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A pair of youths shoot desomorphie, street named krokodil, in a Siberian squat in 2011. Doctors in Arizona treated two patients last month with conditions similar to krokodil. Russian for "crocodile," krokodil is known for its ability to turn the skin scaly and green, leading to flesh rotting off the bone. PHOTO BY STUART GRIFFITHS
Las Vegas Municipal Court Judge Cedric Kerns has watched with concern as desomorphine, street named krokodil, has slowly made its way out of Russia. Kerns oversees the Youth Offender Drug and Alcohol Court. PHOTO BY BILL HUGHES.

If it is an addictive drug, Judge Cedric Kerns has seen it - or at least the impact of it - on people and families. Kerns has seen hundreds of young people go through the Las Vegas Municipal Court’s Young Offender Court, a specialized court that focuses on young adults with drug offenses.

There’s lots of heroin users, of course. There’s crystal meth. There’s cocaine and crack and ecstasy and now there’s molly. The courts provide evidence of a huge problem in addiction to prescription painkillers, which often morph into addiction to other drugs. There’s spice and bath salts and, for those on a budget looking to burn off their reasoning abilities, the brain-killing habit of huffing solvents and computer cleaners.

Now there’s a new one on the horizon, and it’s got people pretty horrified. It may have turned up right next door in Arizona.

In Russia, where some enterprising chemists started cooking it up a decade ago, it’s called “krokodil,” pronounced like “crocodile” with a Russian accent. Its clinical name is desomorphine

It’s a mix of cough syrup cooked on kitchen labs with gasoline or other readily available solvents to create a nasty substitute for heroin. “Nasty” probably doesn’t go far enough.

Usually injected, tissue death occurs at the injection site and around other parts of the body. It’s called krokodil because when tissue starts dying, people develop lizard-like green, scaly skin.

In photos distributed by law enforcement, large parts of tissue have fallen off arms and other limbs, to the point where underlying sinew, muscles and bone are completely exposed. Amputation is necessary to save the lives of users who have developed gangrene.

People started using the drug in Russia as a cheap - like 1/10 the cost - alternative to heroin. The International Journal of Drug Policy estimates that 120,000 people have used the drug in Russia and the Ukraine, a substantial number since the use of the drug is considered a virtual death sentence.

The drug’s not just cheap, it’s relatively easy to make, with a bathtub process similar to making methamphetamine. Which, astute readers will realize, is all over the place.

And the worst news is that it is even more addictive, with longer and more severe withdrawal, than heroin. Desomorphine was originally developed by pharmaceutical chemists as a substitute for heroin before World War II, but folks quickly realized that it was more dangerous than the other opiate and they shelved the newer product.

When Arizona physicians reported last month that they have seen evidence of krokodil there, the media naturally pounced like a jonesing junkie starving for a fix.

Vice magazine, Mother Jones, Time, the Los Angeles Times, Phoenix-area media and the Associated Press have all run stories spotlighting the horrifying effects of the drug. “More Perilous Than Heroin,” “Arizona fears epidemic,” “Flesh Eating Drug in America,” “Russian drug krokodil makes humans into zombies,” the headlines blare.

But it’s not clear how big a menace it actually is.

Spokesmen for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in Las Vegas say they haven’t seen any definitive evidence of krokodil yet, although they have their institutional radar up. Bill Cassel, a spokesman for Metropolitan Police Department, said his department’s Narcotics Division hasn’t seen it, either.

“Apparently it has not made its way to Las Vegas, yet,” Cassel says.

Judge Kerns, with the Youth Offender court, doesn’t take a lot of comfort from that.

“I would think we’re awfully close to Arizona,” he says. “If it’s out there, it will find it’s way here.”

Kerns has some stomach-wrenching photos he received as part of a Powerpoint presentation on the drug with Metro officers. “You have to amputate to keep people alive,” Kerns notes.

It’s just another page in the story of the Young Offenders program. Although the manifestation of krokodil appears to be particularly gruesome, Kerns notes that illicit and even legal drugs - alcohol and prescription drugs - can be just as dangerous.

In the YO court program, treatment for the offenders, 18-24, includes substantial work with family members to end enabling behavior, he explains. A lot of family members don’t realize how dangerous those readily available drugs can be, especially for young people, some of whom start when they’re pre-teens.

A well-meaning parent, for example, may try to help out a son or daughter who is in pain by giving the young person a leftover drug - say, a Lortab - prescribed for the adult. That’s a bad idea, and it’s one reason why the use and abuse of opiate-like drugs is taking off, Kerns believes.

And some percentage of the kids who started with prescription pharmaceuticals move on to heroin and other opiates, and could be the future consumers of a hillbilly heroin like krokodil. Don’t assume that because a young person comes from a solid middle or upper-class family that they are immune to dangerous drug addiction, Kerns emphasizes.

“We’ve got a generation of opiate users that started with what was in the medicine cabinets,” he says. “A lot of kids aren’t the kids you picture as a drug addict.”

But how and why the hell would someone turn themselves into a zombie, even for a pleasant drug buzz?

“When you are intoxicated, you make very poor decisions,” Kerns says.

So if your neighbor, friend or family member suddenly starts looking like a real-life zombie, it could just be Halloween. Then again, it could be krokodil.

Contact reporter Launce Rake at or 702-477-3843. Follow @Launce on Twitter.