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Desomorphine defines a synthetic form of morphine that is highly addictive with severe side effects. It emerged as a substitute for heroin in Russia and parts of Europe because it can be made cheaply from common household chemicals and codeine tablets. The drug usually causes death within two years as chemicals used to make it literally eat away skin tissue after blood vessels burst. Foreign drug agencies estimate a million or more desomorphine addicts in Russia, where codeine can be purchased without a prescription.
The drug is called krokodil in Russia because it turns skin green and scaly, similar to the appearance on a crocodile. Sores develop at injection sites and blood vessels are destroyed, leading to gangrene that eats away skin and exposes bone. Addicts using this drug also might suffer brain damage, hepatitis C, liver and kidney damage, and immune system failure.
Desomorphine can be manufactured with codeine tablets, a controlled substance in the United States prescribed for pain. In addition to codeine, krokodil contains gasoline, paint thinner, or lighter fluid. Other ingredients include red phosphorus scraped from the ends of matchsticks, hydrochloric acid, and iodine. The solution is considered 10 times more powerful and toxic than heroin.
Scientists first developed this drug in 1932 while looking for a way to treat chronic pain without the nausea and respiratory problems linked to morphine. Researchers found desomorphine quickly killed pain with long-lasting results, but also led to rapid addiction. Illegal use of the drug gained popularity in Siberia beginning in 2002 as heroin addicts turned to manufacturing it as a cheap substitute drug. Its use has since spread throughout Europe.
Drug experts say epidemic use in Russia might stem from the lack of government-sponsored drug rehabilitation programs for heroin addicts, along with easy access to codeine tablets. After addiction to desomorphine, withdrawal from the drug can last a month, with severe pain, compared to about five days to withdraw from heroin. Most users become addicted the first time they inject the drug.
Heavy metals in red phosphorus destroy bone and harm the body’s central nervous system, which could lead to brain damage. Iodine weakens muscle tone, causing atrophy. Chemicals used to make the drug also disrupt the normal balance of minerals and build up in the liver and kidneys, which could cause organ failure. Teeth typically rot away as skin turns green and scaly. More than one-third of users become ill with hepatitis C, and most die within a year or two.