Almost daily we find examples of American society conforming to old school ideology rather than logical progression. Once it came to light that athletes in professional sports were taking performance-enhancing drugs to set some of the sport’s most impressive records, the media took great interest. Heavy attention in the media has caused a backlash of legislation that has had a domino effect on the quality of the steroid supply in the United States. The steroid scandals in Major League Baseball in the early 2000s and the Olympic games roughly a decade earlier sparked a lot of new legislatures. Unfortunately, this legislature wasn’t just for professional athletes. The unwavering and unanimous media view that it’s immoral to use performance-enhancing drugs created new laws for those playing in the games, as well as those watching them at home.
Only a few decades ago, steroids were completely under the radar. Not only did the American public have little exposure to the terms “steroids” and “performance-enhancing drugs”, but US law enforcement didn’t even have legislation in place regarding the use of these powerful pharmaceutical hormones. In the 1980s, one could easily acquire anabolic preparations of true pharmaceutical quality. There was plenty of availability, and without the drugs being illegal there wasn’t fear of being arrested. Buyers felt safe, and dealers didn’t have to be supplied and financially backed by criminals. As such, there was no fear of arrest, violence, or being ripped off. Then in 1991, anabolic steroids were made a Schedule III drug in the Controlled Substances Act. With this new legislation in place, “any drug or hormonal substance chemically and pharmacologically related to testosterone (other than estrogens, progestins, and corticosteroids) that promotes muscle growth”, became punishable by law (8). In this initial ban, it was pen and pad wielding physicians and pharmacists targeted by the DEA. At the time they identified three main suppliers within the US, the most prominent being the liberally prescribing doctors, followed by European mail orders and Mexican veterinary preparations. They took out the domestic portion of the supply chain first (6). Just as anybody with a basic understanding of supply and demand would have figured, Europe and Mexico began filling the void once physicians had new legislature guiding their prescription pad.
With so many drugs coming into the US from abroad, and heightened national security due to the threat of terrorism, customs began opening, inspecting and seizing foreign packages at a much higher rate. This pushed many to acquire steroids on trips to Mexico and left a large market for drug smugglers south of the border to bring the drugs into the States. In 2005, Operation Gear Grinder saw the DEA shutting down the 8 largest steroid manufacturers in Mexico. They believed roughly 80% of the steroid supply coming into the United States was from those eight veterinary grade laboratories (8). While it may sound odd that people would willingly inject themselves with veterinary grade drugs, the supply became much more tainted and unreliable after the large DEA bust took place in December of that year (1).
One year prior to Gear Grinder, Senator Joe Biden (now our Vice President) helped push through a bill that banned many of the most popular sports nutrition products at the time (10). The majority of the performance-enhancing drugs used during the Major League Baseball scandal were actually legal nutritional supplements such as ErgoPharm’s smash hits 1AD (1-androstene-3beta,17beta-diol) and 4AD (4-androstenediol), and Molecular Nutrition’s Boldione (1,4-androstadiene-3b,17b-dione). Once those supplements were illegal, it caused a twofold effect, many began using underground steroids instead of the now-banned dietary supplements, and a new crop of chemists designed quite a few new anabolic compounds even more potent. This new class of prohormones/steroids (hormones that undergo conversions in the human body to then become active steroids) were exceptional at creating strength and size, but much harsher on the liver due to the chemical compounds being methylated. Immediately, products such as 1AD and 4AD that had mild side effects were replaced by substances with infinitely harsher side effects such as Methyl-1-Testosterone and Superdrol (Methyldrostanolone). Users began reporting medical conditions such as high blood pressure, nausea from liver distress, gynecomastia, and rapidly altered lipid levels within a few short weeks of beginning supplementation with these chemicals.
Who was left to supply the ever-growing enhanced populous? Sadly, the answer had become underground suppliers, who often make the product in their own homes. Unfortunately, when the criminalization of drugs leaves supply in the wrong hands, even marijuana can be toxic for consumption when contaminants such as lead and other heavy metals make their way into the product (3). Effectively, as we have seen time and again in this country, the war on drugs has left the citizens with less safe drug supply, less safe means of acquiring drugs, and has allowed the massive amounts of money from these transactions to go to criminals instead of back into the economy. Steroid users should be aware of the potential additional health risks associated with the use of counterfeit and underground steroid medications due to the frequent contamination with heavy metals, bacteria, and most disturbingly mislabeled ingredients (5). What’s inside the bottle that shouldn’t be is often more troubling than the other common fear with underground preparations, which is the low doses of the actual active ingredient (4). To illustrate this point quantitatively, a study on heroin supply in Vienna, Austria found the median purity of this narcotic to be 6.7%. While of course, this is shockingly low purity compared to that of any pharmaceutical drug, perhaps more shocking and scary to realize, is that some they tested were as high as 47% pure. This means a user could think they are using a standard amount of a drug, and actually consumer a dose seven times more powerful. This inaccuracy of dosing could lead to many side effects, including death in some instances, with almost any illicit substance (7).
On September 1st of 2015, the DEA announced their series of investigations that led to 90 arrests and 16 underground labs being shut-down was known as “Operation Cyber Juice”. The United States Drug Enforcement Administration worked together with the US Anti-Doping Agency and World Anti-Doping Agency to achieve the necessary intel to bring down these black market suppliers. The heaviest hit state in this string of busts was Arizona, in which 4 of the 16 now defunct labs were located and $300,000 was seized in cash and assets. The 30 total investigations led to $2 million in total seized cash and assets, along with 636 kilograms of raw steroid powder and 8,200 liters of raw steroid injectable liquid(1). Interestingly, Operation Gear Grinder’s lab closures led to the rise of smaller operation residential laboratories within the US that were targeted in Operation Cyber Juice. Once American’s were no longer able to order their anabolics from South of the border, there was a rise of domestic “laboratories” throughout the nation that was willing to fill the supply void, and could easily do so by operating storefronts online. These underground labs can be found throughout the country, manufacturing anabolic preparations of varying quality, primarily within their own residences. With this operation seeing citizens of 20 different states investigated, it shows just how widespread these underground labs have become.
The DEA report has confirmed what has long been speculated within the steroid using community, which is that the online steroids so prevent purchased today are made in people’s homes, using raw materials purchased online from Chinese suppliers (2). Unfortunately, what was also confirmed was that underground manufacturing practices are far from ideal, and not always sterile. “Federal agents report that many of the underground steroid labs seized are extremely unsanitary, further illustrating the danger in buying these products illegally. For example, recent lab seizures uncovered huge amounts of raw materials being mixed in bathtubs and bathroom sinks.” Furthermore, the report also confirms the doubts many have about the quality of these underground drugs; “Products are often misrepresented” and “mislabeling is common – both intentional and unintentional”, according to the DEA (1).
Fast forward to the present day, and our government has left a large chunk of its citizens in great harm by the effects of these new policies. The average gym these days is flooded with steroid users, and every one of them is left in harm's way now that tax-paying pharmacies, supplement companies, and veterinary grade manufacturers have all been cracked down on and their business has gone to underground suppliers. As advocates of harm reduction, we understand why law enforcement officials are so concerned with potentially unsafe drugs reaching the populous. With the world continuing to digitize, drug trafficking and illegal activity are becoming more prevalent online. Many view it as safer, more secure and anonymous compared to old school face-to-face transactions. Over the past few years, it seemed that underground labs and their accompanying websites began popping up with greater regularity. It will be interesting to see if underground manufacturers will be deterred by the recent series of busts, or if the domestic steroid supply will remain largely unchanged.
- DEA Announces Major Steroid Operation. Drug Enforcement Administration 2015. http://www.dea.gov/divisions/hq/2015/hq090115.shtml
- Bogdanich, Walt. Chinese chemicals flow unchecked onto world drug market. New York Times. September 25, 2007.
- Grady, Denise. Germany: Marijuana smokers were poisoned with lead in Leipzig. International Herald Tribune. April 15, 2008.
- Graham, Michael R et al. Counterfeiting in performance- and image-enhancing drugs. Drug Test. Analysis 2009, 1, 135-142.
- Hon, O & Kleij, R. Quality of illegal doping substances – an exploration of the quality of illegally traded doping substances and the health risks that accompany their use. 2005.
- Isikoff, Michael. DEA Launching Steroid Crackdown. The Washington Post 1991.
- Risser D, Uhl A, Oberndorfer F et al. Is there a relationship between street heroin purity and drug-related emergencies and/or drug related deaths? An analysis from Vienna, Austria. Journal of Forensic Science. 2007.
- Ryan, Jason. DEA Announces Charges in Largest Ever Steroid Probe. ABC News 2005.
- Steroid Abuse by Law Enforcement Personnel. Drug Enforcement Administration 2004.
- Text of the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 2004. Section 2195, 108th Congress 2003-2004.
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