Is krokodil really a flesh-eating zombie drug?

Where Did Krokodil Come From?

Since the international news media began running sensationally grisly stories about Russian krokodil abuse in the late 2000s, it'd be easy to assume that it's a new drug, invented by some Siberian mad scientist bent on creating legions of zombie-like junkies. But it actually was developed in the 1930s, for the purpose of fighting drug addiction rather than causing it. The father of krokodil is Lyndon F. Small, a renowned University of Virginia chemist, who was recruited by the National Research Council in 1929 to head a team searching for painkillers that were less addictive alternatives to morphine. Small and his colleagues spent years tinkering with that drug's chemical structure and creating synthetic variations of it. One of the results was desomorphine, the active narcotic ingredient in krokodil [sources: Mosettig, OASAS, League of Nations].

At first, desomorphine seemed promising, in part because it was eight to 10 times more potent an analgesic than morphine, and yet it didn't cause chemical dependence in monkeys. However, when researchers switched to human subjects, they found that krokodil was even more addictive than morphine, because its effects came and went more quickly, spurring addicts to use it more frequently [sources: Ehrenfreund, Carter et al.]. A 1936 report by a narcotics abuse task force for the League of Nations — the predecessor of the U.N. — reported that international experts were so worried about desomorphine's potential to create vast numbers of addicts that one even advocated a ban on its manufacture [source: League of Nations].

But that did not happen. Desomorphine was marketed for a time in Switzerland as a painkiller [source: OASAS]. It didn't show up on the streets until the early 2000s, when it was discovered by Russian addicts who were looking for a cheap high to replace the expensive, hard-to-get heroin. By purchasing codeine-based headache pills from a pharmacy and cooking them with various easy-to-obtain chemical solvents, they found that they could create an injectable substitute for heroin at a tenth of the price [source: Walker].