Krokodil in Kentuckiana: Urban threat or urban legend?

Published: Apr. 2, 2014 at 3:41 AM EDT
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Lieutenant J.T. Duncan
Lieutenant J.T. Duncan
Slava Nelson
Slava Nelson

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - A drug with a terrifying reputation for rotting the flesh of users is making its way across the country. Now, the Russian heroin knock off called krokodil is in Kentuckiana, at least that's what is making headlines.

Those reports, may be premature. While the drug itself, and the horrific effect it has on the body, are real aspects of krokodil's United States invasion appear to be a myth - one that spread from the internet to network television.

The only thing more shocking than the news reports are the pictures that go with them.

Krokodil, known for the reptile like sores addicts get, was created by drug users in Russia as a cheap alternative to heroin. They make it by mixing codine with stuff like gasoline, paint thinner and hydrochloric acid.

Pictures of people supposedly addicted to krokodil, show open sores, missing flesh and exposed bone, have spread like wild fire on the internet, as well as local and network TV news reports, as reported krokodil cases popping up across the country.

"Have I heard other people say that it's here? Yes," said Lieutenant J.T. Duncan, who runs the major case unit for the Louisville Metro Police Department narcotics division. He said there were rumors ER doctors at University Hospital in Louisville treated a krokodil user back in September.

Duncan said he has yet to see any hard evidence the drug is in our area. University Hospital said the story circulating about a krokodil case there was unfounded.

There have been krokodil cases reported in other states as well, including in Ohio, Illinois, Arizona, Utah and Oklahoma.

The supposed case in Oklahoma City was reported by local television affiliates and internet news broadcasts.

But Mark Woodward, spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics, said the case in their state is a total urban legend. Woodward said although friends blamed the death on the krokodil, lab tests confirmed it wasn't.

"But unfortunately the story just continued to grow," Woodward said. "We have never had a confirmed case."

Then in December, the American Journal of Medicine removed an article on krokodil from its website. The removed article was written by two doctors in St. Louis who claimed they had treated a user.

The move came after a blog from a forensic toxicologist pointed out major flaws in the evidence used in the paper.

Dr. Joseph Alpert, Editor in Chief of The American Journal of Medicine, said the story was pulled because the hospital where the patient was admitted was concerned about confidentiality, but that has since been resolved.

"It will soon be posted again," Dr. Alpert said, noting that the article will need unspecified editing first.

"Not all MDs agree that this is a proven case of krokodil syndrome," Dr. Alpert said. "But time will tell since we will or will not see any other examples of this awful flesh eating syndrome."

Meanwhile, the Drug Enforcement Agency says it has yet to confirm a single krokodil case in the U.S.

"DEA is aware of and tracking the nation-wide reports of alleged abuse of the controlled substance desomorphine that is found in the drug krokodil, a homemade substitute for heroin invented and used in rural Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan," said spokesman Joseph Moses.

"DEA is investigating the matter by acquiring samples alleged to contain desomorphine, interviewing drug abusers, and monitoring intelligence reports. To date, none of our forensic laboratories has analyzed an exhibit found to contain desomorphine. A sample sent to our Chicago forensic laboratory that was suspected to be krokodil was actually heroin."

Still, intense media coverage of krokodil continues. Many of the reports include video of a man with wounds to his face, hands, and legs as a supposed krokodil user. Search "krokodil user" on Google and his image pops up repeatedly.

Two Russian translators reviewed what appears to be the original broadcast from Russian television the video clip is taken from.

"There is no drugs here," said Slava Nelson, the cultural arts director at the Jewish Community Center, in Louisville.

Nelson, who is fluent in Russian, said the man depicted by American television as a krokdil user, was actually attacked by his wife with an ax.

"This is a domestic abuse case," Nelson said. "None of this saying one bit of a thing about krokodil."

Lieutenant Duncan, who had seen the man's image in krokodil reports, isn't surprised.

"When I was growing up there was a saying, 'don't believe anything you hear and only half of what you see,'" he said. "And I think this is a perfect example of this."

Duncan said any IV drug user who gets an infection from a dirty needle would get sores similar to the ones being attributed to krokodil use in the U.S. And to him, it doesn't make sense drug addicts in the States would turn to krokodil.

The codine they need to make the drug isn't available here without a prescription. Duncan says getting it on the black market is so expensive it would be cheaper to buy real heroin.

He doesn't think krokodil will sink its teeth into our streets, despite news to the contrary.

"Is it going to happen out there yes," Duncan said, noting there's always some drug user who is willing to experiment. "Is it going to happen a lot? No."

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