Drug Policy

On Steroids?

The Times bulks up its anti-supplement coverage.


The New York Times and The Washington Post are now flogging the latest drug crisis—over-the-counter steroid precursors.

Steroids are a class of compounds that mimic the effects of the male sex hormone testosterone. The pre-modern era (circa 1880) of steroids initiated by French physiologist Charles Edouard Brown-Sequard involved injecting crushed dog and guinea pig testicles. Scientists in the 1930s succeeded in synthesizing testosterone. Supplementary steroid use began expanding in the 1950s, when Soviet Olympic athletes started using it to improve their performance. Since 1990, the Federal government has outlawed the sale of a variety of steroids except for medical purposes.

Since 1990, clever chemists, working for the supplement industry, have devised compounds which they claim are precursors to testosterone. And by now anyone connected to the Internet has been spammed hundreds of times with emails touting the effectiveness of these precursors in building muscle and reducing fat. Does the sale of over-the-counter steroid supplements constitute a societal emergency requiring intervention by the Feds? No. "Where is the societal damage?" asked supplement company Syntrax Innovations' founder Derek Cornelius in The Washington Post. "[Critics] would have a point if people were having bad side effects, if people were dying in hospitals, but it's not happening. It's like making an issue out of something that's not."

However, steroids and their precursors do have some negative side effects that vary among users depending on how much they use and their specific genetics. Short-term effects include acne and shrunken testicles (which are generally reversed after users stop taking the supplements). Long-term effects may include stunted growth in teenagers, liver damage, enhanced risk of heart disease and prostate cancer. But these are not unusual risks. People balance these types of risks versus benefits all the time.

Of course perfectly legal substances such as alcohol, cigarettes, and fatty foods are even more damaging to people's health than steroid precursors, but our society has not seen fit to ban adult use of them yet (though a cadre of health puritans is working ceaselessly to do just that). What about the children? Our society has had no problem imposing limits on access to alcohol to people under age 21 and cigarettes to those under age 18. Similar restrictions could be established if steroid precursors are shown to be truly harmful to teenagers. One should not infantilize society by using possible harm to children as an excuse to deny adults access to products and services they can appropriately and safely use.

But what if supplement manufacturers defraud consumers? We already have plenty of laws and agencies that are fully empowered to protect consumers against fraud.

The question comes down to whether people can be trusted to use such substances responsibly. The answer, of course, is that not everyone will. But that does not mean that the majority of those who would behave responsibly should be forbidden access to enhancements that they regard as beneficial.

For example, there is evidence that overuse of steroidal substances causes some few people to become excessively aggressive, the so-called "roid rage" phenomenon. However, we hold drunks responsible for their actions; similarly society should have no difficulty holding roid ragers accountable. In fact, The New York Times underscores this point when it notes that steroid user Patrick Keogan stopped taking it after he became so angry during a traffic incident that he allowed his car to drift away while he argued with another motorist. Clearly users like Keogan can and do take responsibility for their actions.

Private sports organizations like the International Olympics Committee and the National Football League certainly have the right to ban their athletes from using steroid precursors if they wish, but they don't have the right to ask the Feds to take care of their policing problems by banning the use of steroids by ordinary citizens who want to lose fat or look better.

On the evidence marshaled so far by supplement critics, the bottom line is that we don't need to open a new anti-steroid front in an already highly destructive and failing War on Drugs.