Neither the U.S. researchers who developed desomorphine nor the Swiss doctors who at one time prescribed it ever reported that it ate away at users' bodies and killed them. But that's exactly what has happened to Russians who abuse krokodil. A 2011 story in the Independent, a British newspaper, graphically described the effects. A man named Oleg quickly developed rotting sores on the back of his neck. Down the street, a friend of his literally began to fall apart. "Her flesh is falling off and she can hardly move anymore," Oleg explained in an interview with the paper.
Illicitly produced desomorphine has these destructive effects because addicts tend not to be very meticulous chemists. Their crude methods of manufacturing krokodil (mixing codeine with solvents like paint thinner or gasoline) means this stuff is toxic. Around the injection site, blood vessels burst, and the surrounding tissue dies, which leads to gangrene and sometimes necessitates the amputation of abusers' limbs. Additionally, the drug's acidity eats away at porous bone tissue [sources: Drug Enforcement Administration, Christensen].
Others develop potentially fatal ailments such as meningitis and pneumonia, as krokodil weakens their bodies. Because the high only lasts about 90 minutes and it takes an hour to cook the drug, addicts often find themselves literally with no time to sleep [source: Shuster].
Kicking krokodil is even worse than kicking heroin. One user told the Independent that it took him weeks at a detox clinic to conquer his dependency, during which time he suffered withdrawal symptoms that included seizures, fever and vomiting. Even after he got clean, he lost 14 teeth, because of the damage that his krokodil abuse had done to his gums [source: Walker].
Even so, he was lucky to have survived. Zhenya tellingly explained to the Independent that for someone in the throes of krokodil addiction, "You're dreaming of heroin, something that feels clean and not like poison But you can't afford it, so you keep doing the krokodil, until you die." That's yet another reason to stay away from it.
Author's Note: Is krokodil really a flesh-eating drug?
In my several decades as a journalist, I've spent a fair amount of time around substance abusers, from teenaged suburban middle-class junkies in a pricey locked-ward treatment center, to a heroin addict that I once chatted with on the stoop of a Skid Row flophouse hotel. I even worked under a newspaper editor who would sneak off to the restroom to do lines of coke between deadlines. In that time, I can remember successive waves of mass-media warnings about a slew of substances ranging from angel dust to concoctions fashioned from cough syrup and soft drinks. I don't want to dismiss totally the dangers of illicit drugs. But in my own experience, the intoxicant that I've seen ruin the most lives is one that's totally legal and readily available: alcohol. When you've seen a homeless drunk in south Baltimore finish off a bottle of fortified wine and then fall flat on his face on the pavement, it's hard to imagine something more degrading and destructive.
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