Video: Reports of Flesh-Eating Cocaine Surface in US

By Dirk Hanson 06/29/11

Cut with an animal deworming agent, the new cocaine causes an immune reaction that attacks blood vessels in the skin, similar to the effect of Russia's "krokodil" morphine.

That didn’t take long. Last week, we told you the terrible story of “krokodil,” the Russian near-morphine that can be synthesized from over-the-counter pain medication, and has side effects that include gangrene and tissue infection. Yesterday, we linked to a story about the DEA’s new watch program for the horrific drug here in the states. But when scattered reports surfaced of cocaine users in Canada developing anemia and other problems after snorting cocaine cut with levamisole—a veterinary drug used for deworming farm animals—officials began to take a closer look at cocaine users with skin eruptions. 

Now a case study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology confirmed that a version of levamisole-laced cocaine is loose in the United States, causing symptoms similar to those suffered by users of Crocodile in Russia. As ABC News reported: “The gruesome wounds surface days after a hit because of an immune reaction that attacks the blood vessels supplying the skin.” The article, by dermatologists in California, reported on six cocaine-using patients with a set of skin lesions, skin eruptions, gangrene, and a characteristic rash called purpura, apparently caused by an adverse immune reaction to repeated high doses of levamisole. The inflammation can lead to heavy scarring, amputation, and death.

No one seems to know exactly why batches with high levels of levamisole are turning up. Typically, baking soda is the cocaine cut of choice, though DEA officials estimate that 80% of cocaine contains some levamisole, on the strength of the notion that it’s cheap, and that it contributes in some way to the high. Until 2000, levamisole was used in humans to treat parasitic worm infections, but was withdrawn because of serous side effects. At ordinary doses, ingested by casual users, the risk is low. But for chronic cocaine injectors, it’s a different picture.

The physicians warned that the cases they examined, found in New York and California, “may represent the tip of the iceberg as a looming public health problem caused by levamisole.”

Noah Craft of the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute, and one of the study authors, told ABC News that “it’s a little bit like having HIV. About 10 percent of those patients will die from severe infections. They may be walking around like a time bomb.”

A Los Angeles dermatologist said that it’s “important for people to know it’s not just in New York and L.A. It’s in the cocaine supply of the entire U.S.”

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]