Syria's Next Big Export: Illegal Pills
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Containers of banned fenethylline from Syria are popping up in the Mediterranean and Middle East as a battered regime seeks cash.
By Stephen Starr
Greek narcotics officers were acting on a regular tip from the FBI to search a ship at Athens’ Piraeus port. The June raid led authorities to containers filled with 33 million pills of the banned psychostimulant fenethylline, commonly known as Captagon. Hidden inside pallets of lumber, the $660 million haul amounts to the biggest confiscation of the pill ever recorded. And where was the lumber loaded? Latakia, Syria.
The value of the recovered stash was worth more than all of Syria’s 2017 exports put together. This was the latest — and largest — piece of evidence pointing to the emergence of the war-torn nation becoming a major new exporter of narcotics, particularly fenethylline. In December, a Syrian freighter en route from Latakia to Libya was intercepted near Crete with 3 million fenethylline pills worth $113 million. Syrian-made Captagon pills, known locally as Abu Hilalain — aka the father of two moons because each pill bears a logo of two crested moons — were impounded in France in 2017.
In 2016, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) flagged concerns after Syria’s import of pseudoephedrine, a legally traded nasal decongestant that can be used to make highly addictive and powerful methamphetamine, though not Captagon, skyrocketed. Tablets destined for Gulf countries are regularly seized in Lebanon — once from a Saudi prince — sometimes having been moved across the Syrian border. In Jordan, 47 million Captagon pills were reportedly confiscated in 2018, according to Jordan’s Public Security Directorate. And the Maryland-based National Center for Biotechnology Information now describes Syria as the “premier producer and exporter of counterfeit forms of Captagon.”
With this amount of money involved, corruption and rent-seeking is a widespread practice.
Maziyar Ghiabi, Oxford University
The drug, which gives a faster high than traditional amphetamine, has for years been a favorite among ISIS fighters. But its export from the country, through ports like Latakia that are controlled by the Bashar Assad government, suggests that the Syrian regime might now be turning to fenethylline sales internationally to bolster its treasury. At the very least, suggest experts, it might be allowing corrupt officials to carry out trade in the illegal substance to keep them loyal.
“It is plausible to think that with this amount of money involved, corruption and rent-seeking is a widespread practice,” says Maziyar Ghiabi, a lecturer at Oxford University and expert on Middle East drug politics. “And with shrinking sources of [government] revenue, all the more logical.”
Captagon, Biocapton and Fitton were the brand names for drugs whose main active ingredient is fenethylline, which was legal in the U.S. until 1981, when its addictive properties saw it categorized as a Schedule 1 drug alongside heroin and cocaine. When legal in the 1960s and ’70s, it was used to calm hyperactive children and for patients suffering from narcolepsy and depression. By 1986, it was banned in most countries. Yet as with most narcotics, the ban only drove production underground, with southeastern Europe emerging as the manufacturing hub. Faced with increasing international pressure, production shifted to the Middle East after 2011. Until then, Syria had no history as a manufacturer or exporter of the drug — unlike Afghanistan, another nation at war that has been a poppy exporter for decades.
While the extent of the Syrian regime’s direct role in the export of the drug is hard to determine, a combination of the war, crippling international sanctions and the destruction of much of its regular economy have forced the government to look for new ways to make money. Werner Sipp, the INCB president, said in 2016 that “very high amounts of pseudoephedrine and other precursors ordered by Syria” had subsequently disappeared. He warned that narcotics from those ingredients might be manufactured and produced for exporting.” The INCB asked Syria for an explanation but hasn’t received one yet.
Before the 2011 uprising, Syria’s robust pharmaceutical industry meant that almost all medicinal drugs consumed in Syria were produced in-country. Despite the war, Syria still maintains significant pharma infrastructure capable of producing vast quantities of legal medicines, and therefore illegal drugs such as Captagon. In 2017, the country’s health minister Nizar Yazayi told a pharmaceutical conference in Damascus that 40 of Syria’s 62 drug plants were still safe. State media in Syria also occasionally reports forces capturing Captagon pills worth millions on the international market from rebels. But the government hasn’t made clear what it does with all those pills.
There’s a reason why fenethylline is Syria’s export of choice. It’s one of the most sought-after narcotics in the Middle East. In Saudi Arabia, the pill, which contains caffeine and quinine, a painkiller, is more popular than cocaine, weed, heroin or ecstasy. According to a 2016 study published in the journal Basic & Clinical Pharmacology & Toxicology, three-quarters of people treated for drug addiction in Saudi Arabia are addicted to amphetamines, and almost all of those are Captagon users.
Sometimes used as an appetite suppressant, Captagon is also becoming increasingly popular in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and North Africa. While a batch of 200 sells for about $70 in Lebanon, in wealthy Gulf states a single pill can fetch between $10 and $20.
It’s a business that only seems to be growing. From 2013-2014, the amount of Captagon seized on the Syria–Lebanon border doubled to almost 30 million pills. Today, a third of all Captagon seizures worldwide happen in the Middle East.
Inside Syria, Captagon is seen as a poor man’s drug. “Mostly it’s people who don’t have enough money to buy beer or hashish [who buy and use Captagon],” says Ziad, a resident of Damascus who’s familiar with the drug. “People who don’t have a job or can’t afford a house, people who have problems in their lives who are unhappy.”
Those exporting the drug for millions of dollars are far from unhappy though. And with ties between Assad’s regime and the West unlikely to improve anytime soon, expect Syria’s status as an emerging illegal pill purveyor to expand.
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