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A homemade substitute for heroin called ‘krokodil’ is rotting Russian addicts to death, its uncontrolled availability causing alarm among rehabilitation centers in Russia. The drug appeared in 2002 in Siberia and the Russian Far East but heroin addicts across Russia first discovered how to make it four years ago. Its use has since spread with dangerous proportions.
Possession of the home-cooked substance is illegal in Russia and with the boost in drug control within the last couple of years, the national Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN) reportedly confiscated 65 million doses in the first three months of 2011 alone.
“As recently as five years ago, there were only one-off instances of catching this drug,” Victor Ivanov of the FSKN told Time Magazine. Since 2009, the amount has increased 23-fold.
The reason why krokodil is eating up junkies is the unimaginable mix of household items. The high comes from cooking off codeine from non-prescriptive painkillers and mixing it with gasoline, paint thinner, hydrochloric acid, iodine and red phosphorous — the latter is usually produced by scraping off the tip of matchsticks. The drug takes between 30 and 60 minutes to cook and once mixed, the caramel-colored thick substance is injected into the vein.
Unlike heroin, which may last several hours, this type of desomorphine can only sustain a high for about 60 to 90 minutes. Though, for serious addicts, the process, which often requires the user to continuously prepare and inject a new batch, is a cheap and easily obtainable alternative to heroin. The street price for heroin is estimated between £20-60 per unit while the key ingredient for the desomorphine, only costs £2 per pack — turning usage into a fast-growing epidemic.
The result is grim. An online search on ‘krokodil addiction’ reveals explicit images and videos of rotting skin, exposed bones and amputation. The acidity of the drug kills the tissue in the area where the addicts shoot up, aided by the risk of missing a vein or ‘skin popping’ (injecting a substance directly into the skin due to damaged veins) and an army of infections; the user’s skin literally rots off the bones. Krokodil addicts will typically die within three years.
It is estimated that Russia currently has up to two million heroin users. This devastating situation has been linked to the explosion of poppy production in Afghanistan in the last decade, which the Russian government has angrily blamed on the U.S.-led war.
However, Russian authorities and other drug control agencies have in recent years made a great effort to crack down on illegal imports of opium and while the result has been a moderate success, the increased risk for traders caused the price of heroin to go up. Rehabilitation centers and addicts cited this as the main reason why krokodil use is spreading, especially across poorer areas.
According to an article by the Independent, 30,000 people are killed annually in Russia from heroin addiction, which accounts for a third of heroin related deaths worldwide. Over the last four years, krokodil is said to have addicted 100,000 people, adding to the worldwide statistics.
Victor Ivanov of FSKN spoke to the Independent about a visit to a drug-treatment centre in Western Siberia: “they told me that two years ago almost all of their drug users used heroin. Now, more than half of them are on desomorphine.”
The treatment of krokodil addiction is equally as terrifying as using it. A doctor at a treatment center in Tver explained to the Independent that desomorphine causes the strongest level of addiction, which is equally hard to cure.
“With heroin withdrawal, the main symptoms last for five to 10 days. After that there is still a big danger of relapse but the physical pain will be gone. With krokodil, the pain can last up to a month, and it’s unbearable. They have to be injected with extremely strong tranquilisers just to keep them from passing out from the pain,” said the doctor.
Krokodil addiction has so far expanded without preventive action from the state and the Russian rehabilitation system is equally left in the snow by the government. Financing relies heavily upon religious initiatives while the state only contributes a fragment. To make up for lost effort, it seems, Dmitry Medvedev has made calls for the closure of the websites that explain how to cook the destructive drug and that mandatory drug testing be introduced in schools, according to Time Magazine.
However, a ban on codeine or introduction of prescription-only for the tablets, which are currently an over-the-counter drug, has yet to move from aimless talk to action. Government officials say that restrictive measures take time, while anti-drug campaigners say pharmaceutical companies are pressuring for passivity.
Mr. Ivanov explained: “these tablets don’t cost much but the profit margins are high. Some pharmacies make up to 25 per cent of their profits from the sale of these tablets.”
This means although the pharmacy knows the purpose of the sale, they continue to supply the deadly addiction, without questioning — simply for profit.
“It’s not in the interests of the pharmaceutical companies [...] to stop this, so the government needs to use its power to regulate their sale,” adds Mr. Ivanov.
Until that happens, krokodil will be the horrific end of more drug addicts in Russia and while there has been no reported use outside the country, it is not improbable that addiction will drive junkies in other countries into the same pattern.