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Homa Bash/MEDILL

Authorities warn about flesh-eating street drug, despite no confirmed cases

by Homa Bash
Oct 30, 2013

It causes the skin to turn green and scaly like a crocodile and can result in amputation or death. And no one really seems to know much about it just yet.

The latest drug to reportedly hit the streets of Chicago is called krokodil, a much cheaper and more dangerous alternative to heroin.

We have not seen any cases of this particular synthetic drug, but the awareness of it is important,” said Cara Smith, chief of policy and communications for the Cook County Sheriff's office.

Same goes for the Chicago Police Department.

Sgt. Antoinette Ursitti said CPD has yet to see any incidents or arrests involving the drug within the city.
Smith said fliers were distributed to state and local law enforcement officials about three weeks ago, notifying them to be on the lookout for the drug. But she said letting the public know about the toxic mix of chemicals is key.

By the time law enforcement starts seeing the drug, there is a lot of damage that has already been done,” Smith said.

Ben Breit, the sheriff’s director of communications, said officers are especially on the lookout for the synthetic drug since Chicago is a central hub of heroin trafficking.

Krokodil is made of a combination of codeine tablets and gasoline, paint thinner, lighter fluid or other substances,” according to Dr. Abhin Singla, director of addiction services at Presence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Joliet.

After injection the other chemicals begin to work on the inside of the body, destroying tissues and blood vessels,” he said. The homemade drug, which can also be taken orally, can then destroy the flesh, leaving gangrene and large abscesses all over the body.

It is a horrific way to get sick,” Singla 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.”

Patients admitted to the hospital in Joliet earlier this month were the first known cases in the state. Jan Ciccarelli, director of marketing and community relations at St. Joseph’s, said five patients have been treated at the facility and no new cases have come in since Oct. 10.

Spokesmen from Northwestern Memorial and University of Chicago hospitals said they have not seen any patients displaying symptoms related to krokodil usage.

Owen Putman, spokesman in the Chicago office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said the agency is concerned about the cases reported in Joliet and is following up on leads and canvassing the area.

But there have been no confirmed cases of krokodil use or drug seizures in Chicago or the U.S. by the DEA, Putman said.

Krokodil is about 10 times more potent than morphine and is typically abused for its opioid-like effects, according to a just-released DEA report.

Singla said the cost for krokodil can be as little as 10 percent of the price of heroin, which could be the driving factor for use and abuse.

The drug, which Putman said originated in rural Russia, has not been detected in the U.S. since 2004, according to the National Forensic Library Information System.

Despite reports of the drug in numerous media outlets in several states, including Illinois, agencies such as the DEA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Illinois Department of Public Health, Illinois Poison Center and Chicago Recovery Alliance have not received any reports of confirmed cases.

There have been some conflicting reports that a coroner found desomorphine [the drug found in krokodil] during an autopsy of an individual in Oklahoma and people are calling in poison control centers and self-reporting that they took it, but we have not confirmed any cases through our labs yet,” Putman said.

A much different story than what is being heard across the ocean.

Krokodil use is prevalent in Russia and the Ukraine, with at least 100,000 and around 20,000 people respectively estimated to have injected the drug in 2011,” a study examining the use of the drug in Europe stated in the International Journal of Drug Policy earlier this year.

Singla said Russian doctors have reported that death can occur 12 to 18 months after starting use of the drug.

A less expensive and more intense high has some experts worried that use of the devastating drug will increase in the U.S.

Singla said, “Will County's already burgeoning heroin epidemic may have created a tolerance level to the point where users are now looking for cheaper and better highs.”