Krokodil Tears: Georgia’s Failed Drug Policy

When Georgia signs the European Association Agreement later this month it will find itself one-step closer to it’s goal of European integration. Yet the country’s repressive drug policy remains in a post-Soviet time warp, far from the standard approach being applied throughout Europe. Failure to implement a well-balanced, humane drug program has put more recreational drug users behind bars and contributed to a rise in popularity of a highly toxic cocktail for the veins, called krokodil.

Protest against urine testing

Two men in their early 40s are explaining the intricate process of preparing desomorphine, a cheap, highly addictive and toxic homemade narcotic that is injected into a vein. Called “krokodil,” it is made from over-the-counter codeine medicines, iodine, gasoline, drain cleaner, hydrochloric acid and the phosphorus from match strikers. This noxious drug can pack a powerful punch but the damage it does to the immune system, bones, muscles and skin have earned it the moniker of “flesh eater.”

“It takes us about 40 minutes to cook up a batch when a few of us work together. We’ll be high for abut an hour if it’s done right, then we start cooking again in 2 hours,” explains D. who only started shooting krokodil a few years ago. Because the Georgian government so successfully cracked down on the illegal import of less toxic opiates like heroin, opium and the methadone substitute, Subutex, which was all the rage in the mid 2000s, people have turned to the flesh eater to get high. “We look okay because we do it right, but if you don’t know what you’re doing you’ll lose your jaw bone or if you cut a finger, it’ll fall off,” he adds.

Desomorphine was patented in the US in 1932 as a morphine substitute, but because it’s effects wore off quicker and caused faster withdrawal, the narcotic was eventually discontinued. In the late 1990s, the drug resurfaced in Russia, which has a rather rich history with homemade intravenous cocktails. According to drug policy advocates, Harm Reduction International, 4 million people in Eurasia inject drugs. That’s one-quarter of the world’s intravenous drug users. And one million of these are living with HIV.

In 2007, when the Georgian government began to earnestly crack down on drug use, a gram of heroin was around $275 while a tablet of Subutex was about $120. Today, heroin fetches around $325 while Subutex is $280. When krokodil arrived on the scene, it cost $5 to get 3 guys high. But because of a new government law on psychotropic substances, which makes it more difficult to get the active ingredients without a prescription, it now costs $80.

While the government’s policy has disturbed the supply of opiates, it has done nothing to reduce the demand. Intensifying drug testing, imposing high fines and imprisoning users has put more addicts in prison but has not affected drug use. A 2012 study by health care advocates, Curatio International Foundation, estimated the number of problematic drug users actually increased by 12.5 percent from 40,000 to 45,000 between 2009 and 2012, when the anti-drug policy was the most punitive. And the drug more people are using today is krokodil.

“I’ve known about krokodil but didn’t want to start injecting it even though it was cheaper than heroin and Subutex,” D. says. But one jonesing day his friend had some krokodil all ready to go.

Drug use skyrocketed during the 1990s, a lawless decade that saw civil war, two separatist conflicts and an economy in shambles. D. and his friend came of age during this time and like so many young men in Georgia, they became hooked on heroin, which was pouring through the country’s uncontrolled borders. By 2007, some estimates claimed that 240,000 Georgians – 5 percent of the population – were addicted to narcotics.

“If you had no gun or drugs back then, you were no one,” D. says.

Nobody understood this better than the police, who had guns, drugs and power.

Georgia in the 1990s was a criminal free-for-all. Chechen fighters holed up in the Pankisi Gorge, near the Russian border, were trafficking everything to fund their war effort. The Ministry of Internal Affairs, complicit in crimes ranging from kidnapping to smuggling, was a domestic drug distributor. Cops played a double game of dealing and extorting money from people to keep them out of prison. Informants were rewarded with drugs.

This changed after the Rose Revolution in 2004, when president-elect Mikheil Saakashvili reformed the Interior Ministry in one audacious stroke. The entire police force was fired, replaced by young incorruptible men and women. The situation in Pankisi was reigned in and the leaders of organized criminal networks were arrested or fled the country. However, the policy of extorting money from drug users and dealers did not disappear – it became institutionalized and continues to be the policy today.

Possession of drugs without a doctor’s prescription is punishable by a first-time fine of $280. The penalty for a repeat offender within a year is $1,125 or 1 year imprisonment. Police don’t need probable cause to shake somebody down and haul them in for a urine test. They just need “reasonable suspicion.” Court judgements for drug use offenses rely mostly on urine tests. And it’s a money-maker. In 2007, the latest year for which data is available, drug-related fines reaped $16.9 million into the state budget.

D. has been convicted 9 times for drug-related crimes and has paid $43,000 in fines. His case is typical in that his family accepted the burden of paying the fines by first selling their car, then their home. He claims his last conviction was a 9-month sentence for use, even though he didn’t have any drugs on him.

On paper, the Georgian government recognizes drug abuse is a disease, yet it continues to treat users as criminals. There is no legal differentiation between possession and trafficking drugs, nor is there a legal distinction between drug types. A few grams of marijuana can land you in prison as a dealer for up to 14 years, compared to a rapist who faces a maximum of 6 years.

While Georgia has been relentless in its persecution of drug users, it has been less zealous in its pursuit of treatment. There is only one detox center in the country and it can only accommodate 23 patients at a time. Few people understand the ramifications of drug abuse and addiction. There isn’t even an alcohol treatment facility, let alone a proper 12-step program. Addiction is an alien concept, something you just quit if you have the will.

Between 2003 and 2006, the Georgian Health Ministry reduced funding for drug treatment from $140,000 to $28,000. The country was reluctant to establish a methadone program because lawmakers couldn’t understand the need to introduce another drug to treat opiate addiction. The first methadone program only started in 2006 in 3 Georgian cities and was financed by the Global Fund. In 2008, the state kicked in some money to expand the program to 8 cities nationwide, covering 1300 patients, but it falls far short of providing the care drug addicts need.

Levan Baramidze, a former director of the Ministry of Health’s drug addiction center, concedes there is little investment in treatment in Georgia. “Policy makers are not public health specialists,” he says. “We need at least double the program.”

For drug addicts, the government policy is criminal. “The police know who we are and wait for us outside of pharmacies,” D.’s friend says. And nobody will call an ambulance if someone were to O.D, because ambulance personnel are required by law to call the police for a drug-related emergency.

“They just want to kill us off,” D, remarks. “They think if we’re dead, the problem will be solved.”

*photo – protest at state chancellery against forced urine testing. 06/09/14

Originally published June 11, 2014 at Beacon Reader

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