What Exactly Is Krokodil and Why Is It So Dangerous?

Krokodil’s name in Russian means “crocodile” and it is also known as the “flesh-eating” or “zombie” drug.

The street drug krokodil is an illegal preparation of the drug desomorphine, a semi-synthetic opioid derived from morphine. Desomorphine is about ten times as strong as morphine because it has one less hydroxyl group (morphine has two, desomorphine has one) which allows it to more easily cross the blood-brain barrier. Desomorphine as gets to work sooner but the high does not last as long. While a heroin high lasts about four hours, a krokodil high lasts half that time. Therefore, a user needs to inject more desomorphine which leads to a greater chance of developing an addiction. Some people become dependent to desomorphine after just a few days.

While desomorphine was originally developed in the 1930s as an alternative to morphine, it soon fell by the wayside in mainstream medicine due to the abuse potential. Desomorphine largely disappeared from the world for 70 years before it came to Russia in 2003 as krokodil.

Due to its proximity to Afghanistan, the world’s largest producer of opium, heroin addiction is a major public health problem in Russia. In 2003, when the Russian government took action to curb the trafficking of Afghan heroin, the price of the drug skyrocketed on the streets. Therefore, those with an opioid use disorder had to turn to other option, one of which was desomorphine.

Desomorphine can be cooked in a home lab similarly to methamphetamine. To begin, one needs codiene tablets, which were available without a prescription in Russia. Then a solvent such as gasoline, paint thinner or battery acid is added to the tablets as well as iodine, red phosphorus and strong acids and bases. The end product is krokodil which is then injected into a person’s veins. While krokodil contains desomorphine, the solvents and other chemicals are not removed from the final product. In fact, the average pH of krokodil is 3, the same as lemon juice. Imagine injecting a toxic, acidic solution into your veins twice as often as heroin: that is krokodil. The name is thought to come from the green, scaley appearance a person’s skin becomes after long-time use.

Lets not sugar coat this, krokodil is very dangerous. If you wouldn’t think to inject any of the things used to make krokodil into your body then heed our warning because those chemicals are not properly removed from krokodil no matter what you’ve been told.

The health consequences of krokodil are numerous. In addition to green, scaley skin gangrene (tissue death), phlebitis (inflammation of the veins), blood clots, pneumonia, meningitis, blood and bone infections, and damage to the liver, kidneys and brain are all common side effects of krokodil. Long-time users often have to get limbs amputated and, unfortunately, people typically die after two to three years of use.

We understand that opioid dependence is a powerful force that makes us do things we never thought we would do. Workit Health is here with customized treatment based on the latest science to help you get your life back from krokodil.

Ali Safawi is a Workit Health researcher in Michigan. He will be graduating from the University of Michigan with a BA in Community and Global Public Health. His interests include mental health, substance use and healthcare reform.