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Time Magazine has called it "the most horrible drug in the world," and last month, it hit the US. Because seriously, why would you take a drug that rots your flesh, bones, and brain?!

Hank Green discusses the science behind the street drug 'Krokodil', & fake THC.

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Hank Green: Time Magazine has called it "the most horrible drug in the world" and last month, we got to have some of it here in the US. Meanwhile, scientists have a shiny new method for understanding how other street drugs affect the human body.  I'm Hank Green, and this is your brain on SciShow News.  

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Hank: In September, a poison control center in Phoenix, Arizona reported the first two medical emergencies in the US to be caused by the drug known as Krokodil, a ferociously toxic opiate made by cooking codeine pain medicine with ridiculous stuff like gasoline, paint thinner, or alcohol.  After being injected, the drug crosses the blood brain barrier where it binds to opiate receptors and causes a brief high described as being similar to that of heroin, and just like with heroin, the user quickly builds a dependence that's difficult and painful to break, but Krokodil is so corrosive that in addition to messing up your mind, it dissolves bones, brain tissues, and veins, and it can cause gangrene often leading to amputations.  Users are known to quickly develop scaly gangrenous skin, giving the drug its name.  This stuff is so toxic that in Russia, where it's been used since about 2003, it's reported that the average life expectancy of a Krokodil user is 2 or 3 years.  So.  What is it?  

Desomorphine, the active ingredient in Krokodil, is made by dissolving codeine in powerful solvents, and then running it through a bunch of simple but dangerous reactions to create codeine salts that quickly dissolve the body tissues.  Desomorphine was actually patented in the US in 1932 and marketed for a while as a sedative and pain reliever.  But without the pharmaceutical grade chemicals necessary to make the old drug, street cooks have been content to use the most easily available substitutes, no matter how stupid or dangerous.  The result is a substance that's chemically very similar to heroin, but with traces of stuff like pain thinner, iodine, or gasoline thrown in, making it much more dangerous than even the stuff that was off the market in the first place.  

In this case, Krokodil is a lot like another drug that's gained popularity in the last decade, designer cannabinoids, sold under names like Spice and K2, it's reported to be the second most popular drug in the US and Europe, used by 1 in 9 high school students in the US.  And while it's marketed as a bunch of herbs that imitate the effects of marijuana, it's actually just a bunch of synthetic, untested chemicals with names like JWH-018 and AM-2201 that have been sprayed onto dried leaves.  The leaves are just for flair, the synthetic chemicals bind to cannabinoid receptors in the brain and create a high similar to that of THC.  Except with way nastier side effects like psychosis, seizures, severe kidney damage, and heart attacks.  

As more and more teens have been hospitalized in the last few years after using the drug, chemists have begun to wonder how exactly does it affect the body?  Attempting to answer that question, a group of chemists from the University of Arkansas analyzed the urine of 15 subjects who'd recently taken the drug.  By carefully separating the compounds in the users' pee, they identified what materials the drug had broken down into, called its metabolites, and the proportions of those metabolites.  Interestingly, the results varied to a huge degree among users, unlike with THC.  So while what exactly these compounds are and how they work are unknown, the new research may have at least developed a way to detect them, as users keep showing up at hospital emergency rooms.  

But until there are more answers, there's at least some useful input from an authoritative source about the use of Spice.  Dr. John Huffman is the chemist at Clemson University whose research on marijuana's effects in the 80s and 90s led to the development of these knockoff cannabinoids, and he told the Associated Press in 2010, and I quote, "People who use it are idiots."

This is Hank Green in the Keith Chiem studio, thanking all of our SciShow viewers, especially our Subbable supporters for continuing to support SciShow.  If there's any science in the news you'd like to learn more about, you can contact us on Facebook or Twitter or in the comments below, and don't forget to go to and subscribe.

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