'Poor Man's Cocaine' May Be Headed for US

Officials fear spread of highly-addictive captagon amid crackdowns in Middle East
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 18, 2023 12:35 PM CDT
Updated Aug 20, 2023 12:55 PM CDT
Highly Addictive Drug Used by Militants May Be Bound for US
In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian authorities display Captagon pills, in rural Damascus, Syria, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021.   (SANA via AP, File)

US officials are increasingly concerned about the likelihood of an illegal, highly-addictive drug wreaking havoc in the US as its Middle East producers, hungry for cash, face roadblocks in trafficking the drug at home. Produced and distributed by groups tied to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the allied Hezbollah in Lebanon, captagon, an amphetamine-type stimulant dubbed "the poor man's cocaine," was prescribed for conditions including ADHD and narcolepsy before it was banned internationally decades ago. But it has proliferated in the Middle East in the last decade, becoming "Syria's economic lifeline" amid civil war, per CNN. Regional governments have begun cracking down, however, with more than 1 billion pills seized in the last three years, per Bloomberg.

That's led producers to look for other markets. Senior European Union officials now expect more captagon to flow into Europe given Syria's need for money and what Bloomberg describes as "Assad's desire to export addiction and social tensions to countries that in his view harmed him." US officials fear the same thing will happen here. In June, the Biden administration announced a strategy to "disrupt, degrade, and dismantle the illicit captagon networks linked to the Assad regime" in accordance with the Captagon Act, passed in 2022. The following month, a bipartisan US bill was introduced, proposing new sanctions against Assad due to the illicit production and trafficking of captagon.

Assad denies involvement in the drug trade and instead blames foreign governments for sowing chaos in Syria that allowed captagon to flourish, per Bloomberg. Some analysts say he is now using captagon as a bargaining chip, telling regional governments that he can move against the drug trade in exchange for their support for sanctions relief, per the AP. One only needs to look at Saudi Arabia to see the consequences of captagon. Consumption among young people is so great that it's viewed as a threat to Prince Mohammed bin Salman's economic vision for the country, one that relies on mobilizing the youth, per Bloomberg. The outlet cites a medic who describes it as a gateway drug, with users transitioning to more harmful options like crystal meth. (It's reportedly a favorite among militants.)

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