Western leaders seek to snuff out Captagon trade before it floods new markets

Senior politicians in London and Washington fear the drug is likely to penetrate countries far beyond the Middle East

Syrian authorities display Captagon pills in rural Damascus. AP
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Leading British and American politicians have told The National of their fears that Captagon will soon reach UK and US shores, as the West ramps up co-ordination aimed at stemming the flow of the drug that has burdened the Middle East for years.

EU, UK and US counter-Captagon efforts have primarily centred on combating the highly addictive drug's connection to Hezbollah and Syria, but some western officials worry about the drug's effects on their countries as well.

Alicia Kearns, chairwoman of Britain’s parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, said that the drug's penetration of countries in the Middle East and its growing level of consumption was a looming threat to the UK.

“We have to make this a priority for us, and what we do not need to see is the flooding of a new drug to British shores,” she said.

French Hill, a US congressman who has been central to efforts in Washington to confront the threat, told The National that he “absolutely has concerns about Captagon entering the Western Hemisphere next”.

“Drug traffickers are always looking for new markets and the top non-state actor in the Captagon trade is … Hezbollah. Hezbollah has had a presence in the Western Hemisphere for more than 10 years,” he said.

While there has yet to be a major Captagon haul by authorities in Britain, a report analysing the drug's seizure data last year found the trade “has grown more transnational, with emerging transit sites and potential consumer markets in Europe, North Africa and South-East Asia".

Both London and Washington are increasing legislative attention on the trade, including efforts at enhanced co-ordination between the allies.

In June, the UK Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee hosted a hearing on the Captagon trade, while in the US, President Joe Biden's administration outlined a counter-Captagon strategy mandated by the Captagon Act legislation that passed Congress in the 2023 defence budget.

Mr Hill, the Captagon Act's lead sponsor, said that congressional efforts to counter the drug were sorely needed.

“There was little talk about Captagon until we got the strategy requirement in last year’s [defence budget],” said Mr Hill, who has travelled to the Middle East many times for official meetings on Captagon.

Now, he added, “I can assure you [Captagon] is a priority”.

“The United States must lead on this issue and work with our allies in Europe and the Middle East to curb its proliferation,” he added.

Under the new strategy, the US State Department said its goal is for “the international community to prioritise combating synthetic drugs, such as Captagon, as a top public health and security threat and drive action towards solutions”.

As Washington was shaping that strategy, the US and Britain imposed a round of joint sanctions on a number of Syrian and Lebanese citizens over their suspected role in the production or export of the drug.

Mr Hill believes the companion sanctions showed “that Europe is taking [Captagon] seriously”.

“We must continue to co-ordinate on high level policies such as sanctions, but also consider increasing our partnerships,” he added.

Although the trade remains focused on the Gulf, there are initial signs of a European expansion.

Authorities in the Italian port of Salerno seized $1 billion worth of Captagon in 2020, and recent activity has moved farther north.

Germany’s BKA federal police recently arrested two men after uncovering a large Captagon lab in a car repair shop in the southern city of Regensburg.

Last year, Austrian officials jailed a gang in the city of Salzburg for running a Captagon smuggling operation out of a pizzeria. That seizure produced 14 million pills worth €40 million. Police in Bavaria, Germany, broke up a similar operation, during which they found Captagon in washing machines.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently convened an online ministerial meeting that brought together dozens of countries and international organisations to launch the Global Coalition to Address Synthetic Drug Threats.

Experts say this type of co-ordination is expected to increase as Washington's new counter-Captagon strategy plays out.

Last month, Mr Hill introduced another sanctions bill with bipartisan support that will define Captagon in US law for the first time, and “will make it easier for the government to act should it ever make it to US shores”, he said.

His Democratic co-sponsor, Jared Moskowitz, added in a statement: “Not only will new sanctions help reduce the illegal sale of Captagon from making its way to the United States, but it will also further weaken the Assad regime and the terrorist organisations they fund.”

But the Atlantic Ocean is a significant safeguard, and experts have said there is little evidence to suggest Captagon will make its way to the US on a meaningful scale anytime soon, though its expansion into the EU is a threat to “American economic and antiterrorism interests”.

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Updated: August 18, 2023, 10:55 AM