“Heroin is the world’s evil…It is comparable to a chemical weapon, capable of destroying our society quietly without much noise.”
– Former Russian Heroin Addict.
Every year in Russia, sensationalist journalism statistics suggest that anywhere between 30,000-40,000 people die of Heroin-related complications (overdose being the dominating cause), out of an estimated total of 2.15 million Russians living with heroin addiction. In a report published in 2008, the Russian Ministry of Health (MOH) reported that of the population of 143,000,000~ (143 million) around 6,000,000 (6 million), or about 4.5% use drugs on a regular, habitual basis. The Ministry reported that 10,000 deaths could directly be attributed to overdoses, and another 70,000~ deaths are deemed drug-related.
Drug misuse and abuse is etched into the fabric of society of just about any country you choose to visit. Drug addicts are everywhere. There’s one at your workplace, stuck at the same red light as you, on your street, in your apartment block. Unless we’re directly confronted with graphic before-after images or physical encounters with addicts, it can be impossible to discern who’s addicted to what in today’s world.
Due to its close proximity with Afghanistan (the world’s largest producer of opiate poppies, used to manufacture heroin), Russian drug users find themselves with an abundance of Afghan-drugs spilling across the border at a bargain price. Usually, it’s not the best idea to tell anybody about an abundance of drugs at bargain prices; especially if its heroin, and especially if the person is a heroin addict.
Unfortunately for Russia, its injecting-drug users are taking full advantage of the situation and are killing themselves faster than ever. Your average hit will cost you anywhere from $10-40 and given Afghan heroin is regarded as the finest in the world for a junkie it’s a win win situation. If you trawl through google images you will be legitimately shocked at how many images you’ll find of truly sickly looking people, including children, injecting away.
But what happens when a heroin addict can’t afford their addiction any longer? Some might stop, go completely cold turkey and salvage whatever it is they have left. But for others, for the very great majority, they turn to the next drug – something harder, easier to obtain, and above all; cheap.
Enter desomorphine, known by it’s Russian street-name “Krokodil”.
Desomorphine was first invented in 1932 in the United States. An opiate based, more potent derivative of morphine, it is estimated that Desomorphine is anywher between 4-10x stronger than morphine. Originally used in medical trials as a non-habit forming alternative to morphine, Desomorphine was phased out in lieu of other drugs due to its short duration.
Desomorphine can be made from a mixture of codeine, iodine, and red phosphorus, three chemicals that are easily available anywhere in the world. Codeine is the active ingredient, and is readily available over the counter in Russia, no prescription necessary (by comparison, in Australia anything containing 15mg of codeine – found in stronger paracetamol tablets – requires a prescription). And the best bit? It’s as cheap as chips, cooking up Krokodil costs as little as $2.50~ in Russia.
The other ingredients are not unlike ingredients you hear of people using to make Ecstacy, Meth, or any of the other lab-based drugs. Petroleum, red phosphorus (the red dust off matches), paint thinners – basically, shit that you don’t inject into your system – these are all ingredients required for the production of Desomorphine.
Desomorphine earnt its street name of Krokodil oweing to the scale-like skin users attain due to mass infection and gangrene as a direct result of injecting the drug. Due to the high concentration of heavy metals, iodine, and other industrial-grade chemicals required to cook it, and the lack of common sense of your average junkie, users are literally injecting poison directly into their veins.
Krokodil has earnt the reputation as “the drug that eats its victims” – and for good reason. Krokodil usage causes the skin and flesh to rot away in a shockingly rapid process. Severe gangrene to the point of amputation is common.
Warning: The images below aren’t appropriate for anybody made uncomfortable by medical images.
rotting flesh common in late-stage Krokodil addicts.
The lady in the top two images not only had the bone poking through her arm, but a similar spot on her upper thigh, and one leading right down to her funbox. These images were omitted due to their particularly graphic nature.
Because it has such a fast onset, and because of its cost-effectiveness, Krokodil is extremely addictive. Infection starts from the first hit. Users report that missing a vein results in a virtually instantaneous abscess appears. Krokodil damages the tissue and internal organs so much that the average lifespan of a typical Krokodil user is less than 12 months.
Krokodil abuse is a vicious cycle. Because Desomorphine only has a relatively short duration compared to morphine (about 2-3 hours when Desomorphine is made Krokodil-style.), and takes time (like everything else) to cook up, Russian addicts find themselves locked into a cycle of waking up, cooking, getting high, repeat until you die. When you trawl through Google images of Krokodil addicts in the late-stage of addiction, you get a sense as if these people have become zombified. The pale skin, blank expressionless stare, and the rotting flesh associated with late-stage Krokodil addiction hardly does this thought justice.
The question you’re probably shouting by now is Why? Why would people inject this into their system knowing exactly what the consequences are?
The rehabilitation system in Russia is highly flawed. Methadone treatment, an opiate-based drug used to ween people off heroin, is illegal. The Russian Government does not provide funding to substitution treatment for opiate addicts. Rehabilitation centers are scarce, and the ones that do are structured more like detention centers then rehabilitation centers. Some reports suggest that up to 90% of Russians who enter rehab relapse within a year.
Rehabilitation centers in the US provide a lot of social and spiritual support for those who visit. In Russia, corporal punishment is commonplace. New arrivals are beaten on the first night, and must spend 27 days handcuffed to bunkbeds with only bread and water. Rooms are built to hold 50. This means that for 27 days, fifty heroin addicts are writhing around fighting the insanity associated with heroin withdrawal. Only those with HIV or Hepatitis C are fed proper meals.
HIV/Hepatitis is endemic amongst injecting drug users in Russia, with up to 70% of all HIV infections in 2010 being directly attributed to injecting drugs. The Ministry of Health estimates 300,000 people are living with HIV, whereas the Russian Academy of Medicine estimates as many as 1,000,000 people. Of the 2.15 million estimated heroin addicts, there are only 70 confirmed needle exchange programs, which is certainly not enough. Out of fear of prosecution if they visit a NEP injecting drug users will simply share or recycle needles, and any infections they have, with other users.
The legal system frowns upon narcotics of all kind, and as a result, rather then laws differing according to quality/quantity, only a single universal law exists for each narcotic. People suspected of drug use, possession, or dealing are usually surveyed. Combining this with the negative social connotations that come with injecting drugs, typical Krokodil addicts will do little to beat their addiction. They literally rot away to nothing, with no support from the Government or society that’s meant to help guide them in the right direction.
So why do people inject Krokodil if they know they will die because of it? Certainly, there is the ever lucrative “ultimate-high” they’re searching for, and the fact that it can be made with little money or knowhow.
But maybe it’s also because that when somebody in Russia becomes addicted to Krokodil, or any injection-based drug, society instantly turns its back on them. With no reliable rehabilitation services available and fear of persecution if their habit is made known, Russian men, women and children will continue to die, with little but their addiction to comfort them.