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The war on drugs created a zombie monster drug that rots human flesh

The war on drugs — a miserable failure that has militarized our police departments, bolstered the domestic surveillance state, and spawned an incarceration crisis unmatched anywhere else in the world — has been rotting our democracy for decades. 

Now it is rotting our flesh.

According to recent reports, a synthetic heroin imitation called ‘krokodil’ has hit our shores, having traveled all the way from Siberia where it was invented. Krokodil is poison composed of “codeine, iodine, red phosphorous, paint thinner, gasoline, and hydrochloric acid.” It was invented by heroin addicts who, because of drug prohibition in Russia, either couldn’t afford the opiate or couldn’t access it. Krokodil creates a cheap, heroin-like high. Users inject the toxic potion into their veins. And then their bodies begin to rot, literally.

From Mother Jones:

It's far more addictive and deadly [than heroin]; krokodil users tend to only live two or three years. When the drug is injected into the skin, it often causes gangrene, forcing the skin to rot away, and causes speech problems and erratic muscle movements. [A doctor] told the Beacon-News, "If you want to kill yourself, (using) this is the way to do it." 

Now krokodil is in Chicago, according to doctors at a suburban hospital. Dr. Abhin Singala, who has treated krokodil users, described what happens to their bodies: 

As of late as last week, the first cases – a few people in Utah and Arizona – were reported to have been using the heroin-like drug, which rots the skin from the inside out. It is a horrific way to get sick. The smell of rotten flesh permeates the room. Intensive treatment and skin grafts are required, but they often are not enough to save limbs or lives.

Having eaten away at our body politic, the war on drugs is now literally eating our bodies. As Forbes magazine’s Jacob Sullum argues, this zombie-drug would not exist were it not for prohibition in Russia.

What drives Russian drug users to take such risks? “Krokodil became popular in Russia because heroin can be difficult to obtain and is expensive,” USA Today reports. “Krokodil costs three times less, and the high is similar to heroin though much shorter, usually 90 minutes.” In other words, the drug laws, which in Russia ban heroin but allow the sale of codeine without a prescription, encouraged a switch to a cheaper but more dangerous drug. If Russians could buy heroin (or pharmaceutical-quality desomorphine) the same way they buy codeine, “the most horrible drug in the world” would have no following. The necrosis caused by levamisole-contaminated cocaine is likewise a product of prohibition. Attributing these effects to the drugs themselves is like attributing the deaths caused by contaminants in black-market booze during the 1920s to alcohol.

In other words: don't blame krokodil, blame prohibition.

It therefore isn't much of a surprise to learn that krokodil has migrated to the United States, where the government spends billions of dollars every year militarizing the police, bolstering the surveillance state, building and filling prisons, and staffing agencies of drug warriors in the service of prohibition. All of that goes on and on without congress batting an eye or cancelling a budget line item, even though drugs are cheaper, more potent, and widely available than ever before.

But amidst economic crisis, even the cheaper, stronger, 21st century heroin is too expensive or out of reach for some people addicted to the opiate. And so they’ve turned to synthetic imitations that rot their flesh until they die. 

It no mystery that Portugal isn’t facing the same problems. In 2001, the country decriminalized possession of all drugs. By 2011, drug abuse rates had plummeted by half.

If we ended the war on drugs, there would be less violence both in the United States and in the entire western hemisphere. The surveillance state and the militarization of the police would have the rug pulled out from under them. We could spend our money helping people instead of incarcerating them. And we would likely never face the scourge of flesh-eating synthetic drugs in our families, communities, or cities. 

There’s no excuse anymore. The war on drugs is killing us. It's past time to end it.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.