Krokodil arrives in the Midwest just in time for Halloween

Downtown Joliet, Illinois
Joliet, Illinois played witness to multiple cases of Krokodil abuse among women under the age of 25 this week. — photo by Paul Sableman

Krokodil, an opiate made from the synthesis of codeine and various other chemicals including petrol, first made waves on the internet a couple of years ago when a Vice documentary team traveled to Novokuznetsk, Russia to report on a community that had found itself in the throes of heroin addiction. They found heroin, sure, but what the team found just beneath the surface was something much more sinister, and the implications were terrifying:

Before we set off on our trip, we heard whispers of a new drug called krokodil—a homemade synthetic opiate stronger than heroin made from petrol and codeine—that gets its reptilian name because it turns addicts’ skin scaly, while eating them from the inside, rotting the brain and limbs before invariably killing its users.

The full Vice documentary is available to stream, though a simple Google search will yield dozens of images (many of dubious origin) demonstrating the drug’s alleged side effects on its users. A small collection of these images can be found here, and they are extremely graphic.

The most striking aspect of this documentary was how alien it all seemed — how removed this drug, its implications and its victims were from this slice of the Midwest we call home. At the time, it was cheap, deadly and horrific, but it was thousands of miles away. It gained popularity in a nation with a decades-long legacy of internal strife, and it seemed altogether foreign. It was a “Russian problem.” It was something to share on social media and point out how crazy things are “over there.”

Krokodil arrives in Joliet, Illinois

The notion of Krokodil “catching on” in a place like Iowa seems unlikely, but when a relatively new drug — infamous for its ability to rot flesh from the inside out — starts popping up just a few hours down the interstate in Joliet, Illinois, it’s difficult not to raise an eyebrow.

The drug, which is far cheaper than the heroin it substitutes, had only been spotted once in the United States until this week, having first surfaced last month in Arizona. The Arizona report seemed as if it were a one-off — amusing, almost. This week’s reports of multiple instances of Krokodil abuse surfacing in Joliet, Illinois — a three hour drive from Iowa City — quickly put an end to that sort of levity.

Dr. Abhin Singla of Presence St. Joseph Medical Center spoke to NBC Chicago about the most recent Krokodil appearance, confirming what we’ve already seen and heard elsewhere:

“It is a horrific way to get sick,” he said. “The smell of rotten flesh permeates the room. Intensive treatment and skin grafts are required, but they often are not enough to save limbs or lives.”

Singla said some cases are so serious that muscles and bones become visible. The dead skin can also lead to infections that result in amputation or even death.

The three Joliet victims are all women under the age of 25, Singla said, later adding that one of the patients will likely endure years of surgery to repair damage already caused by the drug.