The Crocodile That Dines on Dying Addicts

By Tony O'Neill 06/24/11

Russia’s newest bathtub morphine is a nightmare straight from Naked Lunch.

Cheap to make, suicidal to use.
Photo via animalnewyork

As time goes on, William Burroughs seems less like a mere author of fiction, and ever more like some junkie Nostradamus. Exhibit A—the latest drug craze sweeping up Russia’s poorest and most desperate addicts: “krokodil.” The name, meaning “crocodile” in Russian, refers to the drug’s side effect of turning the skin of users a green, scaly color at the injection site.  And believe us, that’s the least of it. As horrific photographs of addicts with their skin rotting away and bones literally poking through raw flesh have started filtering out from Russian news agencies, the western press predictably dubbed krokodil “The Drug That Eats Junkies.” The reptilian moniker of this bathtub opiate now spreading illness and death among Russian addicts has overtones of Naked Lunch’s dystopian horrors.  

We have to admit; we were somewhat skeptical. After all, this has all the hallmarks of a classic drug-scare story: Don’t do this drug, or your arms will rot off, and then you die. A drug that can be synthesized from over-the-counter pain medication, is eight times more powerful than morphine, and has side effects that include gangrene and tissue infection at the injection site?  So far, so unbelievable. But as the story has gained traction, garnering sobering (and horrific) articles in places like London’s Independent and Time magazine, it has become clear that the misery of Russia’s krokodil addicts is no piece of government propaganda. 
The drug first came to light in Siberia back in 2002.  Vastly cheaper than heroin, and requiring only basic chemistry skills to cook, sick junkies have turned to it as a stopgap when they cannot afford the real thing, or when supplies are interrupted.  This codeine-based concoction is created by means of a cooking process similar to meth—and recipes are easy to find online. Codeine pills, iodine, lighter fluid, industrial cleaning oil, gasoline, hydrochloric acid, red phosphorous scraped from matchboxes, and various cooking implements are the necessary tools. While heroin costs about twenty-five dollars a bag in Russia, a pack of codeine pills costs about three bucks.  However, the end product is so impure and so dangerous that if you type the phrase “krokodil addicts” into Google Images, you will be greeted by a horde of full color pictures so disturbing that we are loath to link to them here.  Lets just say that once you see them, you might feel the need to wash your eyeballs out with soap. 

Russia has long pursued a punitive and harsh approach to drug addiction. Up until 2002, the state was actually lobotomizing addicts, and the concept of “harm reduction” is actively frowned upon. The official approach to Russia’s drug problem seems to be “hang ‘em and flog ‘em,” taken to its extremes.  Instead of reducing the number of drug users, this hardheaded policy has produced a nation with an estimated two million addicts, more than any other country in the world.  And now, because of the state’s long-standing policy of stigmatizing and punishing addicts, something even worse than old-fashioned heroin addiction has been created.  The epidemic of krokodil use should be a teachable moment for other countries. Disempowering and disenfranchising addicts will always have the opposite effect—addicts will still get high by any means necessary, and unfortunately, they will risk anything to do it. Krokodil is a Frankenstein’s monster created by Russia’s shortsighted and inhumane treatment of its own citizens.  Here at The Fix, our thoughts go out to those two million Russian drug addicts, and their families. 

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Tony O'Neill, a regular contributor to The Fix, is the author of several novels, including Digging the VeinDown and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He also co-authored the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie). He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. You can follow Tony on Twitter.