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Why the most popular drug in the Middle East is so potent

Associated Press

Scientists reported today that they have figured out how the popular illicit stimulant Captagon works and that they may have a way to combat its effects.

  • Captagon or fenethylline is popular in Saudi Arabia and throughout the Gulf (where counterfeit pills also abound).
  • There have been reports of the "Jihadi pill" being used by ISIS fighters as a performance stimulator—though that has been questioned.
  • The drug was first used in the 1960s to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy but became illegal in most countries, including the U.S., in the 1980s after its addictiveness became apparent.

How it works: When ingested, fenethylline is broken down to the stimulant amphetamine and theophylline (a caffeine-like substance that relaxes the muscles around the lungs and is used to treat respiratory diseases). It was unclear how exactly the drug works in the body. Kim Janda and his colleagues from Scripps Research Institute found the combination of theophylline and amphetamine greatly enhances amphetamine's psychoactive properties.