From Qat to Captagon

Unfamiliar drugs take the rap for war.


In the 1960s and '70s, doctors prescribed Captagon for narcolepsy, depression, and hyperactivity. First synthesized in 1961 by the German pharmaceutical company Degussa AG, Captagon was marketed as a milder version of the stimulants previously used for those conditions. But evidently its advantages over other drugs were less obvious than the manufacturer hoped, because by 1981 the U.S. government had placed Captagon in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, indicating that it has "no currently accepted medical use."

Today Captagon has been transformed from a mild-mannered medicine into "a tiny, highly addictive pill" that is "fueling Syria's war and turning fighters into superhuman soldiers." Or so claims The Washington Post, which says "Captagon quickly produces a euphoric intensity in users, allowing Syria's fighters to stay up for days, killing with a numb, reckless abandon." The Washington Times concurs, using suspiciously similar language: "The drug quickly produces a euphoric intensity in users, allowing fighters to stay up for days and attack with reckless abandon." The Post and the Times use the same quotations from a 2014 Reuters story and a recent BBC documentary to create the impression that Captagon enables members of various armed groups in Syria to fight without fear, kill without hesitation or remorse, and resist brutal interrogation, literally laughing at the pain.

All this is rather puzzling in light of Captagon's chemistry and its earlier reputation as a prescription drug. Such breathless accounts do not reflect Captagon's properties so much as reporters' perennial willingness to believe outlandish claims about unfamiliar drugs.

Captagon, a.k.a. fenethylline, is a combination of dextroamphetamine, the main ingredient in Adderall, and theophylline, a stimulant in the same class as caffeine that can be found in tea and chocolate. According to a 2014 post at Smarter Nootropics, fenethylline "doesn't appear to be active in its own right." Rather, "it's a prodrug that the liver separates into both of these compounds." Hence "the effects subjectively would be very similar to taking Adderall XR and drinking tea or coffee," although "the effects are going to be milder than the same dose of Adderall," since "half of the molecule" is the caffeine-like theophylline.

"It is of lower abuse potential than amphetamine, and is actually quite comparable to Vyvanse in terms of effects," says Smarter Nootropics. "Captagon was designed to be a 'smart drug' with a lower side effect and abuse potential than Adderall." In a recent interview with Live Science, Columbia University neuropsychopharmacologist Carl Hart agreed that Captagon is weaker than Adderall, calling it "an inferior amphetamine."

The use of stimulants by soldiers is nothing new. Both German and U.S. forces used amphetamines during World War II, and American pilots continue to rely on them to fight fatigue and maintain alertness. But contrary to the impression left by the Post and the Times, there is nothing especially magical about Captagon, and there is no reason to think it is more addictive than prescription stimulants such as Adderall and Vyvanse or that it is more effective at fortifying soldiers for battle, let alone that it makes them "superhuman." The latter claim, in particular, is a red flag that lets you know a reporter has gotten carried away. Captagon's effects are "nowhere near what the media reports have been talking about," Hart told Live Science. "Trust me, if this drug produced a supersoldier, U.S. soldiers would be using it."

The evidence of Captagon's amazing powers consists entirely of subjective testimonials and recycled anecdotes. "There was no fear anymore after I took Captagon," an unidentified Syrian fighter says in Captagon: Syria's War Drug, the BBC documentary. Washington Post reporter Peter Holley (the same reporter who last June claimed the synthetic cathinone known as flakka "causes users to rip off their clothes and attack with super-human strength") repeats that quote, and so does Washington Times reporter Kellan Howell. Holley and Howell also use this quote from the BBC documentary:

So the brigade leader came and told us, "This pill gives you energy, try it." So we took it the first time. We felt physically fit. And if there were 10 people in front of you, you could catch them and kill them. You're awake all the time. You don't have any problems, you don't even think about sleeping, you don't think to leave the checkpoint. It gives you great courage and power. If the leader told you to go break into a military barracks, I will break in with a brave heart and without any feeling of fear at all—you're not even tired.

Both reporters likewise repeat an anecdote, originally reported by Reuters, from "a drug control officer in the central city of Homs" who "observed the effects of Captagon on protesters and fighters held for questioning": 

We would beat them, and they wouldn't feel the pain. Many of them would laugh while we were dealing them heavy blows. We would leave the prisoners for about 48 hours without questioning them while the effects of Captagon wore off, and then interrogation would become easier.

Such accounts even led to speculation that the gunmen and suicide bombers who killed 130 people in Paris this month had taken Captagon before the attacks (which may or may not be true) and that the drug explains how they were able to slaughter scores of innocent people, as if outbreaks of murderous violence were an unfortunate side effect of an otherwise useful medication. Chavala Madlena, who directed Captagon: Syria's War Drug, says other reporters have misconstrued and misused her film, which argues that the Captagon trade fuels the conflict in Syria by providing money for rebel groups. "Much of the reporting around Captagon has been hyperbolic and misleading," she says. "Anyone linking [Captagon] directly to ISIS, using our film as evidence, is misleading, [and so is] the hyperbole about the effects of the pills….It is not helpful or accurate to perpetuate scare stories or stories that exoticize drug users in other parts of the world."

If reporters claimed Adderall or Vyvanse was turning Syrian fighters into fearless, remorseless, relentless, pain-impervious killers, their reports probably would elicit more skepticism from their editors and readers. But since Captagon nowadays seems exotic to Americans, it's safe to uncritically pass on hyperbolic secondhand stories about it. Something similar happened in the early 1990s, during the U.S. intervention in Somalia, when press coverage (in The Washington Times, among other places) blamed the appalling violence in that country on qat (also spelled khat), a stimulant shrub with a long history of social use there.

"It is considered generally unwise to move around Mogadishu at night," The New York Times reported, "because by then the narcotic effect of the [teenage nomads'] two-bunch-a-day habit has taken hold. Since the mixture of khat and guns has proved such a lethal combination (the addiction often generates the looting), some desperate Somali elders have facetiously suggested a 'khat for guns' swap to empty the town of weapons."

Similarly, The Washington Times paraphrased a psychiatrist's statement that "chewing khat is one of the factors causing much of the seemingly senseless violence." The article, headlined "Drug Gives Young Gunmen Courage," reported that U.S. troops would face Somalis "chemically wired from chewing khat, a twig that gives its users a sense of euphoria and potency." In a similar vein, an aid worker told CNN that after chewing qat the machine-gun-wielding teenagers "all think they're Rambo….They think they can conquer the country."

Perhaps the most extreme example of qat hype was a New Republic article by a Nairobi-based freelancer. "After taking the drug," he wrote, "restless adolescents become more and more agitated and less and less rational. A drug-conjured insistence on personal supremacy turns pubescent energy into casual, cheap violence. Raw tempers are released in the form of reckless driving, senseless arguments, and the playful exchange of gunfire. Gunshot wounds in Mogadishu…peak in the early evening hours, when the young gunmen are at the apex of their qat sprees."

Given qat's pharmacological effects and its function in Somali society, these accounts are about as absurd as blaming America's drive-by shootings or its relatively high homicide rate on coffee. But since everything most readers knew about qat came from scary stories like these, they passed for accurate reporting. Likewise with Captagon. Although such yellow journalism is harder to get away with now that readers can easily find contrary information online, Americans are still disturbingly eager to believe the worst about other people's drugs.

This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.