Desomorphine (dihydrodesoxymorphine, Permonid, street name krokodil) is a derivative from morphine (an opioid) with powerful, fast-acting sedative and analgesic effects. Patented in 1932, it is around 8–10 times more potent than morphine. It was used in Switzerland under the brand name Permonid and was described as having a fast onset and a short duration of action, with relatively little nausea or respiratory depression compared to equivalent doses of morphine.
Desomorphine is derived from morphine where the 6-hydroxyl group and the 7,8 double bond have been reduced. The traditional synthesis of desomorphine starts from α-chlorocodide, which is itself obtained by reacting thionyl chloride with codeine. By catalytic reduction, α-chlorocodide gives dihydrodesoxycodeine, which yields desomorphine on demethylation.
Desomorphine attracted international attention in 2010 in Russia due to an increase in clandestine production, presumably due to its relatively simple synthesis from codeine which has been relatively easily available over the counter. Reports of its use there date back to 2003 when Russia started a major crackdown on heroin production and trafficking. The drug is easily made from codeine which can be derived from cough syrup, iodine from OTC medications and red phosphorus from match strikers, in a process similar to the manufacture of methamphetamine from pseudoephedrine. Like methamphetamine, desomorphine made this way is often highly impure and is contaminated with various toxic and corrosive byproducts. Various other common products like gasoline may be substituted as part of the production. The street name in Russia for homemade desomorphine is krokodil (Russian: крокодил, crocodile). The name derives from the notoriously severe tissue damage incurred by chronic users and the precursor α-chlorocodide. Due to difficulties in procuring heroin, combined with easy and cheap access to over-the-counter pharmacy products containing codeine in Russia, use of krokodil has increased. It has been estimated that around 100,000 people use krokodil in Russia and around 20,000 in Ukraine. Cases in the US have been reported with a few stating they learned how to craft the drug themselves, and most of the cases the users stating they thought they had procured heroin. The Drug Enforcement Administration has been looking into the cases but has not confirmed any although they expect that some will soon be registered.