In September, an Arizona poison control center received two calls about what are suspected to be the first cases of krokodil poisoning in the United States. Last week, at least six people were suspected of using the drug that causes the skin to rot away in the Chicago area; prompting medical professionals to warn the public that the toxic drug has reached American shores.
Scientifically named desomorphine, krokodil is an opiate in the same family as heroin. It received its street name from the green, scale-like spots that develop on the user’s skin after it is injected – krokodil is Russian for crocodile. In Russia, where heroin addiction is rampant, the drug has grown in popularity. According to the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, approximately 1 million Russians are estimated to be abusing the drug.
Krokodil is more potent than morphine and has a faster onset but the high is shorter in duration. Opiates influence the reward center of the brain and therefore are especially addictive, says Dr. Richard Friedman, director of the psychopharmacology clinic at Newyork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City. “It’s more rewarding than any other naturally occurring thing,” Friedman said. “Nothing feels quite as good as it does.” The more a user takes, the more that center of their brain is activated.
Krokodil is easy to produce at home with gasoline, paint thinner, a few other cooking ingredients and codeine. In Russia, codeine is sold over-the-counter. After cooking, the drug is not purified; it retains many toxic substances that are byproducts of the cooking process. It is these poisonous toxins that damage the flesh and veins of the users, who are literally injecting petroleum by-products into their body. Consequently, body tissue begins to rot, gangrene sets in and the flesh and veins begin to die. Within two to three years the average user dies. “You’re poisoning yourself,” warned Friedman. “It’s very corrosive and toxic.”
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