Russia has a new, deadly drug called krokodil (aka crocodile) and it is killing young people in droves. Introduced in Siberia about a decade ago, it has made a splash in more populous areas in the past few years. Approximately fifty percent of all addiction and drug-related deaths in Russia can be directly attributed to crocodile.

The drug, officially called desomorphine, is related to morphine and kills most of its users within a few years. The active ingredient in crocodile is codeine, a commonly used pain medication derived from the poppy plant that is not usually independently toxic. When turned into crocodile, however, the codeine mixes with gas, turpentine, hydrochloric acid, iodine and red phosphorus (salvaged from match boxes). The liquid substance is then injected into the body by a needle. The high associated with the drug lasts about ninety minutes; it takes sixty minutes to make it. Thus, users can keep up a steady stream of cooking and injecting, without having to experience painful withdrawal.

It seems impossible to contemplate willingly injecting yourself with gasoline or paint thinner, but once crocodile gets you in its jaws, there is little escape.

Those who do manage to kick crocodile will usually be scarred for life. One long-term crocodile user who managed to recover now has a speech impediment and permanent brain damage, which has affected her coordination and motor skills. She switched to crocodile from heroin after discovering that it would be easier and vastly cheaper to make. Her low point came when she locked herself in an apartment for 2 weeks and mainlined crocodile into her femoral artery. When her flesh became gangrenous and blood poisoning developed, she was rushed to the hospital and detoxed.

Her brother and all of the other crocodile users she used to hang around with are now dead. Common causes of death include pneumonia, aneurysms, meningitis, or blood poisoning. Rotting flesh is another common cause of death and given that the skin can turn green and scaly at the injection site, it is also how the substance got its nickname. When injected, the substance is too toxic for the skin and blood vessels burst, causing the surrounding tissue to turn green and die.

Last year, up to one million Russians used crocodile. Thankfully, no other country has reported a problem with usage among citizens and it has yet to make it onto US streets. Unlike in Russia, crocodile’s main ingredient, codeine, cannot be obtained in the US without a prescription. Given the relatively unlimited availability of the crocodile’s ingredients, it is really not surprising that this drug has invaded an entire population. Russia’s president recently considered banning codeine in an effort to stop the epidemic.

In 2005, crocodile sightings were rare. Russia’s version of the FDA has reported a twenty-fold increase in the quantity of crocodile seized in the last two years. Earlier this year, over fifty million doses had already been seized. Like many cheap drugs, it has spread the fasted in the poorest and least accessible areas of the country. With winters lasting the better part of the year, and barely any employment, youth in Siberia are constantly investigating new and exciting ways to pass the time; they certainly found that in crocodile.

Those who do not die from using crocodile rarely get off without significant permanent impairment. Rotting flesh often turns gangrenous and requires amputation. In some, mandibular bones break down and disappear, leaving the user with no lower jaw.

Drug rehab in the United States is vastly different than in Russia. Here in the U.S., local and state governments often fund detox and drug rehab programs; Russia has few such government-funded facilities for its estimated two and a half million addicts. Many drug rehab facilities in Russia are run by Pentecostal orders, receiving no funding from the government. However, because of the recent publicity surrounding crocodile, Medvedev has begun discussing the need for a comprehensive rehab system.

Given that codeine is not available in the U.S. without a prescription, officials are hopeful that the crocodile epidemic will not travel here. However, other countries such as the UK, Canada and Australia should reconsider the practice of allowing codeine to be purchased without a prescription.

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