Another Way Prohibition Makes People's Flesh Rot

NYS Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse ServicesNYS Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse ServicesLast year the big drug scare involved "bath salts," quasi-legal stimulants that supposedly turned a guy in Miami into a flesh-eating zombie (although it turned out that he had not actually consumed any of the drugs blamed for his vicious assault on a homeless alcoholic). Recently various media outlets have been hyping a drug that cuts out the middleman and does the flesh eating all on its own: krokodil, a homemade version of desomorphine that originated in Russia as a heroin substitute. Last month health officials in Arizona reported two cases of krokodil use there, which gave USA Today an excuse to recycle accounts of the drug's icky side effects under the headline "Flesh-Rotting 'Krokodil' Drug Emerges in USA":

The caustic homemade opiate is made from over-the-counter codeine-based headache pills mixed with iodine, gasoline, paint thinner or alcohol. When it's injected, the concoction destroys a user's tissue, turning the skin scaly and green like a crocodile. Festering sores, abscesses and blood poisoning are common....

The average life expectancy among krokodil addicts in Russia is two to three years, according to Time, which called the narcotic "the most horrible drug in the world." Gangrene and amputations are common, and the toxic mix dissolves jawbones and teeth.

The story leaves the impression that desomorphine itself causes this damage, which would be puzzling since the drug was patented in 1932 and marketed as a painkiller in Switzerland under the brand name Permonid, with nary a report of rotting patients from the inside out. The hazards posed by the illicit version stem from the caustic solvents and catalysts that amateur chemists fail to remove before injecting the stuff (as well as the dangers associated with unsanitary injection practices). "While pure desomorphine is probably no more toxic than morphine," notes the blog Opiophilia, "the solvents and chemicals used in the reaction cause sores at the site of injection, necrosis of flesh and turns the skin scaly (hence the name 'crocodile')." 

What drives Russian drug users to take such risks? "Krokodil became popular in Russia because heroin can be difficult to obtain and is expensive," USA Today reports. "Krokodil costs three times less, and the high is similar to heroin though much shorter, usually 90 minutes." In other words, the drug laws, which in Russia ban heroin but allow the sale of codeine without a prescription, encouraged a switch to a cheaper but more dangerous drug. If Russians could buy heroin (or pharmaceutical-quality desomorphine) the same way they buy codeine, "the most horrible drug in the world" would have no following. The necrosis caused by levamisole-contaminated cocaine is likewise a product of prohibition. Attributing these effects to the drugs themselves is like attributing the deaths caused by contaminants in black-market booze during the 1920s to alcohol.

Weirdly, USA Today compares toxic, caustic, highly impure krokodil to "the methamphetamine that Walter White cooks in Breaking Bad." As anyone who has seen the show could tell you, White's success hinges on his ability to produce a pure, high-quality product similar to the government-approved stimulants that doctors prescribe for narcoleptics and inattentive schoolboys.

Yet the tone of the USA Today story is positively restrained compared to the absurd propaganda spewed by a Drug Enforcement Administration official quoted in yesterday's Deseret News:

"While methamphetamine and heroin are guaranteed to give you a slow, painful death, if you want to speed up the process, take this drug," said DEA supervisory agent Sue Thomas.

"If you just want to speed up and horrify the death process a little more, take this drug. It will rot you from the inside out, leaving you with gaping wounds that will leave bones exposed, horrible abscesses, and it's a horrific death."

Presumably Thomas wants the "avid drug abuser[s]" who she says are the only people likely to be interested in krokodil to take her warnings seriously. Yet anyone who has had extensive experience with illegal drugs will laugh at her claim that every person who tries methamphetamine or heroin ends up dying "a slow, painful death" as a result. If she is so off the mark about heroin and meth, why believe what she says about krokodil? Drug warriors lie so much that their denunciations tend to function as advertisements.

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  • Hillary's Clitdong||

    "While methamphetamine and heroin are guaranteed to give you a slow, painful death

    Like this guy?

  • Warty||

    Soldiers in the Wehrmacht took methamphetamine. The Germans lost the war. Coincidence???

    METH: NICHT EINMAL

  • Hillary's Clitdong||

    Keith Richards took heroin. Keith Richards wrote great tunes. Coincidence? I think not. GIVE SMACK TO SCHOOL CHILDREN! GET THOSE TYKES DANCING WITH MR. BROWNSTONE RIGHT AWAY! I WANT ANOTHER STICKY FINGERS.

  • Broseph of Invention||

    That's the Stones album where I most feel like the hits were the worst songs (maybe from overplaying) and the "filler" was the best.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    So bottom line it for me, is this drug going to start World War Z or not? Because my bunker is somewhat in a state of disrepair right now and I will need to get to Home Depot.

  • Aresen||

    We have to shut down these Russian Samovar Dens.

  • ||

    Drug warriors love lethal drug cocktails, like putting acetaminophen in Vicodin. Those dirty, sinful druggies then get what they deserve!

  • Warty||

    Better for a million winos to go blind from the methanol in the denatured alcohol than for the State to lose a cent of tax money.

  • waffles||

    What I don't understand is how Krokodil made it's way stateside. There is no reason to import the drug and I thought it only exists because it is cheaply made with codeine. Codeine is a controlled substance here so it's not like there any advantage to this over plain ol' heroin. Unless gangrene is your thing.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Also, there are better things to make from codeine for those so inclined to do chemistry.

  • JD the elder||

    I would guess that to the extent it does exist (and I'm not convinced it does exist much here beyond the fevered imaginations of journalists), it's because some people have a great fascination with and willingness to try anything they think is going to get them high, plus drug users are no less subject to magical thinking than anyone else (and "anyone else" in America often thinks that vaccines cause autism, laetrile cures cancer, copper bracelets cure arthritis, etc.)

  • Jesse Walker||

    What I don't understand is how Krokodil made it's way stateside.

    We have two known incidents in a vast country. I'm not sure it has made its way stateside in a meaningful sense.

  • juris imprudent||

    You hate the children, don't you?

  • waffles||

    Also I hate to say it but Vice had the krokodil story nailed down over a year ago. What's with the slow motion sensational journalism? I guess it's a drug thing.

  • Broseph of Invention||

    Sorta related, I found this lolzy local reporting video on YouTube last night - Kratom: More Addictive than Heroin?

  • Broseph of Invention||

    SUGARFREEEEEEEEE!!!!

    I'll just paste the link. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LCIazru4zAA

  • SugarFree||

    I drink your tears.

  • Aresen||

    Everything is more addictive than heroin, to hear the Drug Warriors tell it.

    Heroin is the standard against which all other drugs must be compared.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Kratom is used as an opiate substitute in SE Asia, since it's cheaper yet blocks opiate withdrawal symptoms.

    I believe it's still legal federally, and in most states, but be careful. It can be rather toxic to the liver. Long term users tend to die of liver failure, but it can also cause short term problems.

  • CatoTheElder||

    "If she is so off the mark about heroin and meth, why believe what she says about krokodil?"

    She's probably right given the description of the process used to make krokodil. But it's hard to know when to believe a pathological liar.

  • Mongo||

    The drug just has a catchy, cyberpunk name and spelling.

    Refer to it as Muslimjuice or something and watch it fall off the radar....

  • Ska||

    It would be really difficult to turn down a bump of Novacoke.

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