These days Saudi Arabia conjures up many images: oil, sheiks, the recent women’s-right-to-drive campaign. But amphetamines? This year, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2013 World Drug Report, 30% of amphetamines seized by counternarcotics officials worldwide came from Saudi Arabia, a country with less than 1% of the world’s population. That either means that Saudi Arabia has some seriously good counternarcotics police, or the country has a serious problem with drugs. Most of the amphetamines used in Saudi Arabia come in the form of Captagon tablets, the trade name for fenethylline, a synthetic stimulant used in the early treatment of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
Banned in 1986, Captagon has seen something of a revival over the past decade in the Gulf, where a counterfeit version made of cheaper, easier to procure and more potent amphetamines is by far and away the most popular drug on the illegal market. Saudi authorities confiscated nearly 70 million tablets last year, according to Abdulelah al-Shareef, from the Drug Addiction, Prevention and Control Department at Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior. Officials estimate that the seized tablets only represent about 10% of the total amount of Captagon entering the country.
According to al-Shareef, addiction rates are skyrocketing — at least half of patients undergoing treatment in rehab centers are Captagon addicts. Of all the drugs available to a wealthy nation seemingly adept at importing illicit drugs, why is Saudi addicted to a counterfeit precursor to Ritalin? Like many countries in the Gulf, says Elie Araj, executive director of the Beirut-based Middle East and North Africa Harm Reduction Association, the Saudis don’t like to air their dirty laundry, so most drug use goes untracked, and untreated. “We know it’s a big problem, but it remains hidden.”
Drugs, like alcohol, are strictly forbidden in Islam, so even those desperately in need of help are reluctant to reach out, for fear of exposing their sins. Most of the information on Captagon use is anecdotal. Long-haul truck drivers use it to stay awake. Students use it for an extra edge when cramming for exams. And, according to one Saudi resident, in a culture that celebrates late-night socializing and early work and school hours, Captagon is the only way to make it through a day. “Ignorance is a big problem,” says Araj, who points out that Captagon’s antecedent as a legitimate prescription drug blunts perceptions of the harm it can wreak. “A lot of people think of Captagon as a treatment, not a drug. They have a headache, a friend gives them a tablet, and suddenly they feel full of energy.”
It’s also a lot easier to hide. Like heroin and cocaine, Captagon possession and distribution could lead to the death penalty. But not everyone knows how to identify it. “A normal policeman cannot tell the difference between Panadol [a type of painkiller] or Captagon,” says Araj. “A syringe or cocaine powder is much more easily recognized.” The effects of abuse, however, are the same — addiction, organ failure, the destruction of the nervous system, says al-Shareef. Which is why the government is embarking on a nationwide education campaign aimed at the country’s youth. “That’s why the security forces are [making] huge efforts to stop its flow. If it continues, we will have a destroyed generation full of addicts.”