“The Syrian conflict’s drug,” “the jihadists’ drug”… Over the decades, the stimulant known as Captagon has acquired various nicknames, fueling the collective imagination. But what is it exactly? What is it used for and, most importantly, what are its short and long-term effects?

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Captagon is an amphetamine-based stimulant. Despite being illegal, its affordability and ease of production have made it a prominent target for trafficking, particularly in the Middle East. If it truly gained popularity among fighters during the Syrian conflict, its demand has been consistently high in the Gulf States since the 1990s, where a diverse clientele is attracted by the effects of this inexpensive speed.

“Taking Captagon leads to biological changes in the brain, resulting in increased levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline, explains psychiatrist Ramzi Haddad to This is Beirut. The psychoactive effects primarily stem from the actions on dopamine and serotonin, inducing feelings of euphoria, happiness, strength, and heightened alertness and concentration.”

Captagon is a counterfeit version of a now-banned eponymous drug. Originally developed to treat narcolepsy, hyperactivity, and depression, the drug’s harmful effects outweighed its benefits, leading to its prohibition in the 1980s, according to Dr. Haddad. As a result, the current formulation of Captagon differs from the original product, as the active ingredient, fenetylline, is no longer in production. Its composition varies and can be unpredictable, with caffeine being a common element, as noted by Laurent Laniel, a researcher at the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), in his 2017 report entitled “Captagon: Deconstruction of a Myth.”

“Analyses conducted by the German Bundeskriminalamt on four samples from different Captagon seizures made in Lebanon in 2013 show tablets containing 8% to 14% amphetamine sulfate, 12% to 35% caffeine, 10% to 14% of theophylline, 6% to 20% of paracetamol and 30% to 50% of various excipients,” Laniel’s report states. According to Dr. Haddad, it is not surprising for caffeine to be the primary component found in Captagon tablets, as it enhances the stimulant effects.

Regarding amphetamines, different types can be used. “There are amphetamines, of course, but also methamphetamine, which is a variant of it”, Dr. Haddad points out. Additionally, the exact composition and quantity of amphetamine in Captagon are not always clear or consistent. In fact, its harmful effects primarily stem from this component, which can lead to acute delirium or hallucinations, as well as a lack of fatigue. Furthermore, the Doctor specifies that there is also a long-term risk of developing psychosis, which may persist even if the Captagon consumption has stopped.

A Cheap Drug

Being an inexpensive drug, Captagon is more prevalent in certain areas. “In Beirut, we encounter few patients who have taken Captagon,” explains the psychiatrist. “But from what I hear, this substance is more commonly found in border regions such as North Lebanon and in socio-economically deprived environments.”

It is worth noting that the Lebanese production seems indeed better intended for export than for local consumption. According to the latest global report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), “Lebanon and the Syrian Arab Republic are most often cited as countries of origin for Captagon tablets.”

Latest seizure to date: on April 14, 2023, Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF) seized 10 million pills intended for smuggling to Senegal and then Saudi Arabia. Two days earlier, the ISF conducted a raid, resulting in the confiscation of 120,000 pills from a residence in Qabeit, in the Akkar district. Additionally, during an investigation in Loueizeh (Mount Lebanon) the month before, the Lebanese Information Branch’s special forces discovered a machine containing approximately 160,000 Captagon pills. And the list goes on.

On the Syrian side, the massive industrial production of this amphetamine is carried out under the leadership of Bashar Al-Assad, with affiliated networks responsible for transporting the shipments to the Arabian Peninsula. Until the 2000s, it was the Balkan countries and Turkey that supplied the Arab market with tablets mainly manufactured in Slovenia, Serbia and Bulgaria. But the repressive policies implemented by these countries have led to a relocation of production to the Middle East, closer to the demand.

“What’s important about Captagon is that it is unexpensive to make, Dr. Haddad points out. It only requires a bit of knowledge in biochemistry and a bit of equipment. It is cheap compared to other stimulants like cocaine or crystal methamphetamine. The cost of manufacturing the tablet does not exceed half a dollar.” Consequently, the potential profit margin is substantial, particularly when the product is resold in countries with high purchasing power, such as Saudi Arabia, which is identified as the primary consumer of Captagon in the aforementioned report.

The Pseudo-Drug of Jihadists

Apart from their recreational use, amphetamines are also employed by certain fighters to enhance their abilities. During the Second World War, soldiers, particularly Americans, resorted to this stimulant to combat fatigue and increase their vigilance.

More recently, Captagon has occasionally been referred to as the fuel behind the war in Syria, utilized by fighters from various factions. Its usage is therefore not exclusive to the Islamic State, not to mention that the extent of Captagon use among its members remains a subject of debate. Its reputation as a jihadist drug should therefore be nuanced.

As the EMCDDA report demonstrates, “Captagon has not been implicated in the various […] attacks committed since 2015 in France, Belgium, Germany, the United Kingdom, Denmark or Sweden,” contrary to the widespread rumors propagated by some media at the time. Furthermore, the report emphasizes that “the association between Captagon and jihadist terrorism was constructed through a rhetorical process based on plausible elements” rather than solid evidence.