Lebanon’s Captagon boom

Getting high off of local supply

Captagon remains particularly popular in the Gulf countries | Nikolay Doychinov | Reuters
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The sun had not quite risen one cold January morning in east Lebanon as an army patrol set out to arrest individuals suspected for the murders of Sobhi and Nadimeh Fakhri in November 2014. What was to be a raid in Baalbek turned into a major drug bust – the army stumbled upon a Captagon producing laboratory as well as large quantities of cannabis and heroin. It was the latest in a series of seizures by the Lebanese authorities of Captagon, an illegal drug whose trade has skyrocketed in recent years and whose black market value is said to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Business is booming and media reports insinuate that a number of players are addicted to the action – Lebanese and Syrian foot soldiers, Lebanon’s armed militias, the drug lords of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, the drug lords in Syria’s Qalamoun Mountains, a member of the Saudi royal family, a Bulgarian chemist flown in to cook Captagon – even a feature film has hooked the public. One Reuters report from 2014 suggested that the outflow of Captagon from Lebanon had fallen by 90 percent between 2011 to 2013. But statistics reported to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) by Lebanese authorities show a spike in seized Captagon starting in 2013. That year the Lebanese authorities as a whole seized 11.7 million Captagon pills. In the 12 months following, Lebanese Customs alone found more than double that amount. This points to a major shift in trafficking Captagon through Lebanon, if not significant local production of the drug as well. Now, a new law passed by the United States might answer who runs the Captagon show.

The region’s stimulant of choice

Captagon got its start in the 1960s as a pharmaceutical drug most commonly prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The arrival of newer drugs that were more effective and less addictive (at treating ADHD) prompted the US government in 1981 to conclude that Captagon no longer had any medical use, leading to a ban. The World Health Organization followed suit a few years later, recommending prohibition of the drug globally. While the pill sold on the black market today carries the same name because of the pharmaceutical’s reputation, it is not the same drug (see Captagon Explained below).

Today’s street Captagon is an amphetamine-based stimulant that is said to be used both by Syrian regime forces and rebel groups fighting the country’s now five year long civil war. The pill, the Washington Post alleged, is said to make monsters out of normal men so that they can kill “with a numb, reckless abandon.” But that’s not really the case, according to addictions psychiatrist Joseph Khoury of the American University of Beirut Medical Center. Khoury, who treats patients that abuse Captagon alongside other drugs like Tramadol (a highly addictive opioid pain medication), says that Captagon keeps users alert much like a can of Redbull does. “If you want to sit at the front for days it is a valid tool – that is the purpose [to stay alert],” he says.

It neither makes users into superhumans nor does it have the psychedelic effect that the media has paraded. “If you want a guy to attack a trench and he’s on Captagon, he’ll probably be overconfident. But the idea that it makes people turn into suicide bombers is ridiculous. It’s not what explains the alteration of somebody’s personality, turning the normal caring and loving human being into a monster that can be mind-manipulated – it’s completely not true,” Khoury says. Other practitioners tend to reach the same nuanced conclusion, and a recent article in Forbes cuts straight to the point: “there is nothing especially magical about Captagon.”

Captagon Explained
What is today sold on the streets as Captagon is a mimic of the drug of the same name pharmaceutically manufactured in the 1960s and 1970s. Captagon is the brand name of fenethylline – a metabolic precursor inactive in its own right but one producing amphetamine and theophylline (a caffeine type substance) inside the user’s body. Taken orally, the body’s liver metabolizes the fenethylline tablet so that the stimulant amphetamine is absorbed into the bloodstream producing the desired effects of increased alertness and energy that improves performance of manual and intellectual tasks.

Fenethylline was found to have limited benefits for its prescribed use – treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – and reports on its abuse and potential for addiction as well as adverse side effects led to its prohibition by the United States Food and Drug Administration in the early 1980s. Later, in 1986, it was banned worldwide when the World Health Organization recommended it be listed as a controlled substance under international treaty – the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, of which Lebanon is a signatory. The convention calls on signatories to license the import, export, manufacture, trade and distribution of fenethylline, and to require a medical prescription for its dispensation and use. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says it has not been legally manufactured since that recommendation came into effect.

Today’s Captagon mimics the effects of the pharmaceutical brand and carries the same name because of its similarity in appearance to the original, rather than having the same chemical composition. Because fenethylline is now a banned substance, the amphetamine needed to mimic the desired effect must be synthesized and put directly into the pill – usually as a mixture of mild amphetamines and caffeine, and sometimes other related substances, says Joseph el-Khoury, an addiction psychiatrist at the American University of Beirut Medical Center.

When Captagon mimics do contain amphetamine, one common and easy way to synthesize the amphetamine ingredient is to use a precursor called phenyl-2-propanone (phenylacetone or P2P), says UNODC’s Illicit Synthetic Drug Expert Martin Raithelhuber. “It’s a common chemical product produced at volume for many licit and industrial purposes,” Raithelhuber tells Executive. He says it is also possible to convert a related chemical to P2P and then produce amphetamine. The procedure requires only a basic understanding of chemistry and the necessary chemical equipment. “We’re not talking about very sophisticated, complicated processes. It is not complex to produce amphetamine and the result will be amphetamine sulphate which is in powder form,” Raithelhuber explains.

The same convention banning fenethylline also lists P2P as a controlled substance and its import and export requires a special permit from Lebanon’s Ministry of Public Health. Customs data available online does not list any import or export for the years 2011 – 2015, so where illicit manufacturers of Captagon source the necessary raw material they need to make amphetamine is anyone’s guess. It is most likely smuggled inside other legally imported products. Illegally handling these raw materials, according to Lebanon’s law on narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances and precursors 673/1998, carries a life sentence and a fine between 25 million – 100 million Lebanese lira ($16,600 – $66,400).

Forensic studies of seized Captagon in the mid 2000s by authorities in Jordan, Turkey, Serbia and Iraq detected amphetamine and caffeine in most pills, according to the UNODC. But, the UNODC says, some of the Captagon mimics that have been seized do not actually contain any amphetamine but only caffeine, ephedrine (an amphetamine substitute used as a stimulant) and quinine (a muscle relaxant and painkiller). Nizar Jurdi, head of the drug unit at the Lebanese Customs, told Executive that in January Customs seized some 250,000 pills because they bore the Captagon logo and were being smuggled with cannabis. But lab tests of the pills determined the Captagon mimic was a fake containing no amphetamine. The tested tablets were made up of 70 percent caffeine, 10 percent acetaminofene (also called paracetamol and found in popular brand name over-the-counter drugs such as Tylenol and Panadol for the treatment of moderate pain and fever reduction) and up to 20 percent aminofen (the generic substitute of acetaminofene).

A trafficking thoroughfare

Outside of use by combatants in various conflicts from Syria to Yemen, Captagon has regional fame as a recreational drug, and is in particularly high demand in the Gulf countries. Lebanon and Syria have traditionally been waypoints on the route of Captagon from the laboratories of Southeastern Europe and Turkey to the Gulf. But recent reports of Captagon-factory busts, as well as UNODC and Lebanese Customs’ data, not only indicate Lebanon’s continuation as a Captagon trafficking thoroughfare but also point to a rise in local production as factories are increasingly set up.

The UNODC reasoned in its 2008 World Drug Report that in the Middle East, “the growing seizure volume appears inconsistent given the small number of clandestine laboratories reported by authorities in Bulgaria [three laboratories] and Turkey [12 laboratories] in 2006.” Interpretation of factory busts and seizure reports led the UNODC to conclude that, in as early as 2006, production of Captagon began shifting from Southeastern Europe and Turkey to the region. Syria has been a source for Captagon production since at least 2006, the UNODC wrote in its 2009 World Drug Report. By 2014, a report by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) concluded that the breakdown of, or at least severe strain on, Syria’s government institutions created the ideal environment for the drug’s production to flourish. “The crisis situation in the Syrian Arab Republic clearly creates conditions favourable to the illicit manufacture and trafficking of tablets sold as Captagon,” INCB wrote.

But it is difficult to determine how much Captagon still originates from Syria. Officials that Executive spoke with say that while production continues there, the all-out war in the country has disrupted land routes popular for transiting the illicit drug through Jordan to the lucrative black markets in the Gulf – namely Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – requiring new ways to move the product and possibly shifting some Captagon production from Syria to Lebanon.

Lebanon witnessed a stark rise in the number of Captagon tablets seized by authorities in 2013 compared to previous years, according to the latest dataset compiled by the UNODC from Lebanese authorities. The statistics show that in 2013 Lebanon discovered 11.7 million tablets, having seized only 680,000 two years earlier. Data from Lebanon’s customs authority – Executive could not obtain police and army seizures by time of print – show a steeper rise in Captagon busts in 2014. That year, customs seized 25.4 million tablets at the airport and Port of Beirut. Customs valued the seizures to total $151.85 million – $6 per pill, a conservative estimate given that the street value price in the Gulf countries where the pills were destined can range anywhere between $10 to $20 per pill, a price range cited by the UNODC’s Illicit Synthetic Drug Expert Martin Raithelhuber.

Access to the Port of Beirut and Lebanon’s airport as export points has become increasingly important. “They conceal [Captagon] sometimes inside the bowels of machinery or hide it in furniture,” says head of the drug unit at Lebanese Customs, Colonel Nizar Jurdi. Recent seizures by customs at the port detail the manner in which pills were concealed – in nursery school tables, engine blocks or water cisterns. “You should not imagine that there is one container full of Captagon, that is not how it works,” Raithelhuber illustrates. “It might be one container among hundreds on a cargo ship, and in this one container there might be one large box which may not even contain the pure drug but may contain machinery, and in the cavities of the machinery is where the drug is [concealed],” he says.

Jurdi says his drug unit at the Port of Beirut inspects somewhere between 15 and 20 containers per day. The paperwork of all containers imported from Latin America, Romania and Ukraine and those exported to Arab countries are scrutinized because of those countries’ reputation as big drug producers or consumers. When a customs inspector reading the scan of one of these containers detects something unreadable or suspicious in the container, it is referred to the drugs section, says Jurdi. The goods in the shipment, the reputation of the goods’ owner and that of the import/export company, and any shared intelligence information between countries’ customs authorities are all factors that Jurdi says are taken into account when deciding whether a flagged container requires manual inspection.

In 2014 the Port of Beirut recorded 1.2 million container movements in and out of the port. The sheer scale in container volume limits the number of containers that can be X-ray scanned and an even fewer number undergo a manual search. A rough calculation indicates that less than 1 percent of all container movements at the Port of Beirut underwent manual inspection that year. According to the UNODC, in 2015 there were an estimated 750 million container movements globally and the organization says, as a very rough estimate, only 2 percent of those containers were physically inspected. “Monitoring the contents of the sheer volume of containers,” reads a recently published UNODC document, “without interrupting the flow of legitimate trade poses tremendous challenges to customs.”

“That just shows the challenge we’re facing here – [having] good intelligence on what is a suspect shipment [is very important] – we want to increase the hit rate they have with this small percentage by improving the exchange of information between [UNODC] member states,” says the UNODC’s Raithelhuber. Indeed, when Executive conducted its interview with Jurdi, a Kuwaiti customs official was present in the room, indicating that at least some level of cooperation between these two countries is real.

Less than 1 percent of containers at Beirut Port in 2014 were manually searched | Greg Demarque

Less than 1 percent of containers at Beirut Port in 2014 were manually searched | Greg Demarque

A Gulfie drug

For years recreational pill-poppers in wealthy Gulf countries have taken Captagon to get high. In these countries, says the UNODC, “it is popular among the younger, affluent population and it has also enjoyed a reputation as a sexual stimulant since the beginning of the 1980s.”

There is only anecdotal testimony that its usage is picking up in Syria and while drug-related arrests and Captagon court cases are on the rise in Lebanon, it is not a popular drug among local users. The real market for the drug remains the Gulf countries, where the street value is most attractive for distributors. Between 2011 and 2013, according to UNODC data, Saudi Arabia alone seized some 173 million tablets.

Statistics on the number of users are harder to come by. One recent article by Voice of America estimated as many as 50,000 Saudis undergo drug rehabilitation annually, but the report did not say whether that was for Captagon treatment and it did not cite any sources. In an October 2015 interview with Arabic-language publication Economic, Abdelelah Mohammed Al-Sharif, secretary general of Saudi Arabia’s National Committee for Narcotics Control, said that Captagon use was prevalent among the country’s youth and that 40 percent of the total drug-using population fell between the ages of 12 – 22, but he did not elaborate on the number of users. In any case, the amount of tablets seized suggest that the drug’s use in the Kingdom is significant.

Captagon, and amphetamines more widely, have been the Middle East’s drug of choice for the best part of the last four decades, says the UNODC’s Raithelhuber. Boredom is a driver of Captagon use in many Arab countries where alcohol is banned and access to other drugs such as cocaine is limited. There is evidence that in the past, recreational Captagon consumption was a socially accepted and established pattern. In Kuwait, for example, when pharmacies still sold the drug legally it was taken with morning tea, a visiting Kuwaiti customs official volunteered to Executive. Raithelhuber says that drug markets have a certain resiliance. “Once a drug has established itself in a user population, that’s what users know and that’s what they want to get again; not all of them are willing to experiment with other drugs,” he says.

Lebanon – production province

The figures on seizures show an explosion in the quantity of pills that are at least trafficked, but may also be locally produced. Jurdi reasons that instability caused by the war in Syria and the closure of its borders, along with the rise of seizures and laboratory busts in Lebanon, are correlational evidence of this shift.

In the last few years both the Lebanese Army and the country’s police, the Internal Security Forces (ISF), announced Captagon factory busts and arrests. The rise in incidents was enough for head of the ISF, Major-General Ibrahim Basbous, to sound the alarm at an October 2015 Captagon-focused drug conference held in Beirut. Though Basbous did say that Lebanon’s security forces had made progress in the fight to stem the drug, he appealed to the delegates to “contribute to rooting out the operations of smuggling Captagon tablets.” Lebanon needs all the help it can get.

Security forces – the ISF, Army and customs – have dismantled and arrested criminal groups manufacturing or trafficking Captagon, but lack of government clarity on the number of Captagon-factory busts and arrests does obscure the current extent of production. The amount of Captagon that Lebanon has seized does, however, imply that production volume is large, though an estimation is impossible. “We don’t have that indicator for synthetic drugs because it’s a footloose industry. Laboratories can be anywhere – in a basement, an empty industrial factory – they don’t have to be very big to produce several tons per year,” the UNODC’s Raithelhuber says. An April 2015 report by the European Council concluded that shutting down Captagon production capacity in Lebanon requires more specialized security personnel, equipment and logistical support (e.g. intelligence) and that without these Lebanon is challenged to curb production and trafficking.

Hezbollah’s ‘kingpin’?

Armed military groups are said to use the Captagon trade as a source of revenue to rival the state’s control in parts of the country – and fingers point to Hezbollah. A January article in the Arabic language Sawt al Jabal is the most recent to allege Hezbollah’s role in trafficking Captagon – it reiterated the insinuation that the brother of Hezbollah MP Hussein al-Moussawi, Sheikh Hashem al-Moussawi, is a major Captagon manufacturer and smuggler in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Back in 2012, Lebanese television channel MTV ran a documentary following the ISF as it raided Hezbollah-funded Islamic schools it said were directly connected to Moussawi. A subsequent article by Al Akhbar stated that Lebanese authorities were not able to apprehend the sheikh. Another sheikh identified only by his first name and last initial, Abbas N., said during a police interrogation that “there is a religious edict allowing [Captagon] usage because it is a stimulant and not a drug,” Al Akhbar reported.

A 2012 article in online publication Middle East Transparent alleged that the religious edict was issued by Moussawi. It sanctioned the manufacturing and trafficking of Captagon as long as followers of Wilayat al-Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist, an Iranian interpretation of Shia doctrine) did not consume the drug. The journalist of that article alleged that revenues from trafficking ignited an internal power struggle at the highest level of party leadership – Hezbollah’s Bekaa Valley faction was gaining influence that threatened Hezbollah’s southern-dominated top brass. The factional infighting, the article alleged, gave Lebanon’s anti-drug officials the green light to raid Bekaa Valley’s Hezbollah-linked Captagon factories under the presumed outcome that the raids would weaken that faction’s influence within the party to the advantage of the other. Executive could not independently verify this claim.

The validity of the power struggle claim is questionable but it may have helped to attract unwanted attention. Research published in May 2015 by George Washington University in the United States paraphrased testimony from an anonymous US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent stationed in the Middle East. The DEA agent told the researchers that “the top of the pyramid in the global Captagon trade has been since the 1980s and remains the same core group of Lebanese gangsters based in the Bekaa Valley.” The research points to the Captagon trade as sanctioned by Hezbollah and says that there is increasing evidence that the party is directly involved. “All available indicators point to Hezbollah with Iranian backing as most involved in Captagon production as an officially sanctioned fundraising strategy,” the research concludes.

Following the money would provide conclusive evidence as to who runs the Captagon show, but that is no simple task. There is very little information available on the flow of cash from Captagon trafficking, although all officials that Executive spoke with agreed the drug’s illicit trade is in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually. It is not easy to trace the money because it often remains as cash that does not flow through the traditional banking system, and there is no global framework for coordinating the tracking and seizure of drug money.

The Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act of 2015 signed into US law in December may change that. Section 201 of the law calls for a report on narcotics trafficking by Hezbollah – Congress will be briefed on Hezbollah’s narcotics trafficking, the procedures for listing the party under the United States Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act as well as government efforts to combat Hezbollah’s narcotics trafficking activity. The Kingpin Act grants the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) the authority to block individuals and entities from the US financial system and prohibits any transactions between designees and US companies and individuals. Previously the Kingpin Act was invoked in 2014 to designate the Medellín, Colombia-based criminal organization La Oficina de Envigado (La Oficina), the enforcement and collection arm of deceased-leader Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel. In October 2015 OFAC used it to designate Hezbollah-affiliated individuals and organizations.

Already listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, the application of the Kingpin Act as part of the new law will broaden OFAC’s mandate to sanction Hezbollah for any alleged role it has in narcotics trafficking – though OFAC does not publish justification for its designations. Completion of the narcotics report is expected in the first quarter of 2016 and the law requires its publication. A month later Congress will be briefed. By the middle of the year, America believes it may be able to offer an answer as to the actual size of Captagon production and the nerve center of its trafficking.

Jeremy Arbid

Jeremy is Executive's former economics and policy editor.