The unknown and surprising origin of the flesh-eating drug Krokodil

Back in the 1930s, American scientists were searching for a morphine substitute when they stumbled upon a new drug called desomorphine. Little did they know that they had invented a substance that would be used to turn people into near zombies in Russia—and Arizona—nine decades later.

Russia's flesh-eating drug Krokodil actually has origins in America

Having spent the last decade wreaking havoc in Russia, Krokodil – the cheap, addictive, heroin-like opioid(that also happens to eat your flesh) – has made landfall in the U.S. According to reports from Arizona's Banner Poison Control Center, two recently documented cases of the drug's use are believed to be the first in America. But that's only half true.


That's because Krokodil actually has its beginnings here in the States. The skin-melting drug's reptilian moniker is in fact the street name for a highly impure form of a synthetic opioid known as desomorphine – a potent derivative of morphine that was first synthesized (and patented!) in the early 1930s, right here in the U.S. of A.

Originally discovered while searching for morphine substitutes, it was hoped that desomorphine – like methadone, which would be synthesized in Germany a few years later –could be used by patients without the risks of chemical dependence posed by analgesics like morphine.

Shortly after its discovery, desomorphine came to be used in Switzerland under the name of Permonid, where its effects were soon found to have a faster onset and shorter duration than those of morphine, while being several times more potent. Ironically, this made desomorphine a perfectly awful substitute for morphine; extreme potency, after all, combined with a short acting time, is a perfect combination for addiction.

To summarize: while searching for a less addictive form of morphine, we found a way more addictive form of morphine. Now, 80 years later, we have an epidemic in Russia and the potential for one here in the U.S., because it just so happens that highly impure desomorphine is also incredibly cheap to produce. Cheap production translates to cheap street prices, making it an attractive substitute to similar drugs like heroin, a hit of which can reportedly run twenty-times as much as a dose of Krokodil.

Why so cheap? Krokodil is produced using household products like gasoline, paint thinner and lighter fluid. According to the NIH's Toxicology Data Network:

The clandestine manufacturing process [which incorporates codeine medications] is similar to that of methamphetamine. Homemade desomorphine made this way is highly impure and contaminated with various toxic and corrosive byproducts.

Which byproducts are responsible for tissue-waste, infection, and the drug's infamous meat-off-the-bone effects:

Since the mix is routinely injected immediately with little or no further purification, "Krokodil" has become notorious for producing severe tissue damage including injury to the veins (phlebitis) and gangrene. Other consequences of use have included severe withdrawal, spread of HIV through the use of contaminated needles and death.

So is Krokodil's appearance in Arizona really its first appearance in the United States, full stop? That depends on how you look at it. But for the sake of argument, let's say it's the first time we've seen desomorphine stateside in this highly impure form.


"As far as I know, these are the first cases in the United States that are reported. So we're extremely frightened," said Frank LoVecchio, the co-medical director at Banner Poison Control Center, in an interview with CBS News 5 in Phoenix.

"Where there is smoke there is fire, and we're afraid there are going to be more and more cases."

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