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The media hype about captagon and its side-effects

by Meryem Grabski @MeryemGrabski

imageTowards the end of last year headlines emerged about captagon, a psychoactive drug “used by the ‘Islamic State’ to create brainwashed, psychotic killing machines”, able to “stay awake days at a time“.  The interest in captagon reached a peak when it was suggested that the terrorists responsible for the attacks in Paris last November may have been under the influence of the drug, a claim that has turned out to be most likely untrue. However, it is not surprising that the potential involvement of a drug in the activities of the “Islamic State” (IS) has been the subject of such media interest, ranging from headlines  about “superhuman soldiers” and “jihad junkies”, to suggestions that captagon is one of the main reasons that the war in Syria is still ongoing. In my research, I spend most of my time trying to find methods that might improve treatments for drug dependence, so I had two immediate reactions to these headlines: curiosity about what this substance really was, and irritation at the superficial, irresponsible way the issue was covered. Motivated by this I would like to look at: a) what information on this drug is actually substantiated, and b) how the sensationalist coverage of drugs has serious negative consequences for people suffering from addictions.

DrugOverdoseThe drug the media are calling captagon has been associated with brand named “captagon”: the psychostimulant fenethylline. However, there is probably a substantial difference between the original formulation and the drug traded as captagon in the Middle East today. Fenethylline was developed in the 1960s and mainly used for the treatment of children suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In 1986 it was listed by the WHO for international scheduling under the Convention of Psychotropic Substances and banned by most countries. Illegal trade of counterfeit captagon rose afterwards in some Eastern European countries and the Middle East, in particular the Gulf States. However, analyses of pills to be sold as captagon that were seized in Saudia Arabia, Jordan and Serbia have indicated that the amount of genuine fenethylline has decreased over the years, with the most recent studies finding no evidence that fenethylline was present at all. The main active ingredients that were found included amphetamine and caffeine.

The source that most recent media articles on captagon have cited is the BBC Arabic documentary “Syria’s war drug”, which includes interviews with users from Lebanon and Kuwait, and alleged former Syrian fighters. It also touches on the captagon manufacturing and trading processes in Lebanon, as well as its potential connection to groups involved in the Syrian conflict. Importantly, the film makes no claims at any point that this drug is directly related to IS, a fact which has either been ignored or misrepresented in much of the subsequent media coverage.

Apart from the fact that the reporting on captagon has been superficial at best, there is also the issue that sensationalist headlines usually obscure the complexity that underlies any drug story. Oversimplification has been identified as a major problem when it comes to disseminating information on drugs to the public. The media plays a key role in shaping public opinion on drugs, which in turn influences public and criminal justice policy. Direct consequences include the increased use of a certain drug due to its omnipresence in the media, as observed during the discussion of the now illegal substance mephedrone, or the misplacement of governmental resources to overcome perceived, yet unconfirmed, drug threats, as was the case when headlines emerged in the USA linking the use of “bath salts” to extreme violence.

a-stack-of-newspapersBut it is the more long-term, indirect consequences of a sensationalist media discourse that are probably the more harmful ones. The reinforcement of the notion that illegal drugs are one of the main causes and perpetuators of crime is one of them. The recent portrayal of captagon too, supports the idea that drugs are mostly consumed by criminals. The focus was not on how increased use of a drug might harm the civil population in Syria. Instead, news stories attempted to link the drug with IS, the most criminal, abhorrent organization involved in the conflict, despite no good evidence for such a connection. Readers are left with simply a vague association between illegal drugs and terrorism. The stigmatization of people addicted to drugs, increased unfounded public fear of drug-related crimes, and less room for discussions on how we can help prevent and cure addiction are just some of the consequences of inadequate media coverage.

Of course, it is not only sensationalist headlines that lead to these unhelpful consequences, and there are many ways of counteracting them. The provision of information, in as unbiased a way as possible, is one of them. This is where science, and scientists, can play an important role. As well as disseminating their research to the scientific community and publishing in scientific journals, scientists should consider it part of their job to inform and discuss their research publicly. Not only does it help to counter unfounded media stories and inform public opinion – the public engagement opportunities I have had during my PhD so far have been fun and inspiring.

Research Responsibly: Things to Consider when Science and Politics Meet

By Meryem Grabski

It might not come as a surprise that doing a PhD is not always fun. One thing that gets me through those difficult, yet inevitable, times is the idea that the research I am doing could potentially make a difference for the better. I am sure this is true for many people involved in research fields that touch upon big societal questions such as health, climate change, economics, or education.

Surprisingly though, I realized a little while ago that I have given little thought to how relevant findings make their way to those who implement societal changes, such as policy makers. Usually scientists are trained to communicate their findings to other scientists, not politicians (or the general public, the people that empower the policy makers in the first place, but I will leave this important issue to one side for now). So what should scientific advice to policy makers look like? Is a brief summary of the research outcomes adequate or should a preference for the implementation of the findings be stated?

I started thinking about this after a discussion in our weekly lab meeting about an article published by Tamsin Edwards, a climate scientist. She describes how her refusal to give specific recommendations for political courses of action has sometimes been met with criticism – from environmentalists and members of the public, as well as fellow climate scientists. She gets accused of having a hidden political agenda, not fulfilling her role as an expert sufficiently, and failing to act and therefore delaying important and pending decisions. Even if some of these points are valid, a counter-argument could equally be made that openly stating political preferences could impact scientific impartiality and lead to the abuse of science to serve political agendas.

This complex issue is described in a model by Pielke, which characterizes four ways in which scientists can position themselves towards policy making. These roles, described in more details in Pilke’s book The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Politics and Policy are briefly summarized below, as well as their potential benefits and pitfalls.

The “pure scientists” do research for the sake of research only and have no further interest in the application of the findings. In reality, this type of “ivory tower” scientist is very rare today, especially in fields where findings might have a potential impact on society.

Pros: Maximal impartiality; because pure scientists are not interested in engaging in political decision-making, they are least likely to be biased towards one specific outcome.

Cons: Since pure scientists are not motivated to make scientific findings accessible, they are not facilitating the implementation of their findings, therefore making them useless for society. Even the publication of findings in scientific journals is often trapped behind expensive paywalls and therefore not accessible by interested members of the public.

issue advocatThe “issue advocates” can be placed on the other end of the continuum of involvement with politics. They believe that participating in the political decision making process is an important part of their role as a scientist. The issue advocate is dedicated to a specific political agenda or outcome, and therefore more likely to narrow the view of the advice seeker to one specific course of action, in line with their own views.

Pros: As the political opinion of the issue advocates is laid out openly, they might be less suspected of having a “hidden political agenda” (even though, in the case of “stealth advocacy”, the opposite could be the case as explained below). Acting as an expert with a specific goal in mind, an issue advocate might be more efficient in aiding policy makers with the fast implementation of findings.

Cons: Issue advocates might be more likely to be biased towards specific research outcomes (as they strongly favour one political outcome they are likely to be in a dilemma when their research findings do not support this outcome). Pielke describes the danger of “stealth issue advocacy”, which refers to a scientist hiding a political agenda while claiming to focus on the science. This usually results in scientific “facts” being manipulated for political debate. This behaviour can harm the credibility of scientific claims in general.

The “science arbiters” believe that science should not be directly involved in political decision making, but are willing to act as experts to inform policy making. Science arbiters focus on narrow, scientifically testable questions in order to stay removed from political debate.

Pros: More useful to society than “pure scientists”, as they are willing to act as scientific experts if specific questions are asked.

Cons: Science arbiters could be accused of being too passive, as they are only reacting to requests, but not actively engaging in sharing their knowledge.

honest brokerThe “honest broker of policy alternatives” is, as compared to the science arbiter, actively seeking to integrate scientific findings in policy decision making by providing policy makers with clarification on specific questions and presenting several alternatives of political action. The honest broker is, in contrast to the issue advocate, not interested in a specific political outcome but in simply engaging with policy decision makers in order to integrate scientific knowledge into the decision making process. Tamsin Edward’s stance towards policy making could be described as “honest brokering”.

Pros: The honest broker is a great facilitator of scientific expertise to society.

Cons: The role of the honest broker seems difficult to maintain for one person alone as they are very actively engaged in politics but at the same time have to remain completely impartial to one specific political outcome and furthermore should examine the issue from several aspects. Pielke suggests that committees and bodies of several experts could act as an honest broker together.

Pielke further elaborates on which role might be most suitable, taking into account the degree of consensus on political values and the degree of uncertainty in scientific knowledge. Admittedly the different roles described are idealized and in reality might not quite fit into this abstract framework.

I personally found two important points to take away from this discussion: Firstly, it is crucial to understand that there are different options regarding how to discuss scientific findings with policy makers. Secondly, there is no perfect one-size-fits-all approach concerning which option to choose, as each option has advantages and disadvantages. I believe that reflecting on the issue and discussing it, privately, like we did in our lab group or, like Edwards, in an open debate, are a good start to finding a personal stance towards policy making. This might seem laborious and time consuming but, in my opinion, should be integral to all scientists, who pride themselves with doing science that matters.