A Crocodile of Different Scales

Earlier this week the drug known as Krokodil was reported to have surfaced in Arizona. A disturbing possibility to say the least. Don’t know what Krokodil is? Read on…

The drug, based on Desomorphine is an opioid first patented in 1932 in the United States that is a derivative of morphine, where the 6-hydroxyl group has been removed and the 7,8 double bond has been reduced. It has sedative and analgesic effects, and is around 8-10 times more potent than morphine. Desomorphine was discovered to be way more addictive than morphine because of it’s higher potency and it’s use was abandoned or even banned in some countries.

Desomorphine saw it’s resurfacing in Russia in the early 2000’s. Due to heroin’s increasing price desomorphine/krokodil started being synthesized in bathtubs. Much like meth the ingredients are simple yet toxic items gotten easily from most stores. OTC codeine pills are mixed with various items including gasoline, bleach, red phosphorus, and iodine are mixed using simple chemistry convert the codeine to desomorphine. The items are relatively cheap, the main ingredient codeine is surprisingly cheap, 10 tablets of over-the-counter codeine-acetaminophen could be purchased for 120 Russian Rubles or $3.71. This quantity was said to produce enough desomorphine to substitute for 500 Rubles or $15.46 worth of heroin. The result is a cheap and potent heroin substitute. The high reportedly lasts for only an hour and a half compared to heroin’s 6-8 hours, but a user can get high for much less per dose.

The cheap and potent benefits are traded for much worse negatives. Krokodil is used by Russia’s poorest and most desperate addicts. The name, meaning “crocodile” in Russian, refers to the drug’s side effect of turning the skin of users a green, scaly color at the injection site. Thats not all though. The drug is known to eat away skin and muscle due to it’s caustic ingredients. It is common for users to lose arms and legs to gangrene and phlebitis. Horrific photographs of addicts with their skin rotting away and bones literally poking through raw flesh have been seen on youtube, reddit, and other news sites. I won’t post them here, they are just too sickening to me but a quick google search will tell you all you need to know. Many addicts only have a lifespan of 1-3 years after using krokodil due to infection and your body literally rotting away.

I first heard of Krokodil a few years ago and I could hardly believe it. It has all the makings of a classic propaganda fueled drug-scare story: Don’t do this drug, or your arms will rot off, and then you die. A drug using a simple cooking process with basic ingredients can be 8-10 times more powerful than morphine? So far, so unbelievable. Due to independent journalism and far too many see it to believe it news stories it has become clear that the misery of Russia’s krokodil addicts is no piece of government propaganda.

Russia has long pursued a punitive and harsh approach to drug addiction. Up until 2002, the state was actually lobotomizing addicts, and the concept of “harm reduction” is actively frowned upon. The official approach to Russia’s drug problem seems to be “hang ‘em and flog ‘em,” taken to its extremes. Instead of reducing the number of drug users, this hardheaded policy has produced a nation with an estimated two million addicts, more than any other country in the world. And now, because of the state’s long-standing policy of stigmatizing and punishing addicts, something even worse than old-fashioned heroin addiction has been created. The epidemic of krokodil use should be a teachable moment for other countries. Disempowering and disenfranchising addicts will always have the opposite effect—addicts will still get high by any means necessary, and unfortunately, they will risk anything to do it. Krokodil is a Frankenstein’s monster created by Russia’s shortsighted and inhumane treatment of its own citizens.

Now this monster may have reached our shores. In Phoenix, physicians told toxicologists at the Banner Good Samaritan Poison Control Center that they spotted symptoms consistent with krokodil, an intravenous drug that is prevalent in Russia and Eastern European countries, according to a statement released to the Los Angeles Times. Although toxicology reports have yet to confirm the presence of krokodil, reports in the media sounded the alarm, prompting fascination and speculation. Absent any definitive proof that krokodil abuse has occurred, the DEA has — so far — labeled the Arizona cases anecdotal. Other reports of krokodil in the last two years in Alabama and Arkansas were never confirmed, agency spokesman Rusty Payne said. “When I hear about about these things like krokodil, I’m skeptical,” Payne said. “I’m not believing it until I get a lab report.” There’s still no evidence that it has entered the illicit drug market in the U.S., Payne said. Toxicologists at the Arizona poison control center said they remain worried about krokodil usage, explaining that emerging drug habits are typically first seen by area physicians.

Personally even as a recovering addict I absolutely do not understand the use of krokodil. Even at my worst, knowing the awful effects of it I cannot fathom doing it. Theres a gnarly fatalism to the whole thing. Using drugs has some sense of fatalism to it inherently but using krokodil, knowing full well your life expectancy would be 1-3 years with a very painful downfall with skin and muscle sloughing off exposing nerves and bones sounds alien to me. Yet it is a very real epidemic in Russia.

Luckily codeine is unavailable OTC unlike in europe and there are already safeguards in place due to meth production to limit the purchasing the common ingredients. The possibility that this could be popping up or even already in use here in the US is frightening. Already there are sensationalised news reports of this being the ‘Zombie Apocalypse Drug’. My heart goes out to all those addicted to this nasty substance and at the same time hope it doesn’t become big here.

 C.S. Bridger is an LA based writer and photographer trying to make sense of recovery

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