PoliticsThis is the niche, dirty drug that landed a Saudi prince
A Saudi prince was allegedly busted with two metric tons of Captagon, or likely, its counterfeit brew of amphetamines popular on the Syrian battlefield. We talked to the DEA about its origins.
Yesterday, Saudi Prince Abdel Mohsen bin Walid bin Abdulaziz was detained in Beirut, Lebanon, after allegedly being caught with an astonishing two metric tons of amphetamines in the process of being loaded onto his private jet. This is being reported as the largest drug seizure in the history of Beirut's airport.
The drug, known as Captagon, generic name fenethylline, started life in 1961 as a stimulant meant to treat "hyperkinetic disorder," which is known today as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Fenethylline is kind of a molecular Frankenstein that consists of amphetamine and theophylline merged together. It never received FDA approval in the US and was banned worldwide in the 1980s because of its addictive properties. It retains a strange hold over the Middle East, where it never went out of fashion.
"It's really kind of a niche drug; I don't really have an answer as to why it's popular in the Arab countries," DEA Special Agent and Spokesman Joseph Moses tells Hopes&Fears.
PHOTO: Nikolay Doychinov/Reuters. A customs officer displays Captagon pills, part of the 789 kilogrammes (1739 pounds) of confiscated drugs, before its incineration in Sofia, Bulgaria, July 12, 2007. The drugs are worth around 68 million Levs (48 million dollars). Hopes&Fears learned that Captagon is often produced in Eastern Europe, shipped to Turkey and then to other countries in the Middle East.
Captagon pills remain available, with no guarantee that they contains any actual fenethylline. "One of the problems with a Captagon tablet is that it can be pretty much anything you want to put in Captagon," says Moses.
While formerly a brand name, "Captagon" has now become a generic term for any stimulant pill with made by illicit production means and reproduced to have a uniform look. (This is similar to how ecstasy pills went from containing MDMA to just any party drug.) Counterfeit Captagon tablets are often filled with fenethylline substitutes like amphetamines and caffeine.
"In the past when I worked in that region, you'd see it as an amphetamine generally mixed with caffeine, as well as some other chemicals," Moses, who worked in Turkey from 1999 to 2004, recalls.
"A lot of times, it was produced in Eastern Europe, shipped to a country like Turkey, then smuggled into other countries in the Middle East where it was consumed for its euphoric effects, and effects on libido, a Viagra-like effect." While amphetamine use can lead to "marathon sex" sessions, it can also cause erectile dysfunction and the inability to orgasm.
Military use of stimulants
While Metro referred to Captagon as "the drug of choice for ISIS fighters," they cited "some reports" as well as the Guardian for this assertion. The linked Guardian article discusses the combat use of Captagon in Syria, with the exception of "al-Qaida-linked groups, which mostly hold to a strict interpretation of Islamic law." (al-Qaida cut ties with ISIS in 2014.) The article notes that aside from combat use, the drug is "becoming widespread among Syria's increasingly desperate civilian population."
The war in Syria has shifted drug habits and distribution in the region. The crumbling of government institutions, the outflux of refugees fleeing the war, and constant grinding warfare has turned the country into a major producer, consumer, and exporter of Captagon. No one knows exactly why the prince was smuggling such a large amount, but Captagon's psychostimulant effects perk up the average user.
Fighters in Syria have a decidedly different reason for using Captagon. Stimulants reduce the need to eat and sleep along with increased alertness, important properties for fighters enduring long battles. All sides accuse one another of Captagon abuse. Kurdish militias decry Islamic militants for using Captagon in spite of an Islamic prohibition on drug use. Syrian government forces show off caches of pills allegedly taken from rebel positions.
The military use of stimulants is well documented. Methamphetamine was given to both Axis and Allied soldiers during WWII. After the war, Japan experienced a meth epidemic as people raided military stocks. Dextroamphetamine is still used by the US Air Force to keep pilots awake, and an IDF source tells Hopes&Fears that they’re used by Israeli pilots as well. However, these "go pills" can cause psychosis in large doses and were blamed for a friendly fire incident. The US military has researched Schedule IV drug modafinil as a safer alternative. (Modafinil is not considered a stimulant; its side effects are much less severe and it performance and cognitive enhancements are weaker than amphetamines.)
The Effects of amphetamines
Effects: General performance and cognitive enhancement via stimulation, increased alertness and libido, wakefulness, strength, goal-directed behavior, concentration, decreased fatigue, reaction time
Negative Side Effects: Euphoria, mood swings, anxiety, irritability, teeth grinding, obsessive behaviors, stomach pain, increased heart rate, erectile dysfunction, frequent erections, prolonged erections, loss of appetite, nausea, weight loss, difficulty urinating, insomnia
Overdose Effects: Stimulant psychosis, multiple organs can fail, cerebral hemorrhage, rapid muscle breakdown, serotonin syndrome, overheating
A "very niche" "Arab" drug
To the DEA accounts, the popularity of Captagon and its unpredictable party contents in the Middle East is high and inexplicable.
"As soon as you got into Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and other countries, it was sort of the drug of choice, whereas if you would go to resort cities like Antalya, it just didn't catch on; the drugs there might be ecstasy," says Moses. "This Middle East is just historically been the destination where smugglers were looking to get that product to. It's definitely a niche drug for that area." Moses says that the DEA has not really seen large quantities of the product going into other countries.
"We could catch, say 100,000 Captagon tablets, and everybody that the DEA spoke to would say 'Yeah, I want to get it to, you know, name the other country in the Middle East.' We would ask, 'Is any of it staying here?' and it was like 'Eh, maybe a little.' A very small quantity remained in Istanbul; it didn't have that appeal there. It's funny, I remember speaking to one cop who said even the small amount of Captagon that remained in Istanbul, the buyers would be not necessarily Turkish, they would be Arabs. It's just very niche in the Middle East."
drug possession in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia follows the Hanbali school of Sharia Law and has no civil code. Sentencing is determined by the judge. Death sentences are often reserved for drug smuggling, but it happens for simple possession as well.
Executions for drug-related offenses rose from just 4% in 2010 and 2011 to 28% in 2012 and 32% in 2013. By 2014 and June 2015 the percentage had risen to 47% according to Amnesty International.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING: Kelsey Lawrence