The illicit trade of Captagon, an amphetamine-type stimulant, has taken the Middle East by storm in the last five years. While demand for the drug has exploded in the Arab Gulf, primarily Saudi Arabia, producers in regime-held Syria and along the Lebanese-Syrian border have built out capabilities and sophisticated networks for industrial-scale Captagon production and trafficking.
The trade has been estimated to grow from a $3.47bn trade in 2020 into a $10bn trade in 2022, a major alternative revenue stream for actors behind the trade.
The Captagon trade has also burgeoned into a top-line agenda item for normalisation discussions with the Syrian regime, which is considered a pivotal actor with extensive agency over production and trafficking.
In the last few weeks, regional governments have conducted a series of agreements proposing direct counter-narcotics cooperation and border security measures with Damascus, all while the US, UK, and EU have discouraged direct engagement and have imposed sanctions on key Syrian and Lebanese Captagon traffickers.
Yet still, not enough is known about the Captagon trade—its history, role in the Levant, and impact on regional geopolitics.
From Europe to the Middle East
Decades ago, Captagon was first a licit drug available on the pharmaceutical market. The drug was created by a German pharmaceutical company, Degussa Pharma Group, for the treatment of attention-deficit disorders, hyperactivity, abulia, brain injuries, and narcolepsy, although there are reports of some seeking Captagon to treat weight loss amongst other reasons.
The formula of Captagon was fenethylline, containing under 15% of theophylline and 25% amphetamine in an oral dose. However, the health consequences of Captagon and newer, safer alternatives on the licit market prompted the drug to be phased out.
In 1981, the drug was listed as a controlled substance and then in 1986, it was designated by the World Health Organization under the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances. Yet while countries began to phase out their fenethylline stocks throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, a new phenomenon developed as the drug began to shift into the black market.
While Captagon was no longer available over the counter, actors still sought to produce the drug, particularly in the Balkans where Soviet-era factories were equipped to manufacture Captagon in large amounts.
For years, the drug’s first production hub as an illicit substance remained in the Balkans, particularly Bulgaria, where organised crime groups facilitated operations and identified major markets for consumption in the Middle East.