Is The Stimulant Captagon Fueling Fighting In Syrian Civil War?

By McCarton Ackerman 11/20/15

Use of the synthetic stimulant runs rampant across the Middle East.

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Syria has become one of the world’s leading producers of a powerful amphetamine that its country militants are now using to fight longer and harder than ever before.

Captagon was banned by the United States and numerous other countries in the 1980s for being too addictive, but the synthetic stimulant continues to thrive in the Middle East. Manufactured for just pennies per pill in countries throughout the Middle East, TIME reported that the tablets often sell for up to $20 each.

More than 55 million tablets were seized last year in Saudi Arabia alone, which Saudi officials say was only 10% of the total amount of Captagon pills that make it into the country. In Lebanon, more than $200 million of the drug was confiscated in a single month.

The pills are now being distributed to groups on all sides of the country’s civil war, from ISIS members to pro-Assad government forces to ragtag groups of rebels, are now consuming the drug before going into combat. Soldiers claim that the drug lets them fight for days on end and kill people without emotion.

"We would beat them and they would feel no pain," said a Syrian drug official to Reuters about his experience interrogating a Captagon user. "Many of them would laugh while we were dealing them heavy blows. We would leave the prisoner for about 48 hours without questioning while the effects of Captagon wore off, and then interrogation would become easier."

A fighter who appeared in a recent BBC documentary on drug use among Syrian militants said that he “felt like I own the world” when on Captagon. Other soldiers also claimed that their commanders would give them doses of the drug before any major battle.

However, some medical professionals are highly skeptical that any amphetamine would lead to the over-the-top violence taking place in Syria.

"Implying the brutality of ISIS is somehow a product of amphetamine abuse is unfounded and reductionist," said Hamilton Morris, a chemist who closely studies drugs. "The same amphetamine psychosis explanation has been used for everyone from Jeffrey MacDonald to Adolf Hitler and Nazi blitzkrieg. I don’t find it to be a particularly satisfying explanation."

Last January, several former ISIS fighters reported being given illegal drugs to help boost their courage before carrying out suicide attacks. However, the organization has administered extremely brutal punishments for non-militants caught using drugs.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.

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