Captagon: the drug Saudis work and play on

Haitham El-Tabei, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Nov 03 2022 04:26 PM

Members of the Naples branch of the Italian Guardia di Finanza law enforcement agency inspect a world record seizure of a 14-ton haul of amphetamines, in the form of around 84 million tablets bearing the 'captagon' symbol and reportedly produced in war-torn Syria by the so-called Islamic State militant group, hidden in 3 containers found in the port of Salerno, just south of Naples, southern Italy, July 1, 2020. Ciro Fusco, EPA-EFE
Members of the Naples branch of the Italian Guardia di Finanza law enforcement agency inspect a world record seizure of a 14-ton haul of amphetamines, in the form of around 84 million tablets bearing the "captagon" symbol and reportedly produced in war-torn Syria by the so-called Islamic State militant group, hidden in 3 containers found in the port of Salerno, just south of Naples, southern Italy, July 1, 2020. Ciro Fusco, EPA-EFE

RIYADH — Newly-married and saddled with debt, Saudi security guard Faisal used to struggle to support his young family before he began taking a drug called captagon. 

The highly addictive amphetamine now powers his grueling work schedule, allowing him to chase overnight shifts at a private hospital with long days driving for a ride-sharing app in the capital Riyadh -- sometimes working 3 days non-stop.

"I finish my first job exhausted in the early hours of the morning, but I desperately need to work on the taxi app," said the skinny 20-year-old, who asked only to be identified by his first name to avoid the stigma of drug use.

Faisal -- who spends about $40 a month on captagon -- told AFP that the stimulant had helped him "double my earnings and is helping me pay off my debts."

Captagon has been sweeping the Middle East for years, with Saudi Arabia the biggest market by far: the kingdom's customs seized 119 million pills last year alone.

Saudi officials sometimes describe it as a party drug, but that leaves out an important demographic: working-class men like Faisal who take captagon to earn more by working longer.

WORKING 'NON-STOP'

"Young people and the well-off use it to get happiness... but workers use it more in search of overtime," said Dr Firas al-Waziri, who is opening a treatment center for captagon addiction in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia's second city.

On the streets of the Saudi capital, pills stamped with flowers or the Lexus logo range in price from $6 to $27 depending on "quality," a dealer -- who sells mainly to students and low-wage workers -- told AFP.

Caroline Rose, of the US-based New Lines Institute, who has investigated the trade, said captagon's "dual appeal as a recreational drug as well as something that enhances productivity" cut across class barriers.

Captagon was patented in Germany in the early 1960s and was first used to treat attention deficit disorder and narcolepsy. Banned in the 1980s, it has become one of the most popular illegal drugs in the Middle East, with most of the pills produced in war-ravaged Syria.

While it became notorious in the West because of its use by Islamic State fighters, it is less taboo in the Muslim states of the Gulf than either cocaine or alcohol, but is no less addictive and damaging.

DRUGS IN TEA

A Sudanese truck driver, who did not want to be named, told AFP that he could not work his long hours without the pills.

"When I have to drive for 10 hours a day, I can't stay alert without the pills," he said.

An Egyptian construction worker, who also wanted to remain anonymous, said he first took captagon unwittingly, when the manager at a site slipped it into the tea and coffee. 

"We were working overtime, benefiting financially, finishing jobs in fewer days and benefiting the employer," he said.

"But in that time my colleagues and I became addicted."

Saudi Arabia's national narcotics control committee did not respond to AFP's request for comment on the problem.

The chemical composition of many pills on the market varies wildly, said Rose.

But Faisal said he would go on taking captagon "until I fully pay off my debts," whatever the risks from notorious side effects including mood swings and breathing and heartbeat irregularities.

"Yes, I work for 2 or 3 days without stopping, but I sometimes lose my focus and sometimes I need to sleep for a whole day," he said.

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