Codeine, gasoline, paint thinner, hydrochloric acid, iodine and red phosphorous from matchstick heads. Those are typical ingredients in the street drug known as krokodil, a highly addictive toxic cocktail that’s three times as cheap to produce as heroin and could be becoming an international problem.
What makes this drug so exceptionally strange, however, is that once injected it begins eating the user’s body from the inside out, causing blood vessels to burst and surrounding tissue to die. Essentially a corrosive acid with opiate effects, krokodil destroys body tissue the way battery acid eats through plastic, opening large sores that can go all the way to the bone.
Clinically known as desomorphine, on the street it’s simply called “the drug that eats junkies.” Krokodil is reportedly 10 times as strong as codeine - its principal euphoric ingredient - and especially popular in impoverished areas where heroin is too expensive to buy, and hope seems too fanciful to indulge.
Like many “new” street drugs, desomorphine has rather old roots. First formulated in 1932 as a derivative of morphine, the drug was actually patented in Switzerland under the brand name Permonid. Because it was several times as potent as morphine (8-10 times as strong), it quickly gained in popularity with recreational users.
In its modern form, krokodil emerged around 2002 from rural Russia as a cheap heroine substitute that anyone with access to codeine pills and a few other ingredients could make in their kitchen. Over the next ten or so years, it spread across the country’s poorest communities, picking up an estimated three million addicts. Unlike its clinically invented predecessor, krokodil is as dirty as dirty drugs come - named for the fact that users develop scaly skin like a crocodile.
Since prolonged use of the drug is terminal (the typical lifespan of a krokodil addict is about two years), it’s impossible to really know how many people have been addicted to it, but what’s clear is that it’s no longer just Russia’s problem. Like any cheap but effective street drug, it’s spreading anywhere people can learn how to make it.
One of those places is Mexico.
The New York Daily News recently reported on a girl in Mexico City who was hospitalized with “severe lacerations” to her reproductive organs. What was first thought to be a horrific STD infection turned out to be the effects of the 17-year old injecting krokodil directly into her genitals.
“The young woman who used this drug had an infection that had rotted her genitals,” Mexico’s National Institute of Migration’s José Sotero Ruiz Hernández told El Periodico Correo.
“It wasn’t sexually transmitted. She said she’d been using krokodil for the last two months,” he added.
Cases like that are appearing with increasing frequency in Mexico City, where other toxic highs like huffing glue, gasoline and propane have already taken a terrible toll on the poorest communities - with children and teenagers topping the list of those hardest hit.
In a recent report, Time magazine dubbed krokodil “The World’s Deadliest Drug” and chronicled the cheap narcotic’s movement out of Russia into Europe and now into North and South America. “The monster has crossed the ocean,” according to the Time report.
So far, however, emergency rooms in the U.S. are not reporting cases involving krokodil, and those that have been reported are still unverified.
In U.S. cities, heroin, methamphetamine and prescription drugs are the reigning addiction heavyweights. It’s unlikely that krokodil will ever come close to any of these, or for that matter even take hold here . The relatively lower cost and higher availability of other drugs makes using a corrosive, euphoric acid unappealing to even the worst-off junkies.
In terms of raw physical damage, meth comes closest to desomorphine in the U.S., with the infamous “meth mouth” dental destruction and pervasive skin lesions that make seasoned meth users look 30 years older than they are. But even meth, as destructive as it is, doesn’t measure up to the suicide high of krokodil.
“I don’t care, I’m gonna f–king die in a week” says one young boy about to inject krokodil in a Vice documentary called “Krokodil Tears” released in 2011 (reported by The Daily Beast).
Even if it never becomes a drug problem in the U.S., krokodil’s appeal elsewhere should be cause for concern. It’s a drug born of despair, a sort of chemical nihilism seemingly designed to kill its host, and it’s taking young lives where it appears.
David DiSalvo, Contributor