Don’t Believe the Hype about the “Flesh-Eating” Drug Krokodil

The DEA has downplayed the krokodil panic.

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

It’s been hard to miss the stories about the rise of “krokodil,” a dangerous drug with which American journalists have become fascinated, thanks to its relevance to two of the media’s favorite topics: zombie culture and the strange things that our children do behind our backs. “Krokodil, more perilous than heroin, possibly surfaces in Arizona,” reports the Los Angeles Times. “Doctors confirm: Use of flesh-eating opioid drug krokodil is spreading in U.S.,” says Raw Story. “Doctors confirm world’s most horrifying drug has hit the U.S. in new article for scholarly journal,” cries Time. Take to the lifeboats! Soon, no one will be safe!

Like most stories about drug panics—the Great Bath Salts Riots of 2012 come to mind—the reporting on the ostensibly “flesh-eating” krokodil generally contains an ounce of truth and pounds of utter nonsense. Yes, krokodil is here, and yes, it is very bad for you. No, it isn’t everywhere. No, it doesn’t turn users into the walking dead. It poses no immediate danger to your children, unless they are prone to headaches caused by bombastic headlines. And while claims that krokodil is spreading rapidly throughout the U.S. might be excellent clickbait, they do not stand up to serious scrutiny.

Krokodil, or desomorphine, is a cheap heroin substitute. You get it by mixing codeine with paint thinner, gasoline, and several other toxic ingredients. The drug first popped up in Eastern Europe early last decade, and appears to be relatively popular in Russia. Krokodil is unquestionably bad for your health: Regular users can expect to live an average of just a couple years after they start taking the drug, and that short lifespan will be plagued by painful sores and skin ulcers, internal vein and tissue damage, and organ failure.

This is harrowing stuff. But it’s nothing that Americans need to worry about. As far as I can tell, there has been one doctor-verified case of krokodil poisoning in the United States. This case was documented by two St. Louis physicians in an upcoming article for the American Journal of Medicine; the doctors report treating a drug user suffering from blisters and necrotic ulcers after injecting homemade krokodil for a two-month period. (The man, a daily heroin user for two years, had turned to krokodil because it was cheaper than heroin.) The skin on the man’s left thigh, where he had been injecting the krokodil, had turned black, and was covered in lesions. His left little finger had “turned black and auto amputated,” though the article does not make clear whether this should be blamed on krokodil or on the man’s heroin habit.

Every other case of U.S. krokodil poisoning that’s been reported in the press, as far as I know, is based on a speculative, unverified diagnosis from overeager or underinformed physicians, police officers, or poison control personnel. As Abby Haglage recently wrote in an excellent piece for the Daily Beast, much of what has been reported as krokodil poisoning is probably just the result of plain old heroin abuse. Heroin, like krokodil, is injected intravenously, and intravenous drug abusers are generally susceptible to sores, infections, vein and tissue damage, and gangrene—no matter what drug they’re injecting. She notes that the Drug Enforcement Administration refutes the krokodil panic, with the agency saying that “We have nothing to indicate that [krokodil is] out there.”

America doesn’t have a krokodil problem, Haglage concludes, it has a heroin and painkiller problem. Those drugs are widely abused, and they’re far more destructive than krokodil. That’s a good story, but it’s not a new one, and it’s certainly not a clicky or shareable one: Flesh-eating zombie drugs are much more fun to write about. There’s nothing inherently wrong with reporting on krokodil: the drug does exist, after all, and desperate junkies in the United States are probably using it, albeit not at the rate that the recent media campaign would have you believe. What’s wrong is knowingly overhyping the latest phony drug epidemic.