War drugs: Syria seizes 14 million Captagon amphetamine pills

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The Syrian Interior Ministry reported Wednesday that law enforcement officials in the major Syrian port city of Latakia had seized fourteen million pills of “Captagon,” a popular amphetamine widely manufactured in Syria and sold across the Middle East.

The arrest – which followed a similar seizure of 249 kilograms worth of pills worth 249 kilograms in Latakia hidden in heavy machinery – netted the Syrian government 2,103 kilograms of Captagon, or approximately 2.3 tons. This marks the largest seizure of pills in Syria in years, although Middle East officials seized a total of around 145 million pills in the first half of 2022, according to AFP.

Originally manufactured in the 1960s as a mild alternative to stronger amphetamines, Captagon was first used as a prescription to treat narcolepsy and depression. However, it has been used far more widely as a “party drug” among wealthy Gulf elites, where its psychostimulant properties are used to keep party-goers active for extended hours. It was also used by migrant workers in the Middle East to work into the night.

However, the more notorious use of Captagon was in combat in Syria and Iraq, where it is widely used to keep soldiers awake and alert and to promote a sense of invincibility. At the start of the conflict, almost all sides in the Syrian civil war, including the publicly anti-drug terrorist group Islamic State (ISIS), were manufacturing the drug, both for the use of their soldiers and as a lucrative export product to fund military activities. However, following the Assad government’s consolidation of power in southern and western Syria, the country has emerged as the world’s largest producer of Captagon, which is illegally manufactured and exported by the regime and business elite to generate revenue and circumvent heavy international sanctions. Syrian allies, particularly the political party-turned Hezbollah militia, have been implicated in smuggling pills from Syria to the capitals of wealthy Persian Gulf states.

The Captagon economy is believed to be worth at least $5 billion, and anti-drug law enforcement groups in the Middle East have warned the market is continuing to grow. Despite being widely blamed for the drug’s proliferation, the Syrian government has denied any involvement in its manufacture and has regularly seized small quantities, possibly to show its law enforcement agencies remain vigilant about drug trafficking.

Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs journalist national interests.

Image: Reuters.

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