Crocodile or Krokodil is the name of a heroin substituting drug mainly spreading in Russia. The Crocodile epidemic started to spread in 2002 in the poorer regions of Siberia, quickly getting prostitutes and heroin addicts hooked to the new and cheaper version of getting high. The drug is not an invention of the twenty first century. In the 1930s it was used in the US as a substitute for morphine. At the time it was called Desomorphine whereas in Switzerland it went by the name Permonid. The drug’s short acting time and extreme potency created a perfect combination for addiction.

The current Crocodile epidemic in Russia can be blamed on three factors. For one 8.5 million Russians have been considered as drug addicts in a report carried out by the state-run RIA Novosti. The number of heroin users has been estimated between 1-1.5 million making up about 90% of all narcotics addiction. The risk group increases the spread of Crocodile which can be cooked at home and may be up to ten times cheaper than heroin. Another risk factor is the 250 000 people considered to be codeine addicts for codeine is an ingredient of Crocodile. Codeine used to be sold in pharmacies without a prescription. The law prohibiting the free sale of codeine was activated in June 1, 2012. This however is unlikely to stop the illegal sale of codeine as the drug market knows what is “in” and to what ends the addicts are willing to go.

The second large problem is the government’s low funding of rehabilitation centers and NGO fighting the drug addiction. The Health Ministry runs only a handful of rehab centers. More work is done by the Evangelical Christians who run over 500 centers without any assistance from the state. Other support groups include Malyshev’s civic group which is chronically underfunded. The Rylkov Foundation provides medical tests and clean needles for drug addicts and lobbies for methadone to be legalized; methadone is considered to be a substitute therapy for heroine users by the World Health Organization. However the government does not provide sufficient funding and the police threaten to arrest members of Malyshev when they assist heroin addicts.

The third threat to the increasing narcotics market is Afghanistan which is a prominent player in the global heroin market. Russia’s public health official has warned that if NATO will withdraw their troops from Afghanistan, there could be an upsurge in the heroin flow into Russia. Moreover Russia considers the threat of drug traffic as a problem of national security and has accused the coalition forces of allowing the boom in heroin production to preside. Considering that the Russian state does not provide needle exchange programmes, methadone substitution or proper medical care for many addicts suffering from HIV, hepatitis, tuberculosis, etc., there is more than one party to blame for the drug epidemic that is killing tens of thousands Russian citizens a year.

The increasing flow of heroin and the cheaper production of Crocodile have lead to a 50-70% yearly rise in the use of the latter. The Wall Street estimated the number of Crocodile users to be around 1.5 million in 2011, it is likely to be much higher now. Even though the heroin market is worth about $6bn and the Crocodile market about $100m, the effects of Crocodile use outweigh the effects of heroin. The effects of using the Crocodile include :

  • A life expectancy between 1-1.5 years
  • Injecting a drug that has codeine plus either gasoline, hydlochloric acid, paint thinners or other acid chemicals in it.
  • The injections create horrendous flesh eating wounds and a scaly skin- hence the name Crocodile.
  • Gangrene and amputations are common.
  • The high lasts about 1.5 h and the cooking takes up to 1 hour making it easy to make and hard to quit.

The Russian government clearly does not have a decisive action plan. It needs to put money into rehabilitation centers and to create programmes for previous addicts to find work and to have a strong support system. For one the addicts in the rehabilitation should be awarded with job programmes and financial support so that they could start managing their lives again. For more the amount of support should depend on consistent narcotic testing to provide the motivation for addicts to stay clean. Yes, this is costly, but the money millions of addicts could pay in taxes would be of more use than allowing the citizens to rot away, die or live a life of misery while increasing the level of crime. Not fighting the drug addiction will probably be as costly to the state in the long run as fighting it. Paying for prisons and for more police forces etc. is definitely not the right way out. Allowing the drug problem to get bigger is inviting the drug dealers from Afghanistan or similar areas to become very interested in the large Russian market where addicts will remain loyal customers. Making the use of heroin legal to decrease the use of Crocodile will also not give the needed effect for the base of users will increase and to fight the problem the state would have to use the revenue it has earned for ever larger programmes of rehabilitation and medical help.

Moreover I do not believe that Russia wants to become the center of heroin tourism, such as the Netherlands was the center for cannabis tourism. Ignoring the costly problem is definitely the worst thing to do for the government, switching one problem for another would also not help and by allowing its citizens to increase the drug addiction problem the state will only cost itself more in the future and will help to increase the crime and narco cartels operating within its borders. There must be a considerable budget for rehabilitation programmes, free medical help for addicts, financial support and a motivating environment for the addicts to recover. In addition an independent institution from the state authority is needed to run and to keep running these programmes. As much as the non-addicts would despise the use of state money in that way- the politics of today should think about the tomorrow- ten years later !

BY: Tuuli Riit