The Gulf seems captivated by captagon, but why?

A synthetic form of amphetamine called captagon is being illegally imported into Gulf countries in massive quantities. Justin Thomas wonders why this drug in particular seems to have appeal.

Tens of millions of captagon pills are seized by police each year in the Gulf countries. Photo: Joseph Eid / AFP
Powered by automated translation

Every few months there seems to be a headline trumpeting the seizure of a drug called captagon, often in staggering quantities. The latest seizure, reported in The National last week, comprised 6.5 million pills. Last month, Dubai police seized 17.7 million pills.

Captagon is an illicit amphetamine-type substance, a class-A narcotic, defined as a schedule I (high potential for abuse) controlled substance.

If you go to Google Trends, the search engine’s own interface for search statistics, and type the word “captagon”, you will find that more people in Saudi Arabia search for it than in any other country in the world. The not-so-catchy chemical name for captagon, is fenethylline and for that term too, people in Saudi Arabia top the search rankings.

Google prides itself on knowing what the world wants. In Saudi Arabia, like no other place on Earth, there appears to be an appetite to know about captagon. Wishing to know about, and wishing to consume are, of course, two completely different things. But in recent years, the quantity of captagon being smuggled into Saudi Arabia is mind-boggling. And we only know about the seizures and not what actually gets through.

The 2011 world drug report, compiled by the United Nations, suggested that Saudi Arabia was ranked number one for the seizure of amphetamines. The largest of the Gulf states accounted for 21 per cent of all seizures worldwide, way ahead of the US, which was ranked second with 12 per cent of seizures. The 2014 world drug report identifies Saudi Arabia as a major destination for amphetamines, and the broader region still accounts for 56 per cent of global seizures.

This too, is in the context of a reported quadrupling of the seizures of amphetamines worldwide in the past five years. Perhaps even more worrying for regional authorities was the recent identification and dismantling of the first ever amphetamine lab – think hit HBO TV series Breaking Bad – on Saudi soil.

Once upon a time, captagon, the major form of amphetamine finding its way to the region, was a legal pharmaceutical product. It was used in the 1960s to treat psychiatric conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, narcolepsy (a sleeping disorder) and depression, but it fell from grace and was added to the controlled substances list.

Today’s counterfeit version of captagon is based on the original synthetic drug fenethylline, but is typically adulterated with amphetamine, methamphetamine and other non-stimulant substances such as procaine (a local anaesthetic) and quinine (a painkiller).

Thankfully, the police and customs officials keep seizing these pills but this poses the question of how many shipments actually slip through and who, if anyone, is consuming all this product? It would seem naive in the extreme to suggest that every attempted importation is seized or that these pills are being stockpiled rather than consumed. The question is who buys it?

Is captagon, or Abu Hilalain as it is sometimes known locally, being used as an appetite suppressant? Amphetamine type substances have this effect, and weight loss is considered increasingly desirable.

Maybe it is it being used by taxi drivers trying to cheat sleep and work around the clock, or maybe by the 24–hour party people, keen to party harder for longer? Maybe college students, motivated more by high grades than a drug high, use it to help them pull all-nighters?

Perhaps the pill-like form and the pharmaceutical-sounding name give it the veneer of medical respectability, lulling some people into viewing it as legitimate remedy for whatever ails them.

In addition to targeting the supply, we really need to invest more in exploring and understanding the demand. Why has this particular drug found such a large market in the Gulf region?

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University and author of Psychological Well-Being in the Gulf States

On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas