x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Drug lords cash in on Syria’s collapse

Amid all the human suffering, some people are making millions after moving their business operations to the war-torn country.

Captagon pills displayed along with a cup of cocaine and hashish at an office of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF), Anti-Narcotics Division in Beirut on June 11, 2010. Joseph Eid / AFP Photo
Captagon pills displayed along with a cup of cocaine and hashish at an office of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF), Anti-Narcotics Division in Beirut on June 11, 2010. Joseph Eid / AFP Photo

Out of the misery and human cost of the Syrian conflict comes a new danger that could threaten the whole region.

While most economic activity in the country has collapsed, hundreds of millions of dollars are reportedly being made through making and trafficking an illegal, addictive amphetamine.

Reuters has revealed that the breakdown in law and order over the past few years has opened up a market for criminals to make and sell “captagon” tablets.

The drug provides revenues that could be used to pay for weapons for the rebel forces, and is reportedly helping their fighters to keep up their energy levels during long hours of battle.

Cheap and easy to make, captagon’s use has spread far beyond Syria’s borders, into the Arabian Gulf.

More than a third of the world’s amphetamine seizures happen in Saudi Arabia, and last month in Dubai police uncovered a smuggled consignment of nearly five million tablets.

What makes the drug so unusual is that it is almost unknown outside of the Arabian Gulf. Its origins are unclear, although a prescription drug called Captagon first went on sale in the 1960s.

Originally the trade name for a medicine containing fenetylline, the synthetic stimulant was used for about 25 years, most commonly to treat children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and sometimes as a mild antidepressant.

It became a Category 1 drug under the US Controlled SubstanceSubstances Act. This means it has a high potential for abuse, no accepted medical use in treatment in America, or a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.

In 1986 the World Health Organisation added it to the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances list, which determines import and export restrictions and other rules.

Many countries then made fenetylline illegal, and production of Captagon ceased in 1987.

But the drug refused to die. Counterfeit versions of the brand began to appear.

The chemical composition of captagon as it is peddled today owes nothing to the original brand beyond the name, and uses a combination of substances to mimic the original’s stimulative effect.

“It is marketed as captagon but we know from the literature coming from areas around the UAE, such as Iraq, that it is not really the same chemical structure,” says Dr Tarek Abdel Gawad, the director of treatment and rehabilitation at the National Rehabilitation Centre in Abu Dhabi.

“It has a similar effect but it is not the same structure as it was in the 1980s. The way they manufacture it is with [readily] available substances, unfortunately. They produce it en masse, so it is cheap. If you have the ingredients, you can do it.”

The increasing use of Captagon in the Middle East was highlighted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) five years ago.

“The primary market for captagon has traditionally been countries in the Near and Middle East, where it is popular among the younger, affluent population and where it has also enjoyed a reputation as a sexual stimulant since the beginning of the 1980s,” the agency noted in its annual report.

It said the 1986 ban was prompted by the abuse and misuse of fenetylline from the 1970s.

“Similar to what has happened with other [amphetamine-type drugs] that have been placed under control, counterfeit or fake products started to appear,” it said.

“In the case of Captagon, pharmaceutical companies are reported to have been approached to produce counterfeit Captagon tablets. Subsequently, clandestine operators moved to the production of entirely fake products that did not contain any fenetylline, but combinations of substances that mimic the effects of the original products.”

While much is known about the drug’s use in the Middle East and beyond, much less is known about its manufacture, trafficking and the end users.

Dr Abdel Gawad says most of those who take it are young people.

“They are young, maybe in their early twenties,” he said. “I think they started outside the UAE using it as a party drug, and they used it here.

“It was also used among young people or students before exams, when they would want to be more alert and survive on little sleep to study more. They experience a kind of euphoria and exhilaration and an increase in energy, but then later the side effects will show up and they will crash down.”

The most recent and reliable information on trafficking and manufacture is from the 2009 UN report, which published details of “notable Near and Middle East trafficking routes of amphetamine-group substances”, showing the common routes the drug takes from production to market.

The busiest route is from Poland and Bulgaria, through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, and into Saudi Arabia. The tablets are also trafficked by sea from Turkey into Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE and Qatar.

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction says Bulgaria and, to a lesser extent, Turkey are the significant producers of captagon, “although it is likely that captagon manufacture also occurs elsewhere but goes undetected” and the “tablets are mostly not intended for consumption in the EU”.

Between 2001 and 2007, 18 mainly large-scale amphetamine production plants were found in Bulgaria, all associated with production of captagon.

Despite its prevalence, there has been little research into what today’s version of the drug is made of, besides amphetamine, caffeine and a number of other controlled and non-controlled substances.

Reuters quotes a member of a prominent drug-trading family in Lebanon as saying that production in his country had fallen by 90 per cent last year compared with 2011. He attributed the drop to a shift in manufacture to Syria as the country breaks down.

The head of Lebanon’s drug enforcement, Col Ghassan Chamseddine, agrees that production is moving to Syria, with the tablets moved in bulk by road to Lebanese ports for shipment to the Arabian Gulf.

Figures show that 12.3 million captagon pills were seized in Lebanon last year, says the report, with most coming from raids in the Bekaa Valley on the Syrian border.

So far there have been no wide-scale official studies into the levels of production in Lebanon or Syria.

But the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction acknowledges that a sharp drop in the number of tablets seized in Turkey in the past six years, does “support the thesis that the manufacture of captagon tablets has been relocated outside south-eastern Europe”.

The UNODC reveals that seizures of substances other than amphetamine barely appear in seizure data for the Middle East, making up less than 1 per cent of the total amount.

“Amphetamine seizures in the region have increased considerably since 2002 and remained at high levels since 2006, in spite of a drop to about 13.6 tons in 2010, reaching 20 tons in 2011,” the agency said.

It added that figures for the existing use of amphetamine-type substances in the region were unlikely to reflect the true extent of amphetamine use, which is likely to be much higher.

Saudi Arabia ranks first in the world for amphetamine seizures, with 11 tonnes in 2011 (the most recent figures available). This represents 37 per cent of global hauls and 58 per cent of those made in the Near and Middle East. Syria and Jordan follow Saudi Arabia, with four tonnes each.

The UAE has also has had some significant seizures. Last month Dubai Police smashed a drug-smuggling gang and seized more than 4.6 million amphetamine pills that were being moved from a warehouse in Al Aweer.

Three men were charged with possession of narcotics and psychotropic substances with intent to distribute and export.

Maj Gen Khamis Al Muzainah, the chief of Dubai Police, said it was the largest amount of amphetamines seized in the UAE but that there was “very limited demand” for captagon in the country.

The tablets, found in 14 travel bags, five metal containers and many plastic bags, were reportedly worth Dh115 million and destined for an unnamed country, not for use in the Emirates, he said.

Dr Abdel Gawad says he has heard of manufacturing in Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Syria, although official records are scarce.

“Most of the drug abuse we see among our clients, which is our source, the drugs are coming through the borders or transiting here,” he said.

“I haven’t been aware of any manufacturing here. I think it is spreading in neighbouring countries, definitely.”

munderwood@thenational.ae