It’s Russia’s cheaper, much more potent version of heroin. And it’s pretty damn scary. Otherwise known as the “zombie drug,” Krokodil is a dangerous substance that, when taken, causes the user to literally rot from the inside out.
The medical name is desomorphine, which (in case you couldn’t guess) derives from morphine itself. The drug was first invented in the U.S. in 1932 and, like every chemical killer, started off strictly for medical purposes. It was also used medically in parts of Central/Eastern Europe, such as Sweden.
The active ingredient in the drug is codeine, a mild opiate that can actually be purchased over the counter in many countries. But it doesn’t act alone. In order to make Krokodil you have to mix it with other toxic substances, such as paint thinner, hydrochloric acid, red phosphorus scraped from strike pads on matchboxes, and even gasoline. Fully cooked it resembles a cloudy, yellowish liquid. And apparently it smells terrible.
Injecting it causes your blood vessels to burst. But that’s not all: the surrounding tissue dies, falling off your bones in layers. The skin you do get to keep becomes green and scaly, like a crocodile’s. Hence, the name of the drug. Side effects can include gangrene and amputations of dead limbs. You’ll also develop abscesses along the flesh if you happen to miss a vein while injecting. Your permanent effects can include everything from uncontrolled erratic movements to speech impediments.
Addicts are estimated to have about 2-3 years to live. The withdrawal is so intense that tranquilizers are often used so that the addict doesn’t pass out due to extreme pain.
So, why would anyone choose to do this shit? Well, for starters, Russia has a heroin problem. A pretty serious, widespread one. One of the causes of this, according to a VICE documentary, was the Soviet-Afghan War. The opium trade sprang into full fruition through a little something called “narco-terrorism,” in which Afghan drug groups basically flooded their heroin into the Russian population.The reason for this: mainly to profit. And also to weaken the population of their enemy country.
According to VICE, some of the food markets are centers of distribution. One of the clandestine epicenters is the city of Novokuznetsk, where trucks from Kazakhstan arrive to dump their drugs off. Good old-fashioned border trafficking.
The gripping appeal of Krokodil lies in its effect on the average heroin user: it replicates the high, even amplifies it, at a much cheaper cost. In Europe you can get a dose for the equivalent of only a few dollars, while a heroin hit can cost you upwards of $20. In Russia specifically, Krokodil is about a tenth of the cost of heroin. Once the heroin addict goes broke, they turn to Krokodil for a cheaper, stronger fix. Ordinarily the high lasts about 90 minutes to two hours.
In 2011, about 65 million doses were confiscated, right near the height of Russia’s heroin epidemic. As of 2012, over-the-counter codeine sales were banned, prompting the black market to adopt this deadly ingredient. In some areas, Krokodil is estimated to be responsible for half the addictions and drug-related deaths. Between several hundred thousand and a million people are injecting it.
But don’t count on it becoming a widespread epidemic in America. As of 2013, there’s only been one documented case. But it’s still pretty damn scary. A man injected Krokodil for two months straight. Only two months. The skin on his thigh turned black and became covered in lesions. One of his fingers also turned black and pretty much fell off.
Some news sources such as Slate have dismissed stories of the Krokodil epidemic as overblown. At least, for us in the U.S. We really don’t have to worry much about it here. But the fact remains we’ve still got a heroin problem. Which can lead to cheaper, more potent alternatives. Which, in the deadly (even if locally rare) case of Krokodil, can lead to ruptured blood vessels, rotting flesh, and permanent tissue damage. And your hands and toes falling off, potentially. If that doesn’t scare you away from suspicious needles, I don’t know what will.