While terrifying, the reports of krokodil making its way to McHenry County and a nearby suburb could be overblown, drug experts say.
Earlier this month, a Centegra doctor said the health system might have treated a patient with large lesions who had injected krokodil – a horrific, flesh-eating drug identified in Russia.
A doctor in Will County said he treated three Joliet women with similar symptoms. The drug also been reported in Arizona and Utah.
Bu the Drug Enforcement Agency has not been able to confirm that the flesh-eating heroin lookalike has made its way to the U.S.
Jack Riley, special agent in charge of the DEA’s Chicago field office, said agents in five neighboring states are buying heroin, which is later lab-tested for krokodil.
The tests have all been negative.
“At this point we do not have any samples that have come back positive,” Riley said. “We have not seen it. That doesn’t mean we’re not aggressively trying to identify it. We just haven’t seen it.”
Krokodil is a synthetic form of a opiate-like drug called desomorphine. It is used as a cheap heroin alternative in Russia and Ukraine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Use also has been reported in Germany.
Krokodil is a toxic cocktail of codeine mixed with gasoline, lighter fluid or other industrial cleaners that’s difficult to produce here, experts say, because codeine requires a prescription. In Russia, the medication is only recently controlled.
Krokodil gets its name from the scaly, gray-green dead skin that forms at the site of an injection. The flesh eventually falls off and can require amputation to save users in some cases.
The tell-tale symptom of krokodil – gangrenous, rotting flesh – can be similar to those of a heroin addict who is using dirty needles, said Kathleen Kane-Willis, the director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University.
“I’m extremely dubious that there is actually krokodil in the U.S.,” she said. “There’ve been no confirmed cases, so I think people are seeing zebras when it’s really horses.
“What I think we’re seeing in the suburbs is doctors who haven’t seen injection drug use that much and are treating some bad-looking infections related to nonsterile injection equipment,” Kane-Willis said.
Krokodil has a significantly shorter high at about an hour and half compared with heroin’s six to eight hours. For addicts, going without the drug could mean going through withdrawal symptoms.
“It’s very unlikely someone would be injecting this and not notice it’s not heroin,” Kane Willis said.
Rick Atwater, an addiction specialist and director of Crystal Lake-based Northwest Community Counseling Services, agreed:
“It’s equally as costly [to produce krokodil] and not a good high. [Drug] dealers would not be in business. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Krokodil’s popularity in Eastern European countries is partly because it is cheaper to manufacture there than heroin. Here, drugs don’t come much cheaper than heroin.
“Heroin is so inexpensive and so plentiful. It’s 10 bucks a bag here,” Atwater said. “It’s going to be difficult to manufacture anything cheaper than that.”
Centegra’s report earlier this month was the county’s first and only suspected case of the flesh-eating drug.
In a news release at the time, Dr. Paul Berkowitz, a psychiatrist, said the treated patient used a drug intravenously and had large skin lesions, leading doctors to believe it was krokodil.
The doctor declined to be interviewed for this story. A Centegra spokesperson said they had nothing else to add.
Though reports of krokodil are now coming under fire, Undersheriff Andrew Zinke says the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office continues to be on the lookout for it.
“We are fortunate we have not seen any further cases,” Zinke said. “We’re still aggressively pursing the heroin problem in McHenry County and cautiously monitoring for any lookalike substances.”
But Atwater says it’s time to get back to the real problem.
“I think we got a little dramatic here,” he said. “It was a little flash in the pan – the drug du jour, so to speak – and everybody freaked out. Now it’s time to level off and look at what we really do have, and get back to work on the heroin problem.”
Heroin accounted for 52 of the 122 overdose deaths reported by the McHenry County Coroner’s Office between 2009 and 2012. The 16 heroin deaths reported in 2012 was the highest annual total in four years.