Photos by Tor Farstad
From left: “Svein”, Eirik Junge Eliassen, editor of Virkelig magazine and “Arnt”. The hooded men have long careers in the Tromsø drug scene and have both suffered or seen the damage that Krokodil causes. Now they want to warn Norway about its existence.
Remember krokodil? It's that really cool and not at all dangerous heroin substitute that desperate Russian dope fiends have been destroying their lives with for a few years. The guys that make it combine a range of terrifying-sounding chemicals in an exceptionally unhygienic manufacturing process – painkillers acting as the main ingredient, with reports suggesting that gasoline, red phosphorus, acid, caustic soda and sulphur are all popular cooking agents. Cheery stuff.
On the 6th of August, the Norwegian newspaper iTromsø revealed that krokodil had reached Tromsø in northern Norway, which instantly sparked national media coverage, setting alarm bells ringing for those Norwegians who have no room in their lives for intravenous drugs that will eat their flesh and turn their eyes into glassy, expressionless marbles.
"Watch out for krokodil. It is not heroin and has nothing to do with it. It's synthetic shit," says “Svein". He's been an addict for 30 years, but only started using krokodil within the last 12 days (his name has been changed, for obvious reasons). A dented, infected arm tells of the consequences.
"I can't feel my thumb or parts of my arm any more. Using needles has given me a hardened layer under the skin of my arm, but there's nothing under that – I can insert a q-tip inside the wound and rotate it around in there. Krokodil ate my flesh and nearly cost me my arm."
Eirik Junge Eliassen
After just two weeks on krokodil, Svein almost lost his life. "I OD’d on it once and almost passed away. Luckily, my friends stomped on my chest until my heart started beating again and I woke up. They cracked my chest plate, but I survived."
On the other hand, "Arnt" (again, not real name) has a respectable 45 heroin overdoses under his belt – one for each year he's been using – but refuses to touch krokodil, calling it "pure evil". He's now taking it upon himself to warn other Norwegian fiends. "This is by far the worst drug in the world. After 40 years in the dope segment of society, I can safely say that krokodil is ten-times more dangerous than any other narcotic. It takes first place without any competition."
Arnt has met numerous victims of krokodil use, all of whom have, as expected, mind-blowingly depressing stories. One involves a woman with a rotting pelvis, who he took to the Tromsø University hospital: "I'll never forget the screams from when they stuffed swabs and cotton inside her to clean out the pus," he tells me.
Every one of Arnt's horror stories turns me into an increasingly traumatised, shaking bag of sweat, but to him it's now just a part of life. In case I didn't believe any of the tangible physical evidence I'd been confronted with, Norwegian public health institution LAR confirmed krokodil usage in Tromsø. "We know of one case where a patient told us he had used krokodil, but we think that the numbers are much higher," said psychologist Peter Halva.
Svein points to the scar tissue-covered hole he shot krokodil into for two weeks. When the weak tissue cracks, he can stuff a q-tip inside his arm and rotate it around. The flesh is wasted away and he'll never get back the feeling in his thumb.
Eirik Junge Eliassen is the editor of Virkelig, a kind of Norwegian Big Issue, and he works closely with the community that has witnessed the devastating effect krokodil is having in Tromsø firsthand. "To see a person inject krokodil is like watching a head on collision in slow motion," he tells me. "The frustrating paradox is that heroin availability is good in Norway and Tromsø, but even though it's clearly more dangerous, people are still using krokodil instead."
No one is under any illusions about younger fiends shooting the synthetic junk, either. "I know people under 18 who use heroin in this town," Eirik laments. "And considering how easy it is to access krokodil here, I'm pretty sure that kids have injected this garbage as well as the more seasoned addicts."
This riles Arnt, who's visibly distressed at the prospect of his city's youngsters getting hooked on krokodil. "If I see a kid holding that junk, I'll take it from him and throw it away. I’d gladly pay him back what he spent on it, just as long as he doesn't shoot it," he shouts.
Svein's chest plate after an overdose on krokodil. His friends stomped his chest until his heart started. His bones were cracked in the process.
News of krokodil's arrival in Tromsø hadn't reached the city's police department until I called them, providing me with the closest feeling to being an informant in a cop movie that I'll ever have, which was kinda cool. Having to explain that teenagers are injecting a flesh-eating drug into their veins kind of took the fun out of it, though.
"We have no information that krokodil is in Tromsø, nor do the Norwegian police as a whole," states Hans Martin Moen, head of the Tromsø detective department. "We are a neighbouring country to Russia, which must be how the drug gets here. If it really is in Tromsø, that’s a very, very serious case for us to investigate," Moen explains, somewhat pointlessly.
"Why don’t the police already know about such a dangerous drug?" I ask.
"If we've confiscated krokodil, the analysis should have picked it up, but the drug seems to be completely unknown to the Norwegian police force," Moen replies. "I definitely feel worried now that I've looked it up online. The stuff krokodil can do is horrific."
Norway's been thought of as a pretty safe country in recent years. But if krokodil arrives there in a big way, it won't be feeling safe for much longer.
Follow Knut-Eirik on Twitter: @knutti
Watch the film we made about krokodil use in Russia: Siberia: Krokodil Tears - Full Length