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Krocodil drug scare does more harm than good

Ryan Newcomer credits his spiritual conversiwith allowing him to
break destructive family cycle addiction. | Denise Crosby ~ Sun-Times Media

Ryan Newcomer credits his spiritual conversion with allowing him to break a destructive family cycle of addiction. | Denise Crosby ~ Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 17, 2013 6:17AM

I first heard about krocodil, and saw the horrendous photos, about a month ago when reports about this Russian-based drug surfacing in Arizona were starting to get around.

Then came news last week of multiple cases in Will County. All of a sudden it seemed like everywhere I looked, people were talking about krocodil.

There’s a reason for the hype about this homemade drug that mimics heroin’s high: The photos are gruesome, the headlines — flesh-eating drug here!!!! — sensational.

But Ryan Newcomer, a recovering addict who now helps others struggling with drug use, doesn’t see krocodil as a threat to the community. For one thing, the users he knows prefer the raw or uncut heroin.

“Every drug has a crap version. It gets discovered, weeded out, and then it’s on to the next,” the 29-year-old Elburn man noted. “This one stands out because the side effects are so ugly.”

Likewise, Kathleen Kane-Willis, director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy who works extensively with heroin-awareness groups here in the Fox Valley, is not overly concerned we’ll see a krocodil epidemic. And she remains skeptical it’s even here in the ’burbs.

This injected drug is a concoction of lighter fluid, industrial cleaning products and codeine, the latter of which is sold over the counter in Russia, but in the U.S. is much harder to come by. So why would addicts here turn to krocodil, she asks, when heroin is not only cheaper, it’s more readily available.

She also points out that none of the Joliet cases, reported by a doctor at Presence St. Joseph Medical Center, were confirmed by authorities. Nor was there confirmation on the cases in Arizona, Utah and Nevada. All of which leads her to believe that rather than educate or create awareness, headlines about this latest “drug scare” do more harm than good.

What bothers her most about these stories that include photos of rotting body parts is they reinforce the stigma addicts are zombie-like monsters who don’t deserve our empathy or support. We reason that if users are this “bad, stupid or crazy” to abuse a flesh-eating drug, or any other drug, they deserve the hell they are in. Their actions come across as irrational, she added, because we don’t understand the physical suffering they are enduring.

That stigma will not go away as long as we see addicts as weak or morally inferior. Unfortunately, insisted Kane-Willis, “rehab is not based on the science of addiction,” despite the fact we are beginning to understand more clearly the physical and chemical changes that take place within an addicted brain.

We may see the use of krocodil, or heroin for that matter, as an insane or irrational behavior, she said. But what’s really irrational is sending addicts into rehab programs over and over again … and expecting different results.

What has also become increasingly clear, even among law enforcement officials, is that we must stop treating addiction like a criminal issue rather than a medical problem.

“We see so many overdoses because people are afraid of seeking medical care,” Kane-Willis said, “and we are driving it further underground.”

These addicts, experts insist, are already feeling worthless enough without the rest of society marginalizing them.

“I don’t know any addict who doesn’t have potential,” said Newcomer. “Most of them are smart, educated and kind hearted.”

Which is why these zombie-like photos of Russian krocodil addicts bother Kane-Willis so much.

“Once you have been dehumanized,” she said, “it’s harder to come back.”

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