Flesh eating drug makes it way to the Midwest

Cases reported in nearby Joliet, Illinois has health officials concerned

A highly potent, addictive and flesh-eating drug has made its way to the Midwest.

Earlier this month, an addiction specialist in Joliet, Ill., Dr. Abhin Singla, reported treating three patients who appeared to be suffering from the effects of krokodil.

A derivative of morphine that is similar to heroin but three times more powerful and available at a fraction of the cost, krokodil can cause abusers to develop green, scaly skin.

The drug eventually will rot the users flesh from the inside out, sometimes down to the bone.

Experts here fear it’s only a matter of time before krokodil surfaces in Iowa.

“The odds of seeing it here in the next six months are pretty good,” said Jerry Blomgren, an Iowa City police officer and a member of the Johnson County Drug Task Force.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, desomorphine – the official name for krokodil – is a synthetic morphine analogue created in the United States in the 1930s.

“It is about 10 times more potent than morphine,” a DEA report reads.

Desomorphine has been out of use in the United States since 1936, though it has been used medically in Switzerland under the brand name Permonid, according to the DEA. An illicit version of the drug – synthesized from codeine – surfaced in Russia in 2003.

The home-brewed version of the drug is made from codeine tablets, gasoline, paint thinner or lighter fluid. Blomgren compares the synthesis of krokodil to methamphetamine, which is derived from a potentially helpful substance – in meth’s case, pseudoephedrine – but mixed with harmful substances to create a dangerous and potentially lethal drug.

“It’s the process that’s harmful,” Blomgren said. “You start mixing in a bunch of chemicals. Some of the chemicals are toxic.”

Steven Lukan, director of the Governor’s Office on Drug Control Policy, said krokodil has been on the radar of drug experts for a number of years. They watched it reach epidemic levels in Russia and Ukraine.

“The hope was it would stay contained over there,” Lukan. “It has transitioned and spread out.

"It is something we concerned about.”

Earlier this year, alleged cases of krokodil use occurred in Utah and Arizona. On Oct. 7, Singla said he had treated three Joliet-area residents who were displaying symptoms of krokodil abuse.

“It is a horrific way of getting sick,” Singla said in a release from the Saint Joseph Medical Center. “The smell of rotten flesh permeates the room. Intensive treatment and skin grafts and required, but they are often not enough to save limbs or lives.”

Blomgren said research he has read indicates the average lifespan of a krokodil abuser is two years.

Lukan said, “We all have to assume that eventually there will be a case to potentially pop up here.”

Blomgren said there is little police can do to prevent the spread of the drug into Iowa. He said the law enforcement community will take an “aggressive stance” to snuff out the drug when it does arrive and “head it off before it becomes a problem.”

Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner, who described the effects of the drug as “devastating,” said police are monitoring the community to look out for cases of krokodil.

Thus far, there have been none.

“We have made our emergency responders aware of the presence of the drug,” Gardner said. “We’ll figure out what happens from there.”

Lukan said law enforcement and emergency room doctors across the state have been given information about the drug. His office hopes to stem the spread of the drug through education, particularly focused on the younger generation.

“If we can help young people make healthy choices and stay away from drugs, we can prevent this from happening,” he said.Lukan said one potential sign someone is using krokodil is wearing long-sleeved shirts and not wanting to expose any skin.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.