It all started outside Phoenix just last month. A drug abuse specialist found himself treating two patients with dead, scaly skin spreading over their limbs. The symptoms looked like a horrible case of gangrene—with hideous, open lesions.
The doctor reached an almost immediate diagnosis: His patients were addicted to krokodil, a Russian street drug that’s similar to heroin, but also rots flesh to the bone. This may have been the first sighting of the blight in America.
Since then, doctors in Oklahoma and Illinois have laid claim to similarly grim discoveries of krokodil, the use of which appears to be on the rise across the country, if gradually. Is this “home-brewed heroin”—which is behind a horrific plague in Russia, where millions of young people are addicted and rotting—a coming scourge for Americans?
Not quite yet. But there are warning signs. And there’s also a growing fascination here with the drug and its treacherous underlying chemistry.
Krokodil, formally known as desomorphine, is the moonshine of the drug world. The enormously powerful opiate is vastly cheaper than heroin to produce. It can be cooked at home using a variety of common ingredients, such as gasoline and codeine (found in most painkillers). Users say the drug is a pleasure-inducing upper like heroin, but the high is significantly stronger.
Don't try this at home. But you could, if you wanted to. Krokodil can be made with a number of household items including:
- Red phosphorus (obtained by gathering the shavings after striking a matchbox strip)
- Red iodine
- Codeine (found in most painkillers)
The major difference between the two drugs—and it’s an important one—lies in krokodil’s tendency to rot your skin. Krokodil’s toxic combination of ingredients can rupture a user’s skin near the site of injection, leaving behind scar tissue. Once a user injects enough of the drug, his or her skin begins to flake off (like a crocodile or other reptile), ultimately rotting the flesh down to the bone.
What’s standing between 20-something American junkies and the lure of krokodil may be the cheap abundance of heroin (not the case in Russia). DEA spokeswoman Barbara Carreno explains in an email that “heroin is widely available in the US, along with over 200 varieties of synthetic drugs, such as the so-called fake pot and so-called bath salt drugs.” But all “so-called” good things come to an end.
Just as US addicts turned to heroin when prescription pills became prohibitively expensive and meth got harder to find, the concern is that krokodil will one day take the place of heroin when heroin becomes too costly or scarce.
In fact, a recent journal article published in the International Journal of Drug Policy suggests that it’s heroin (or the lack of it) that instigated the krokodil boom in the Ukraine and Russia in the later years of the Soviet Union.
“Home production [of krokodil] developed in an era when closed borders effectively blocked the import of heroin and other ‘Western’ drugs,” the authors explain. As for how, exactly, heroin provoked the rise of krokodil, the authors point to “changes to heroin availability, purity and price due to heroin ‘droughts.’”
Back in the United States, fear of krokodil is already stalking the market. In early October, a doctor in Joliet, Illinois, admitted two sisters who say they resorted to the drug because it was so cheap. The sisters, heroin addicts for more than 10 years, started buying what they thought was heroin from dealers in Chicago, only to find that the drug was actually krokodil—or so they claimed. The DEA would later say it was just bad heroin.
The codeine used to create krokodil often still contains traces of gas. Users mix it with iodine, hydrochloric acid and red phosphorous to produce desomorphine, described by the chart below:
What’s scarier than a heroin “drought,” however, are the junkies who say they’d try the drug even if heroin was readily available. Deep in a thread titled “Krokodil Chemistry” on BlueLight, a drug forum that happens to have a Russian domain name, a number of voices suggest they’d try the drug if prepared correctly, (That is, a Walter-White-esque pure desomorphine without any gasoline leftover from the production process, and therefore, presumably, no rotting flesh.)
“I’d be down to try the pure form, aka <<clean>> form, not the homemade shit,” writes one user, PurpleKush1, in early October. The thread’s moderator, Guido, whose profile suggests he lives in New York, adds: “I have prepared it in the past for myself and a few friends when I was a heroin addict… When synthesized correctly with proper equipment and purified correctly it doesn’t cause any damage.”
Krokodil addicts experience krokodil’s signature skin-rotting symptoms only because they’ve cooked and injected impure desomorphine. In order to prepare clean desomorphine, addicts would have to extract pure codeine by mixing it with gasoline and acidified water, then allow the gasoline and the non-codeine elements of the painkiller to separate. But usually there’s gasoline leftover in the codeine mix, which is where all the danger begins.
The drug also happens to be a publicity boon for doctors who “discover” it, fueling further interest in the drug. Dr. Frank Lovecchio, the Arizona doctor who admitted the two patients with signs of krokodil abuse in September, initially believed he was the first to stumble on the use of the drug in the United States, telling Vocativ, ”The reason why it’s so attractive is because it’s so cheap.”
Only a few weeks later, however, the drug appeared outside of Joliet (and also, allegedly, in Oklahoma and Boston), and Dr. Lovecchio was forced to alter his account of his findings in early October: “We’ve since changed our rhetoric to say we were ‘one of the first.’”
For right now, however, there seems to be enough cheap heroin to stave off a mass krokodil epidemic. In its 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the national drug organization Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that 9.9 percent of kids between the ages of 12 and 17 claimed they could “fairly eas[ily]” or “very eas[ily]” find heroin if they wanted to do so. An estimated 669,000 Americans used heroin last year.
How Do We Know
While krokodil abuse is still in its infancy in the US, we have been following the world wide spread of the drug in tandem with our correspondents in Russia. We're currently employing our technology to trawl everything from local news to social media for any rise in the drug's popularity.
“Krokodil was created in some [Former Soviet Union] countries to be a heroin substitute for rural people who didn’t have access to heroin but DID have access to un-controlled, over-the-counter codeine,” Carreno explains. “Neither of those circumstances is the case in the US, so we wouldn’t expect the demand for krokodil here to be the same as there.”
And while the price of heroin fluctuates throughout the country and hinges on what strain of heroin you’re trying to buy, Mexican black-tar heroin is particularly cheap right now. It’s sold primarily on the West Coast.
A spokesperson at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) made clear that this “Russian magic” isn’t on the organization’s radar yet, asking over the phone, “This is the flesh thing, right?”
“We’re definitely concerned about it,” the spokesperson says, after clarifying. “It’s definitely dangerous. But it’s not yet being monitored. We’ve received calls about it because it’s been in the press.”
Right now, NIDA has relegated krokodil to its “Emerging Trends” section of its website. Also on that watch list: Sizzurp, Purple Drank and Molly.