x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The scourge of amphetamines is stalking across the GCC

In the GCC states, research over the past 30 years has repeatedly identified alcohol, heroin and cannabis are the most commonly abused substances. The relatively low rate of amphetamine abuse reported in these studies is particularly noteworthy.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime suggests cannabis is the world's most widely used illicit drug, with between 125 and 203 million users. The next most widely consumed illicit substances are amphetamine-type stimulants (collectively known by the acronym ATS). The ATS group includes amphetamine sulphate, methamphetamine and MDMA (more commonly known as "ecstasy"), among others.

In the GCC states, research over the past 30 years has repeatedly identified alcohol, heroin and cannabis are the most commonly abused substances. Studies from Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE all concur.

The relatively low rate of amphetamine abuse reported in these studies is particularly noteworthy. This may reflect the reduced availability of ATS, or perhaps a preference for or a greater availability of other substances. Certainly, the GCC's proximity to major centres of opium and cannabis cultivation probably contributes to the availability of these substances.

However, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime suggests this is a situation that may soon change. There is particular anxiety that amphetamine-producing criminal organisations are seeking new markets in the region.

The 2011 World Drug Report, which charted developments in drug markets and the factors that drive them, pointed to a growing availability of amphetamines across the GCC. The report actually ranked Saudi Arabia as first in the world for amphetamine seizures. In 2009, Saudi Arabia accounted for 21 per cent of all seizures worldwide, ahead of the United States, which was ranked second, with 12 per cent of seizures.

Similarly, UAE law enforcement authorities recently reported an increase in crystalline methamphetamine, with the 122 kilograms seized last year significantly exceeding the amount - 41 kilograms - seized the year before.

However, the most common illicit stimulant finding its way into the region takes the form of counterfeit Captagon pills. The actual content of these pills varies from batch to batch and over time. But instead of fenethylline, the active drug in the once legal pharmaceutical version, illegal Captagon tends to contain amphetamine, methamphetamine and caffeine, along with other non-stimulant substances such as procain and quinine.

Captagon seizures in the region have risen steadily over the past decade, with Saudi Arabia contributing most significantly to this increase. In January 2010, a single seizure in Saudi Arabia accounted for eight million pills, believed to have originated from Turkey.

Cooperation between Turkish and Saudi security forces led to the identification and destruction of a large Captagon laboratory in Turkey in 2009. This laboratory is reported to have had the capacity to produce 200 million tablets per year.

Saudi Arabia, however, is not the only destination. Four million Captagon pills were seized in Dubai in 2009; Qatari authorities seized 2.2 million pills in 2010. There are similar Captagon seizures reported from Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain.

Of particular concern is evidence of domestic production of Captagon in the region. In June 2010, Saudi Arabian authorities identified and dismantled the first clandestine laboratory for Captagon found within its own borders.

But why has this particular drug developed such regional popularity? Sometimes referred to as Abu Hilalain (the "father of the two crescent moons", on account of the logo imprinted on the pills), media suggest Captagon is used recreationally by young people to stay awake and as a weight-loss aid.

A thinner body image ideal has become increasingly important in the region, particularly for women and girls. It would be interesting to examine how this trend figures into druge abuse patterns.

Perhaps Captagon's pill form, which does not require it to be snorted or ingested using smoking paraphernalia, eliminates some of the stigma. Similarly, the drug's legitimate-sounding pharmaceutical name may lend it a comforting credibility, making it easier to market and consume in societies where intoxicants are considered both immoral and illegal.

More stimulants are finding their way to the GCC, and perhaps even being produced here. Are more people consuming these drugs, and if so, what are the consequences?

 

Justin Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi