Desperate and Poor, Addicts Turn to Injecting Gruesome, Flesh-Rotting Cocktail


Poverty and desperation has led two drug users in Arizona to inject a flesh-devouring concoction, made from codeine, gasoline, paint thinner, oil and alcohol into their veins in order to experience a high “similar to heroin” for 10 to 20 times less money. The health toll, however, is hefty...and reminiscent of a zombie horror flick.

The substance, desomorphine, is dubbed "krokodil" because over time it hardens the skin and turns it green and scaly like that of a crocodile. Then, it causes the skin to fall off, sometimes exposing bones (as evinced in gruesome YouTube videos and photos). Mother Jones reported that speech impediments and erratic movements can also result from krokodil use, prompting media outlets to "tag krokodil the ‘zombie drug.’”

According to the Week, each injection of krokodil costs $6 to $8, while the same amount of heroin can cost $25.

As AlterNet reported last June, krokodil is “so addicting users will inject it long beyond the decay of their flesh, until they literally rot to death."

According to Phoenix, Arizona’s ABC Channel 15, krokodil made its debut in Russia in 2002. Shelly Mowry, a substance abuse and prevention expert told Channel 15 it has caused “horrendous, flesh-eating types of wounds on people,” in Arizona. Mowry also told Channel 15 that people addicted to the poisonous substance have one to seven years remaining life expectancy. As Time reported in a 2011 article about Russian krokodil use, "the few who manage to quit usually come away disfigured."

So far, only two cases of the drug’s use have been reported in the U.S. Phoenix’s CBS Channel 5 revealed this week that both cases were phoned into a Phoenix-based poison control center. Mowry said the wounds are what alerted public officials to the drug’s arrival.

Frank LoVecchio is the co-medical director at Banner's Poison Control Center in Arizona. He told the CBS affiliate that people at their center are “extremely frightened” by the first case of krokodil poisoning.

LoVecchio said people who use krokodil extract the "krokodil" substance from a mixture that includes oil and gasoline, then inject it based on an assumption that the toxic substances have burned away. But he believes remnants of the poisons remain and cause the flesh-eating wounds.

According to Mother Jones, “The main ingredients in krokodil are codeine, iodine, and red phosphorous. The latter is the stuff that's used to make the striking part on matchboxes. Sometimes paint thinner, gasoline, and hydrochloric acid are thrown into the mix.”

LoVeccio says, "[It causes] damage to the blood vessels, damage to the tissue and there are horrific pictures from Russia that show skin literally falling off the bone." He thinks the two cases in Arizona are related to one another, but said he fears use of krokodil will spread.

One of the reasons krokodil has spread in Russia is that it is cheap and doesn’t take long to make. The process is “similar to methamphetamines,” according to Mowry— just throw some chemicals in a hot pan and cook for 30 minutes.

People who try krokodil often become so severely addicted they cannot physically stop using it. As Mother Jones reported, “Heroin withdrawal symptoms last about a week; symptoms for krokodil withdrawal can last over a month.”

Despite its dire side effects, krokodil has caused an addiction problem so severe in Russia that the Federal Drug Control Service told Time it confiscated 65 million doses in the first three months of 2011. 

As AlterNet reported last year, so many Russians are using krokodil “it can be seen as approaching a national epidemic.”

While this is the first time krokodil use has been reported in the states, the U.S. is no stranger to drug addiction. Addiction to the powerful opioid OxyContin has reached epidemic proportions in the U.S.. In the last few years the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has tightened its grip on pseudoephedrine, making it difficult to purchase, since it is used in the production of methamphetamine. The DEA has also cracked down on local meth production, driving up the cost of available meth. This may lead some addicts to turn to cheaper and more widely available street drugs.

Barbara Carreno of the DEA told Mother Jones that krokodil isn't yet a controlled substance for lack of evidence that it is a public health problem.

"You don't want a federal agency going around making things illegal willy-nilly,” she said. “We'd have to see more than two cases before we control it … But people are mixing codeine and gasoline, and shooting it into their veins. What do they expect?"

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