutions, and address the flow of funds because drugs and terror seem to be feeding off each other.

Things appeared to be getting out of hand in December last year when a shipment of fake oranges with nearly nine million Captagon tablets, “heading for a Gulf country,” was intercepted at a Beirut port. Reports suggested much of it was bound for illegal recreational use. Since then, Jordan, a destination and transit route for Captagon, has toughened its “rules of engagement” with smugglers.

Earlier this year, Jordan said 160 groups of traffickers are operating in southern Syria, near its border. They confirmed security channels had been established for communication with the Syrian regime. Within the first two months of 2022, Jordan’s army killed 30 smugglers and foiled attempts to smuggle 16 million Captagon pills into the country from Syria. This was more in number than the pills seized in the entire 2021. Not surprisingly, a senior Jordanian officer described the menace as “fighting an undeclared war.”

We are all one in fighting this scourge. In the UAE, frequent seizures hauled Dh135 million worth of drugs in 2022 alone. The authorities handled 201 drug trafficking and promotion cases during the same period. The Cabin, Saudi Arabia’s addiction treatment program, calls Captagon “highly addictive.” Drugs such as these, and numerous others, come in all shapes and sizes and call for collective and concerted efforts. However, if coordination in countries hit most severely by it doesn’t move beyond border control, it could become a bitter pill to swallow.

The writer is a senior journalist and researcher.

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