When the United Kingdom announced sanctions on Tuesday against several people in the Middle East accused of trafficking the amphetamine known as captagon, the statement surprised many people.
Not because of the men who were targeted, but because the British estimate that the Syrian captagon trade is worth $57bn a year.
When Jordan’s total GDP stands at close to $45bn, it seemed like a staggering number for a war-torn country with a devastated economy. The figure was subsequently reported without comment by the media, including the Financial Times.
Captagon experts previously estimated that the drug would have a retail market of $5.7bn in 2021. Was the latest number the wrong slip of a decimal point?
A source close to the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s decision told Middle East Eye that the $57bn figure was arrived at through information and “external online sources”.
One of those sources, the source said, was Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Washington-based think tank, the Middle East Institute (MEI).
On January 9, Lister published an analysis on the MEI website, saying: “In 2021, $5.7bn was seized by authorities across the Middle East and as far away as Malaysia, Nigeria and Sudan less cap produced and smuggled abroad by the Syrian regime.”
“Security officials estimate that Syrian captagon seizures represent only 5-10 percent of the total trade, suggesting a total value in 2021 of at least $57bn – or ten times the country’s annual budget,” a he said.
But in April last year, the New Lines Institute said it had compiled data that estimated the total 2021 captagon retail market to be worth at least $5.7bn, based on the retail value of annual captagon seizures.
“However, this market estimate is extrapolated from somewhat limited data, calculated only from reported seizures (mostly large seizures, leaving a large number of unreported street-level seizures) and the average price in including the face of tablets in the region, indicating that the total value of the captagon trade could be much greater,” he said.
Lister had previously offered different figures. In October, he said the real scale of the Syrian captagon market could stand at $30bn. In December, he tweeted that it could be between $55bn and $110bn.
Lister did not respond to MEE’s requests for comment.
Sam Heller, a fellow at Century International and a Syria analyst, believes that the $57bn figure offered by the UK and Lister is not credible, saying: “This reality is clearly absurd.
“Obviously there is political and media attention to captagon trafficking now,” he told MEE, adding that the UK government has made a mistake by publicizing what it sees as grossly inflated numbers.
“I think this calls into question their credibility regarding this sanctions action and Syria in general.”
The Captagon is known on the street in the Middle East as Abu Hilalain, named for the two distinct crescents impressed on each pill. It costs a few dollars to produce and sells for almost three times the price.
The stimulant began to be widely used in Syria during the civil war, and the country is a major exporter to other markets, mainly in the Middle East and especially in Saudi Arabia.
The Foreign Office said that 80 percent of the world’s supply is produced in Syria and shipped from the port of Latakia. Images of captagon shipments disguised as pomegranates and other items have gone viral online.
Captagon was a legal drug for almost 25 years. It was developed in West Germany in 1961 and was prescribed for the treatment of depression and ADHD in children. However, in 1986, the World Health Organization labeled it a controlled substance.
Bulgaria has long been a significant producer of the drug, but a crackdown on laboratories forced production to shift to Syria in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Now it is believed that the Syrian government has approved and facilitated the production of captagon.