The Krokodil Menace Now Seems Faker Than Ever (and It Already Seemed Very, Very Fake)

Alya, 17, undergoes treatment for addiction to drugs including heroin, krokodil, and others at City Without Drugs on Oct. 16, 2013, in Yekaterinburg, Russia.

Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

On Thursday, Time’s website ran a striking photo essay about the horrors of krokodil, the “flesh-eating” heroin substitute that is popular in Eastern Europe and, according to many in the media, is gaining ground in the United States. The Time piece, titled “The World’s Deadliest Drug: Inside a Krokodil Cookhouse,” brings readers to a drug den in Yekaterinburg, Russia, where addicts brewed and injected krokodil only to watch their bodies be ravaged by it. “There are now alarming stories that the monster could be at large in the U.S.,” writes Simon Shuster.

But as I noted last month, there’s no reason to think that’s true. And indeed, in his very next sentence, Shuster admits that “drug-enforcement officials say fears of an imminent krokodil epidemic are overblown.” In a good Columbus Dispatch piece on Sunday, Theodore Decker quoted a doctor who strongly refuted fears of a burgeoning epidemic:

“In the U.S., there is no krokodil,” said Dr. Henry Spiller, the director of the Central Ohio Poison Center at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “We’ve been chasing this for a while. There is no verified sample in anybody’s laboratory. None. Zero.”

Despite all the hype, there has been only one credible report of krokodil abuse in the United States. In an article published this fall on the website of the American Journal of Medicine, some St. Louis physicians reported treating a patient for krokodil abuse in 2012. But a couple weeks ago, the paper was temporarily removed from the AJM’s website; a spokeswoman for the hospital where the krokodil patient was allegedly treated told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the article had been “posted prematurely before it was fully reviewed.” The paper’s withdrawal came as no surprise to the science bloggers who had already criticized its methodological flaws, its inaccurate terminology, and its “terrible grammar.”

Disregard the American Journal of Medicine article, then, and we’re left with zero verified cases of krokodil abuse in the United States—some drug epidemic this is. The Dispatch piece goes on to explain why it’s unlikely that krokodil will ever catch on here. Krokodil is used in Russia and Eastern Europe because real heroin is scarce in those places, and, to an addict, a flesh-rotting heroin substitute synthesized from codeine and paint thinner is better than no heroin at all. But in the United States, heroin is not hard to find, and drug users here have no reason to resort to such desperate measures. As the Dispatch suggests, the only way that krokodil might become a thing is if the media keeps hyping it, thus leading curious people to try and acquire this famous new drug. Your move, journalists.