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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

What is Captagon?

Captagon is a relatively new illicit drug associated with use by terrorists.

A new (October 2018) briefing from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction provides information on a substance previously unknown to me, Captagon.

Originally, Captagon® was the main brand name for a medicinal product containing fenetylline as its active ingredient. It is no longer produced today or used for therapeutic purposes. Nevertheless, many countries in the Middle East regularly report seizures of a drug known as ‘captagon’ as part of their reporting obligations to international organisations. 

Captagon is also reported to be a commonly used stimulant in both the Middle East and some countries bordering the European Union, and drug seizures indicate that European countries may sometimes be the source of the captagon consumed in these countries (see the graphic below). 

In addition, some recent media reports have noted that perpetrators of terrorist acts in Europe have used this drug or that it is being produced or used by groups based in areas of conflict in the Middle East. Media accounts
in this area have been not always accurate and sometimes sensationalist, and the drug has even been referred to on occasions as ‘the terrorist drug’, ‘jihadi magic potion’ or the ‘Daesh drug’ .

However, the information available on both the supply of captagon and its use and associated harms is very limited, making it difficult to accurately assess the extent and nature of use or its impact on public health. Nevertheless, sufficient information exists to provide an overall assessment of the situation and comment on some aspects of supply.

The EMCDDA use the term Captagon® to refer to the original pharmaceutical product and the term captagon to refer to illicitly produced tablets or to reports of drugs seized or used that are described as captagon.

From medicine to illicit drug

Captagon® was the brand name of a psychoactive medicine produced in the 1960s by the German company Degussa Pharma Gruppe. It was sold as whitish-coloured tablets marked with a characteristic logo comprising two half-moons. It was mainly prescribed as a treatment for attention deficit disorder, narcolepsy and as a central nervous system stimulant. Its two main markets were Europe and the Middle East. Captagon® tablets contained 50 milligrams of fenetylline, a synthetic drug of the phenethylamine family to which amphetamine also belongs. Following ingestion, fenetylline is metabolised into amphetamine and theophylline (a natural alkaloid, bronchodilator and mild stimulant from the same family as caffeine.

Media reports suggest that misuse of Captagon® may have occurred in Europe during the period 1970-1990, particularly in sport as a performance-enhancing substance. For example, in France, Captagon® was linked to an important cycling doping case in 1987 and was also reported to be used in other sports, including professional football during the 1990s. The use of stimulants, ‘especially Captagon’, was also reported as ‘commonplace’ in French rugby during the 1980s and 1990s.

Patterns of captagon use

Nowadays, reports of widespread use of captagon as a stimulant mainly emanate from the Middle East and from
some countries bordering the European Union. However, very little contemporary information is available on the consumer markets for captagon in these countries, making it difficult to describe the dynamics of these markets. Nevertheless, anecdotal and expert reports, as well as inference from supplyside information, suggest that in many countries the use of captagon as a stimulant may be significant, although currently not quantifiable. 

In the absence of data on use, seizure data may provide some indication of patterns of use. Although robust quantitative data are lacking, interviews with law enforcement officers suggest that since 2014 illicit captagon seizures have been increasing in a number of Middle East countries (Israel, Jordan and United Arab Emirates, in particular).

Media reporting on captagon use and recent terrorist attacks

The use of stimulant drugs, especially amphetamine, by military personnel or combatants in conflicts has a long history. Furthermore, money from drug trafficking may sometimes be a source of income for some insurgent
or terrorist groups. Some terrorist perpetrators in Europe have also been found to have a background that includes involvement in petty crime and drug use or drug dealing. However, the links between drug use and terrorism are difficult to identify in existing data sources and, when they exist, they often appear to be indirect.

The EMCDDA briefing cites a number of media reports of the terrorists involved in a number of attacks in Europe using captagon but then discredits most of these; concluding that “it is difficult to substantiate any clear or direct link between captagon use and terrorist atrocities”.

Conclusions

Firm evidence concerning both use and supply of captagon is sparse and sporadic. Nevertheless, some tentative conclusions can be drawn. Firstly, it would appear that captagon, as it is now, is generally amphetamine with a captagon logo on it.

While captagon was originally mainly sourced from eastern Europe, production appears to have shifted into the Middle East where the main market is — but data are very limited so it is hard to say anything for certain. However, a European connection has probably remained, with European criminal expertise involved in production in the Middle East. It also appears that some amphetamine produced in Europe may be shipped to the Middle East and in some cases tableted there.

Finally, the suggestions of strong links between terrorism and captagon use that have featured in many media reports appear to have been overstated. As is the case for other types of drug, some terrorist groups may exploit the captagon market to finance their activities and some terrorists may at times use captagon or other drugs, but the evidence available does not indicate any particular association between captagon and terrorism. 

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