The drug captagon is causing a major problem in the Middle East. The drug emerged in the early 2000s when IS distributed it to its warriors, but soon spread to the rest of the population. It has become the drug of choice for young people in the Middle East and North Africa. The growing demand has led to a thriving illegal drug trade that runs from Lebanon and Syria to Jordan, and then to the Gulf states. One of the drug’s producer countries, Lebanon is also recently experiencing the negative economic consequences of production, receiving sanctions from neighbouring countries where consumption is a major concern. In Jordan the impact among the population is also severe.
Captagon is one of several brand names for phenethylline hydrochloride. This is a stimulant with addictive properties that is used recreationally throughout the Middle East and is sometimes called the “cocaine for the poor”. Armed groups and armed forces use it in combat situations, where it is thought to promote properties that strengthen courage and numb fears. Also, students are known to use it during nights spent studying for exams and graduates consume it as a means of coping with the stress of unemployment. Production costs for captagon are relatively low and production facilities are highly mobile. Synthesis of the drug requires little equipment and only rudimentary chemical knowledge. The main foreign markets for captagon are Saudi Arabia and Jordan, where it is used as a recreational drug.
Taboo on drugs
In the Middle East and North Africa, countries have generally not played an active or outspoken role in global discussions on drugs. Many governments do not collect or publish data on their production, trade and use. Drug addiction and its use are a taboo subject, with little public or government attention to the problem. Prevention policies in these countries consist mainly of large-scale confiscations, but this crackdown has done little to weaken the illegal multibillion-dollar industry. Prevention is mainly implemented through efforts to reduce the supply side of the drug, but very little is done to understand and ultimately reduce the demand side. Conservative societies in the region stigmatise users, leading few to seek help. In the Middle East and North Africa, social taboos, traumatised dislocated populations, a fragile state, weak and corrupt law enforcement, rival geopolitics and violent conflicts hinder effective drug policies.
In Jordan, there are high prison sentences for drug possession. Drug-related crimes have increased tenfold in the past 15 years and is the most common crime in the country. Possession of a small amount of drugs is enough to go to jail, but since 2016, addicts can be exempted from a prison sentence if they seek treatment in a rehabilitation centre. Despite this, drug addicts are strongly looked down upon in conservative society. Furthermore, there are a lack of shelters in Jordan to accommodate all drug addicts: only two public rehabilitation centres are in place. Abdullah Hanatleh, the director of a Jordanian NGO that offers programmes and psychosocial support to people struggling with drug addiction, says that “there is a lot of stigma in Jordanian culture towards people who use drugs”. According to him, this stigma is created by the conservative Jordanian Muslim community, but also by the criminalisation of drugs, which means that drug addicts are seen as criminals. For many addicts, criminalisation often deters them from seeking treatment due to fear of government authorities. He also indicates that research on drug addiction is prevented because families are unwilling to report addiction due to the prevailing stigma.
Domestic war on drugs in Lebanon
In Lebanon, security forces have been tracking down laboratories producing captagon for years and are monitoring land borders with Syria to identify smuggling routes. However, it is difficult for Lebanon to control this as Hezbollah mainly controls the border with Syria. Hezbollah has bought property and land in many eastern areas along the border with Syria and declared military zones that are inaccessible to Lebanese authorities or anyone not affiliated with Hezbollah. This has made control by Lebanon almost impossible.
Author: Manouk Bronzwaer