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What Is Desomorphine?

By Marlene Garcia
Updated May 17, 2024
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Desomorphine defines a synthetic form of morphine that is highly addictive with severe side effects. It emerged as a substitute for heroin in Russia and parts of Europe because it can be made cheaply from common household chemicals and codeine tablets. The drug usually causes death within two years as chemicals used to make it literally eat away skin tissue after blood vessels burst. Foreign drug agencies estimate a million or more desomorphine addicts in Russia, where codeine can be purchased without a prescription.

The drug is called krokodil in Russia because it turns skin green and scaly, similar to the appearance on a crocodile. Sores develop at injection sites and blood vessels are destroyed, leading to gangrene that eats away skin and exposes bone. Addicts using this drug also might suffer brain damage, hepatitis C, liver and kidney damage, and immune system failure.

Desomorphine can be manufactured with codeine tablets, a controlled substance in the United States prescribed for pain. In addition to codeine, krokodil contains gasoline, paint thinner, or lighter fluid. Other ingredients include red phosphorus scraped from the ends of matchsticks, hydrochloric acid, and iodine. The solution is considered 10 times more powerful and toxic than heroin.

Scientists first developed this drug in 1932 while looking for a way to treat chronic pain without the nausea and respiratory problems linked to morphine. Researchers found desomorphine quickly killed pain with long-lasting results, but also led to rapid addiction. Illegal use of the drug gained popularity in Siberia beginning in 2002 as heroin addicts turned to manufacturing it as a cheap substitute drug. Its use has since spread throughout Europe.

Drug experts say epidemic use in Russia might stem from the lack of government-sponsored drug rehabilitation programs for heroin addicts, along with easy access to codeine tablets. After addiction to desomorphine, withdrawal from the drug can last a month, with severe pain, compared to about five days to withdraw from heroin. Most users become addicted the first time they inject the drug.

Heavy metals in red phosphorus destroy bone and harm the body’s central nervous system, which could lead to brain damage. Iodine weakens muscle tone, causing atrophy. Chemicals used to make the drug also disrupt the normal balance of minerals and build up in the liver and kidneys, which could cause organ failure. Teeth typically rot away as skin turns green and scaly. More than one-third of users become ill with hepatitis C, and most die within a year or two.

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Discussion Comments
By stoneMason — On Jun 27, 2013

@literally45-- It's the chemicals that people use to make desomorphine that's killing them, not the morphine or codeine. These people are injecting stuff like iodine and phosphorus into their body!

By literally45 — On Jun 26, 2013

@anamur-- The fact that there are lots of people on desomorphine in the world shows how serious addiction can be. It's not that addicts are unaware of the side effects, they feel like they have no other option but to use it because they're addicted.

From what I understand, people tend to get addicted to other more expensive drugs first and when they can't get a hold of them anymore, they reach for cheaper but deadly drugs like desomorphine.

My friend from Russia says that this is becoming a huge issue and addicts are basically left to die there because the government doesn't have any programs to help addicts quit and recover. It looks like desomorphine is going to kill a lot more people.

By serenesurface — On Jun 25, 2013

I can't believe that people actually use this. I knew someone who had a fatal illness and was on morphine for pain relief. He had a lot of side effects from it and suffered from addiction. Clearly, morphine is nowhere near desomorphine when it comes to side effects.

Desomorphine sounds like a poison that kills over months, rather than minutes. The description of what it does to the body is scary.

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