Hey, what can we say — people like drugs. Our willingness to exchange health and prosperity for a few fleeting moments enhanced by their euphoric effects truly says something about the collective ennui that has befallen our modern society. One could argue that humans have always used drugs as a coping mechanism, pointing to the tribesmen that munched on cacao leaves and Chinese scholars who puffed on opium pipes. Well, it may be a storied pastime, but I’d retort that narcotics have never been as extreme as they are today — and most shockingly of all, it appears they will continue to get worse.
How much worse? Well, it seems the Russians could tell you. For the past few years, that nation’s youth has been ravaged by a synthetic designer drug known as krokodil. An ugly variant of morphine, krokodil is derived from codeine and cut with such substances as paint thinner, gasoline, iodine and red phosphorous (the material used to ignite match heads). The drug is injected into the veins like heroin, which produces a deadening relaxation among users in the most literal sense — the average life span of a krokodil addict is two to three years. In 2010, it is estimated that up to one million Russians were actively using the drug — a 23-fold increase over the course of just one year. It would seem that methamphetamine has found an Eastern European counterpart.
The similarities to meth don’t end there. Krokodil — whose medical name is desomorphine — is prominent in isolated rural communities where work is sparse and residents are starved for healthy activity. Historically, these same people have turned to vodka or other narcotics to relieve their boredom. Now, according to Viktor Ivanov, head of Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service, krokodil “has practically pushed out traditional opiates.” In case you’re wondering how desomorphine got its nickname, the injection sites on a user’s body — anywhere from the toes to the forehead — become green and scaly after just a few doses. Virtually all addicts succumb to the drug; reported causes of death have included pneumonia, liver failure or burst blood vessels. If one survives the addiction, a medical miracle is proclaimed.
Russia’s solution to the problem has been highly scrutinized. Victims are ‘rehabilitated’ by extricating them from their homes and placing them in isolated, rustic cabins known as banyas, which essentially function as throwback detox wards. During their stay, these young men and women are inundated with evangelism. I’m no proponent of using the scriptures to fix the world’s problems, but if it stops people from killing themselves with drugs like krokodil — well, then bring on the prayer circle. Unfortunately, these measures don’t seem to be working. Relapse rates fall between 80 and 90 percent, and since the drug is made from everyday products, familiar places such as pharmacies and hardware stores become triggers for vulnerable recoverers. Oh, and plenty of krokodil recipes are available online — so anyone with a computer can conceivable gain access to the drug via the information highway.
I haven’t been exposed to much krokodil firsthand — that I know of — but I have seen the effects of meth up close, courtesy of my time with the US Forest Service. The jittery hands, vacant stare and erratic speech patterns have become a hallmark of my weekends spent working in the woods. It’s easy to write these people off as lost causes, since meth overtakes its user’s life in such a devilishly obsessive fashion. However, as usage of the drug has reached pandemic proportions in virtually every corner of our country, a dismissive, blind-eyed attitude toward the crisis may not be the most pragmatic approach. Since the ingredients are all readily accessible — and addiction is all but untreatable — the solution must be an extensive, preemptive educational outreach. As animalistic as most meth addicts become, none of them deserve the grisly fate that awaits them at the end of this short, monstrous cycle.
Furthermore, to classify meth as a “rural problem” is not only offensively elitist — it’s also highly inaccurate. Every major city in the United States has seen a pronounced increase in the use of this drug throughout the past decade — and thanks to krokodil (and God knows how many other forms), the issue has reached a global level. That kids constitute the lion’s share of users makes it all the more tragic — and preventable. So, how do we educate our children? Well, a dose of realism is a start. We warn the little ones about the dangers of drug use all the time — yet rarely do we concede that, yes, drugs are also quite fun. It’s a fair point to make to young people who might rightly wonder why so many people are giving up everything for something so terrible.
Moreover, we are quick to draw the line between acceptable drugs (alcohol, marijuana, et. al) and the other, ‘bad’ ones. Sure, as adults, we can differentiate between smoking some grass or taking a shot and mainlining black tar heroin into our arm, but it’s not feasible to expect our youth to exercise the same discretion. To them, a drug is a drug is a cool thing that you shouldn’t tell your parents about — and since kids are impressionable and eager to please their peers, it’s only a matter of time before they take the plunge from ‘good’ to ‘bad’ narcotics.
I hope it ends here, though I doubt it will. It’s foreseeable that, in 20 years, krokodil will seem as benign as marijuana and cocaine are today (which should tell us something right there). I worry for the children I plan to have, just as I’m worried for the kids that are already alive and exposed to this kind of filth. It’s no way to think about the world around me, but there it is.