Every few years a new drug trend “the likes of which we have never seen” is introduced to the world through a special report by a somber news anchor. Their serious tone of voice makes it clear that this time it is the end of civilization as we know it. Stories of overdoses, heinous crimes committed by addicts and police press conferences announcing the formation of the new “[insert trendy drug here] Task Force” soon follow. The latest installment in this saga involves the homemade opioid krokodil. Even though these situations are always exaggerated and dramatized, this may be the worst case of creating a drug scare from nothing that has happened to date.
The drug, which blew up in Russia in recent years, is a derivative of morphine called desomorphine. It is crudely produced by combining codeine with household substances like paint thinner or lighter fluid. Since amateurs are in charge of the process, it often results in a contaminated product, which kills the skin around the injection site giving it a scaly appearance like a crocodile, hence the name.
But despite the recent reports of krokodil making appearances across the States, it will never take a place next to cocaine, heroin, or meth on the popularity scale of potentially life-shattering drugs.
Russians began using krokodil for two reasons: 1) as a cheaper alternative to heroin and 2) in place of heroin if they couldn’t get it. Heroin is stronger and longer-lasting than krokodil and it doesn’t rot your flesh (though the injection process can), so it is by far the preferred choice for opioid users. But in Russia, codeine is sold over the counter and is readily available. This allows for krokodil to be produced and sold cheaply, and for the supply to remain at least somewhat constant.
In America, codeine is a Schedule II controlled substance and is regulated along with other prescription opioids. This makes the American drug landscape completely different than that of Russia. After considering the logic, it doesn’t make sense that krokodil will flourish here.
Like meth in America, krokodil is widely produced in relatively small quantities by individuals in Russia. Not to say a few “Breaking Bad”-style mega labs don’t exist (there are always a few enterprising individuals with money ready to exploit a new market), but the smalltime producers are the reason it caught on. Since codeine is much more difficult to access in America, this limits production to those who have access to the base ingredient. That’s simply not that many people, at least not as many as would be needed to supply hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of potential users. If krokodil even caught on a little bit, surely someone with access to codeine could make a profitable business out of producing it, since it certainly isn’t impossible to get codeine, but this could only be on a relatively small scale.
The other potential supplier of krokodil would be large organizations. There are a few scenarios in which a cartel-style organization could make krokodil widely available. It could be made in another country where codeine is cheap and then exported. Another way this could be done is to smuggle codeine into America and then produce it here. They could also hypothetically send an army of people to pill mills in America to collect codeine, but this especially doesn’t make sense because prescription drugs have carved their way into their own profitable market.
It doesn’t make sense that traffickers would do this because there is already an established market for heroin with an established supply chain. It’s a time-tested product with a gigantic, already available market comprised of people who need their product. It would not be economically feasible for a cartel to focus efforts on making a product like krokodil that people only want if they can’t get the product they are already selling. Also, they probably wouldn’t want to introduce the drug and get people used to it because then more smalltime producers would spring up. They want a market they can control. Unless you can grow a shitload of poppy in your backyard and have the equipment to process it into heroin, you have to buy from them.
The few publicized cases where krokodil use was suspected turned out to be “inconclusive” (aka not true?). But it still appears in newscasts nearly every day. This just shows how eager the media is to start the next drug scare.
Consider this CNN headline from Oct. 18: “Flesh Eating ‘Zombie’ Drug ‘Kills You from Inside Out.’” The story goes on to discuss how people have shown up with symptoms of krokodil abuse in the Chicago area as well as Arizona and Oklahoma.
Then consider this minor detail tucked into the middle of the story: “So far there are no officially confirmed American cases of krokodil abuse.”
If there is any krokodil in America, and, according to the two sisters from the Chicago area that CNN referred to in the article, there has been for over a year, it can be directly attributed to the amount of publicity it receives on the news. Just like crack, meth, ecstasy and bath salts, most people didn’t even know krokodil existed until they heard about it on the news. It’s like the media isn’t just hyping up a drug scare that doesn’t exist, but actually creating one.
Of all the “deadliest drug” campaigns undertaken by the American media, this one might very well be the most ridiculous. Even compared to the “Reefer Madness” days when outrageous and untrue phrases like “Marijuana Kills” were not uncommon, at least people were actually smoking reefer. Americans simply aren’t using this drug and they never will (at least not beyond a few isolated pockets). So to act like there is a problem is a complete lie.
It’s not that Americans are too cautious. On the contrary, we’ll do anything that temporarily makes us feel better no matter how detrimental it is to our health. Hell, look at our diets. It’s just that we’ve got plenty of heroin, thank you very much. So until the Asian opium supply runs thin or they start selling codeine over the counter, millions of Americans will stick with their heroin. I mean, come on. We didn’t take over the world’s largest heroin-producing country so our addicts would be reduced to shooting some bastardized, bathtub drug. This is America, goddamn it.
To take a page out of the book of Regina George from “Mean Girls”: Stop trying to make krokodil happen.
[ Photo by Walther Dobbertin courtesy of the German Federal Archives ]