By all accounts, the designer drug known as krokodil is cheap and easy to make. Which may well account for its skyrocketing popularity among young Russians over the past three years. Drug abuse in Russia has been a longstanding problem with an estimated two million heroin users and a third of all heroin-related deaths occurring there. For that reason, the prospect of a new designer drug which is more inexpensive and deadlier than the Afghan-supplied heroin that Russian drug agencies have largely failed to curb is especially terrifying.
First appearing in Siberia and the Russian Far East in 2002, krokodil use has spread throughout Russia and the Federal Drug Control Service has noted a 23-fold increase in krokodil seizures since 2009 alone. Although the primary ingredient is codeine, users of krokodil (a.k.a. desomorphine) often mix it with other chemicals including gasoline, paint thinner, hydrochloric acid, iodine, and red phosphorus. Codeine is often "cooked" from inexpensive headache pills (non-prescription) while the other ingredients can be found in household chemicals. Producing a high far greater than any other opiate (and much cheaper to obtain than street heroin), krokodil can be easily mixed in any kitchen or bathroom. With recipes and lists of ingredients freely available on the Internet, hundreds of thousands of drug users have taken krokodil and many regions have implicated the drug in at least half of all drug-related deaths. A typical "hit" of krokodil can last from 90 minutes to two hours (less than heroin) and addicts are often forced to mix repeated batches to maintain their highs.
The signs of krokodil use are apparent to drug abuse centres across the country. Not only is krokodil neurotoxic, causing brain damage in most chronic users, but the drug's name comes from the characteristic scaly skin and rotting sores found on chronic users . Disturbing photographs of long-term krokodil users have shown graying and peeling skin, often with the bones exposed. Ove 100,00 drug addicts are believed to be using krokodil or related homemade drugs (approximately 5 per cent of known drug addicts) and the percentage is expected to rise in the years to come. Drug treatment clinics have found krokodil withdrawal especially difficult to treat. While conventional heroin withdrawal pains can last for five to ten days, krokodil withdrawal can last for weeks and addicts often relapse because they find the physical withdrawal pain to be unbearable. In addition to krokodil, other homemade drugs made from non-prescription drugs are also being used increasingly. One of these, tropicamide, is an anti-muscarinic drug used as eye-drops and prescribed by opthalmologists. Known to produce psychiatric side-effects, including suicidal ideation, the drug is often sold as a street drug by pharmacy workers for a tremendous profit.
Despite a campaign to ban the sale of codeine tablets to stem the krokodil epidemic, Russian government agencies remain resistant to the idea. Although President Dmitry Medvedev has called for krokodil recipe websites to be shut down, legislation to make codeine prescription-only will not be introduced in the forseeable future. Opposition groups have blamed the government inaction on lobbying from pharmaceutical companies. In the meantime, the designer drug epidemic is expected to worsen as long as krokodil and similar drugs represent a cheap and easy alternative to heroin.