Why You Don't Need to Worry About 'Flesh-Eating' Drug Krokodil

Krokodil has been described as heroin’s answer to meth, but there’s scant information suggesting its use has already spiraled out of control. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

Have you heard about this new drug, krokodil, that's supposedly wreaking havoc across the U.S.?

Among the recent headlines: "Flesh-eating 'zombie' drug 'kills you from the inside out" (CNN), "The World's Most Horrifying Drug Is Already Spreading Rapidly Across the United States" (Time), "Two more cases of flesh-eating krokodil suspected in Utah as killer drug spreads through streets of U.S." (Daily Mail), "Krokodil presents problems for treatment centers" (The Herald-News), "Chicago Area Krokodil Victims Describe Drug's Horrifying Effects" (Time, again), "Possible Epidemic of Flesh Eating Drug 'Krokodil' Spreading Through U.S.; Drug Experts, DEA Admit Concern" (Latinos Post).

Krokodil has been described as heroin's answer to meth. It's an injectable, synthetic opiate recently popularized in Russia that's cooked up in kitchens with codeine and household ingredients such as gasoline, red phosphorous (often scraped off matchbooks) and iodine. Because many of the non-narcotic ingredients are highly toxic and contain heavy metals, and because intravenous drugs carry significant infection risk, krokodil causes severe tissue damage, including necrosis and limb loss. According to reports, the average lifespan of a krokodil user after starting on the drug is around 2.5 years. The Verge's Adrianne Jeffries says it is insanely addictive, writing that it's "up to 10 times as potent as morphine and lasts half as long." Krokodil — which got its name for the scaly green sores users develop on the spots where they inject it, where the skin eventually rots away — has long been confined to the Eastern Bloc, so media reports claiming that it's suddenly a la mode in America are alarming if true.

But that's a big if. There's a lot of hype about this killer-drug, but there's also a maddening lack of hard facts.

First, there hasn't been any official, federal documentation of a single krokodil case in the U.S. Dawn Dearden, a Drug Enforcement Agency spokeswoman, told Newsweek on Friday: "We do not have any confirmed cases."

Now, that does not mean that there isn't any krokodil in the U.S. It's possible this scourge is laying waste to addicts from L.A. to Bangor, Maine, but the DEA doesn't know about it. Law enforcement agencies and medical institutions are not required to send street drugs they come across to the DEA for testing. And the DEA is not laughing off the krokodil scare. "We're absolutely, positively concerned about it making its way here to the United States," Dearden says.

Still, Dearden says that most local labs to reach out when they come across a strange substance. "This has not been the case, so far, in any of these krokodil cases."

So sure, maybe krokodil is starting to be a thing in North America, but there's scant information out there yet supporting the popular thesis that its use has already spiraled out of control. Rather, the information available points to a few possible cases in Arizona, Illinois and Utah. (Several notorious krokodil deaths in Oklahoma, which prompted much of this krokodil panic, turned out not to be related to krokodil, authorities said this week.)

Part of the reason krokodil, which first made American headlines in 2011 (but surfaced in the East around 2003), has become such a problem in Russia is that heroin addicts, seeking a cheap and readily available fix, were able to acquire codeine over the counter. (That has since changed, according to published reports. The DEA could not immediately confirm the status of codeine in Russia). Since codeine is not easy to get in the U.S., there's no easy krokodil-cooking startup culture that would kick-start its spread across North America. But maybe there's enough incentive for sellers or buyers to pick krokodil over heroin (which has seen a resurgence with law enforcement officials' crackdown on prescription opiates.)?

"The alarmism is not warranted," says Jeffrey Miron, Harvard economist and senior lecturer the Cato Institute. "There are already lots of ways that people have access to different drugs."

Miron, a proponent of drug legalization, says the current hype around krokodil is yet another overblown chapter in the long history of American hysteria over drug "epidemics."

Drug users, he says, are a part of any society, but their numbers tend to remain stable. In other words, a small percentage of people anywhere will always want to get high, and some of these people will become addicts. The number of drug users or addicts proportionate to the rest of the population doesn't suddenly shoot up or down depending on the drugs available, Miron says.

"Whether it's crack or meth or marijuana or cocaine, none of it has ever been true," he says of apocalyptic cries of another epidemic. "The demand for all those things seems to be relatively moderate."