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Captagon pills crisis: What are amphetamine-based drugs and why have they been used by militaries around the world?

As global isolation of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad comes to an end with the Arab League reinstating Syria as its member, the discussions on the trade of Captagon pills have taken the centre-stage once again.

Captagon is a highly addictive amphetamine-type drug, which is produced mainly in Syria and widely smuggled across West Asia. Several reports over the years have claimed that sales of the drug, estimated to be worth several billion dollars a year, have profited al-Assad, his associates and his family — the pills have become a financial lifeline for them as Syria continues to struggle due to its economic crisis since the outbreak of the 2011 civil war. Al-Assad has denied these allegations.

According to Al Jazeera, in a meeting of Arab foreign ministers that took place on May 1, Damascus agreed to cooperate with Jordan and Iraq in a bid to curtail the smuggling and identify the spots where the drug is produced. Following the meeting, last week, a high-profile Syrian drug smuggler was killed in an air strike, which is believed to be conducted by Jordan in southern Syria.

The reports of the rising prominence of Captagon first surfaced back in 2014, when it was found that the drug was being widely consumed by the Islamic State (IS) and Syrian fighters to increase alertness and suppress appetite during their gruelling battles. Such use of amphetamine-type drugs isn’t a recent phenomenon though — during World War II, Nazi Germany and the Allied forces provided their troops with amphetamines. Several reports suggest that the US military still uses such drugs.

What exactly is Captagon?

The currently prominently used Captagon is actually a counterfeit version of a medicine with the same brand name which was first produced in the 1960s by the German company Degussa Pharma Gruppe. They were manufactured to help treat attention deficit disorders, narcolepsy and other conditions.

Festive offerSyria Assad's Amphetamines In this photo released by Saudi Press Agency, a Saudi custom officer opens imported pomegranates, as customs foiled an attempt to smuggle over 5 million pills of an amphetamine drug known as Captagon, which they said came from Lebanon, at Jiddah Islamic Port, Saudi Arabia, April 23, 2021. (Saudi Press Agency via AP, File)

The original Captagon contained fenetylline, a synthetic drug of the phenethylamine family to which amphetamine also belongs, as per the Al Jazeera report. It was commercially sold in several countries until the 1980s and was banned due to fears of its highly addictive nature.

In the following decades, new illicit tablets, mainly containing amphetamine, labelled Captagon surfaced in Bulgaria from where Balkan and Turkish criminal networks smuggled them to the Arabian Peninsula. The authorities, however, led strict crackdowns on production, which crippled the supply. The drug finally made a comeback post-2011 but this time in Syria, where a bloody civil war had plunged the country into an economic crisis.

What do amphetamine-based drugs do?

According to a 2015 report published by Vox, Captagon pills, like other amphetamine-based drugs, stimulate the central nervous system, providing “a boost of energy, enhance someone’s focus, let someone stay awake for longer periods of time, and produce a feeling of euphoria.”

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They, however, don’t help someone gain “superhuman alertness, bravery, strength, or pain resistance” — a person consuming any amphetamine-based drug might feel some sort of placebo effect though, which could lead to erratic behaviours, the report noted.

Captagon or other amphetamine-type drugs usually stay in the blood for around 36 hours. When taken orally, their peak effect occurs one to three hours after consumption, and effects last for as long as seven to 12 hours.

What are their side effects?

Consumption of amphetamines can cause loss of appetite and weight, heart problems such as fast heart rate, irregular heartbeat, increased blood pressure, and heart attack, which can lead to death. They can also cause high body temperature, skin flushing, memory loss, problems thinking clearly, and stroke.

People usually don’t get addicted to prescription amphetamines when they are taken at the right dosage to treat their illnesses. The addiction, however, happens when the drug is consumed to get high or improve performance, Medline Plus noted on its website.

“Addiction can lead to tolerance. Tolerance means you need more and more of the drug to get the same high feeling. And if you try to stop using, your mind and body may have reactions.,” it added.

How have militaries around the world used them?

Although amphetamine was discovered in 1910 and chemically synthesised in 1927, its craze among militaries reached a crescendo during World War II. While Nazi Germany supplied Pervitin, a methamphetamine (now known as crystal meth) to its soldiers, the Allied forces gave their troops Benzedrine, which was amphetamine sulfate. They both helped the consumers stay awake and alert.

Reports suggest that Nazi Germany provided a staggering 35 million Pervitin between April and July 1940. The drug was also a significant part of their Blitzkrieg strategy, which involved carrying out a swift attack on the enemy and relentlessly pushing ahead with tank troops, day and night.

Speaking to Time magazine, historian Shelby Stanton said, “They dispensed it to the line troops. Ninety per cent of their army had to march on foot, day and night. It was more important for them to keep punching during the Blitzkrieg than to get a good night’s sleep. The whole damn army was hopped up. It was one of the secrets of Blitzkrieg.”

But the side effects of Pervitin soon became visible as many German servicemen, who were taking high doses of the drug, began experiencing heart attacks. The development forced the authorities to cut back on the supply of methamphetamines by the end of 1940. The Times magazine noted that their usage sharply declined in the next two years when researchers admitted that amphetamines could be very addictive.

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Unlike Nazi Germany, the Allied forces ramped up their supply of Benzedrine. Both British and American soldiers continued to use the drug throughout the war but its issuance was regulated. The Telegraph in a report said, “Only the base medical officer could issue them, and strictly at his discretion.”

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The drug remained popular even after the war until in 1965, when the US banned Benzedrine inhalers after decades of reported abuse. But this didn’t deter the consumption of amphetamines among soldiers.

The 2015 Vox report mentioned that the US Air Force still uses these performance-enhancing drugs. It quoted a report saying, “For decades, the Air Force has been doling out amphetamines — dubbed “go pills” — meant to keep pilots awake and alert during long flights.”

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“Of course, the military sanction of these supplements (the Air Force relies specifically on Dexedrine, used among civilians to treat ADHD and narcolepsy) isn’t without controversy: In 2002, two Air National Guard pilots taking Dexedrine inadvertently bombed and killed four Canadian soldiers, leading to speculation that the drug had impaired their judgement.”

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