Drug Policy

When You're Covering the Bogus Krokodil Epidemic, Even Rumors of a Rumor Will Do

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KTVI, St. Louis

In my Forbes column this week, I explain how the bogus story of a U.S. krokodil outbreak was born and why it will not die. I do not address every alleged krokodil sighting in detail because some of the reports are so laughably lacking in evidence that they are not worth the trouble. References to the drug's alleged appearance in Utah stand out in that regard. Here is how that totally unfounded claim seems to have arisen.

On October 6, inspired by unsubstantiated reports of krokodil-related symptoms in neighboring Arizona, the Deseret Morning News ran a story under the headline "DEA Fears Flesh-Eating Drug Could End Up in Utah." Reporter Pat Reavy asked Sue Thomas, supervisory special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Utah, about krokodil, and Thomas responded with an over-the-top recital of potential side effects that was partly true but mixed up with considerable nonsense (such as her incredible claim that "methamphetamine and heroin are guaranteed to give you a slow, painful death"). Thomas never said there was any krokodil in Utah—just that it would be worrisome if there were. "As of Friday," Reavy wrote, "there had been no confirmed cases of Krokodil in Utah."

Three days later, Abhin Singla, a physician in Joliet, Illinois, who claimed to have encountered krokodil users there, told the Southtown Star, "Last week the first cases in this country were reported in Arizona and Utah, and I'm startled how quickly it came east to our area." During the next few days, that claim about Utah was picked up by other news outlets. On October 12 the Fox station in Cleveland reported that "the first U.S. case [sic] appeared in Utah and Arizona a few weeks ago." On October 14 the Fox station in St. Louis referred to "reports" of krokodil use "in Arizona, Utah, Nevada and most recently in the Chicago area." Even the Chicago Tribune, which has covered this story with admirable skepticism, mentioned "unconfirmed cases of krokodil use in Arizona, Utah and Nevada." The Lawton Constitution, an Oklahoma paper, said "reports of the drug's usage in Utah and Illinois have recently surfaced."

Back in Utah, having seen such reports of reports, The Salt Lake Tribune wondered, "Is flesh-eating krokodil in Utah?" The answer, according to the headline: "Hard to be sure." In that October 18 story, Matthew Piper noted that "reports in recent weeks have obliquely mentioned 'cases in Utah.'" He added:

On Thursday local TV news outlets reported that Murray's Intermountain Medical Center saw two patients who seemed to display the synthetic opiate's trademark side effects. But IMC spokesman Jess Gomez could only say that those cases—it is unknown when they occurred—"fit some of the clinical criteria." If they were the result of krokodil, they were minor reactions, and there is no sure test.

Actually, there is a sure test: If someone has recently injected krokodil, they should have desomorphine in their blood. But to date no desomorphine has been detected in any blood or drug samples. There is nevertheless an impressive list of a dozen or so states where krokodil has been reported (or reported to have been reported). Including Utah.