Another Way Prohibition Makes People's Flesh Rot


NYS Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services

Last 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.