When Ned decided to try anabolic steroids for the first time, his goal was to "be bigger and look better." He had friends who used, and they seemed no worse for wear. The college sophomore was already training smart and eating right. "I felt like the pieces were in place to accelerate the process," he says looking back. That left the question of acquisition: He knew he could use the internet to illegally buy drugs from overseas, or he could invest some social capital in befriending a muscle-bound gym regular who might be able to hook him up. Still, he hesitated, until a fellow lifter revealed that he could obtain the same drug—testosterone, the paterfamilias of anabolic steroids—legally.
If Ned could convince an M.D. that he had low testosterone, he could walk away with script in hand. Then he would be able to pick up clean, accurately labeled "test" from his local pharmacy in broad daylight, instead of braving the black market. He'd avoid the risks of drugs passed hand-to-hand, which might be under-dosed, mislabeled, or dirty. And buying directly from an Indian or Chinese lab (which probably supplied the American gym vendor anyway) poses all those risks plus the additional possibility of criminal charges—including prison time—if U.S. Customs intercepts your package and conducts a "controlled delivery."
"I'd estimate the majority of controlled deliveries I've seen have involved quantities that are consistent with personal use," criminal defense attorney Rick Collins writes in Legal Muscle, his 2002 doorstopper on U.S. anabolic steroid laws. "A band of government agents will lie in wait until you make the horrific mistake of accepting your mail. Then, like a plague of locusts, they'll descend upon the sanctity of your home, ransacking it from roof to basement."
User surveys say that more than half of men who buy drugs for physique and performance enhancement do so on the internet black market, despite the fact that buying steroids without a prescription is a crime in every state and a federal offense. Yet those same surveys also suggest that the number of recreational steroid users who acquire their drugs legally may have tripled in the last 10 years.
What, exactly, are these people chasing? Some men want to look in the mirror and be blown away by their own sheer mass. Other men want to feel as virile and physically capable at 50 as they did at 18. Strength athletes—powerlifters and strongmen, professional and amateur alike—want to amplify their natural abilities. But contrary to popular media, the vast majority of steroid-using men are are not athletes, but regular working stiffs who like how they look and feel on "gear."
Ned, who asked me not to share his real name, is one of those people. He's happily married, employed in academia, and as conscientious about his health as he is about his appearance. He represents a growing demographic of people who are using internet message boards, publicly available research data, and licensed doctors to tweak their bodies, take control of their decisions, and build forbidden muscle in a post-prohibition world.
The use of anabolic steroids to build strength and muscle goes back to the middle of the 20th century and a company called Ciba Pharmaceuticals. Ciba conducted much of the early research into testosterone-based drugs, giving its compounds to American doctors and encouraging them to perform informal studies on their patients. The company published these findings in books such as 1948's Refresher Course on Male Hormone Therapy, which contains testosterone case studies for every condition then under the sun, from congenital eunuchoidism to same-sex attraction. (The eunuchs developed facial hair; the gay men thirsted even harder after other dudes.)
One of Ciba's doctors was the Maryland physician John Ziegler. According to his personal papers and records, obtained by Auburn University's John D. Fair for a 1993 report in the Journal of Sports History, Ziegler gave testosterone first to patients known to benefit from its anabolic qualities, such as burn victims. Testosterone's primary medical value is its ability to promote tissue growth. It increases red blood cell count, bone mineral density, and the number of satellite cells in muscle tissue. That means new skin for burn victims, bigger guns for lifters, and faster recovery for pretty much everyone. But testosterone is also androgenic: It stimulates the secondary sexual characteristics we associate with adult males, causing increased sebaceous gland activity and body hair, thickening of the vocal chords, prostate enlargement, and penis (or, in the case of women, clitoris) growth.
Ziegler likely knew about the anabolic effects, which is why he soon began giving the drugs to weightlifters at a gym in Silver Spring, Maryland, to see how the drug affected healthy people. This made him the first physician in the U.S. to administer testosterone not to repair, but to enhance. When members of the U.S. Olympic team attended the 1954 World Weightlifting Championships in Vienna, Austria, they did so with Ziegler in tow and Ciba's drugs coursing through their veins. It wasn't exactly an unfair advantage. Legend has it that Soviet lifters had been taking huge doses of testosterone for so long that their prostates were engorged and they needed catheters to urinate.
Three decades after steroids began to proliferate through the gyms of the developed world, "roid rage" became the new reefer madness. There was two-time Super Bowl Champion Steve Courson's 1985 Sports Illustrated interview, in which he said steroids wrecked his heart. Then Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol following the 1988 Summer Olympics, where he'd beaten the American phenom Carl Lewis in the 100-meter finals. In April 1989, Olympic sprinter Diane Williams tearfully described to a U.S. Senate committee how the steroids that made her one of the fastest women in the 1984 Olympics also made her clitoris grow uncomfortably large.
The Judiciary Committee report accompanying the 1990 Steroid Trafficking Act was chock full of still more anecdotal evidence that steroids were permeating every corner of American life: a mild-mannered cop in Oregon who began juicing and then shot a shop owner for no apparent reason, a normally happy teenager found dead of a suicide next to the weight set in his garage after three years of using, "an obsessed steroid user" who felt so empowered by the exogenous hormones pumping through his body that he asked a friend to film him as he drove his car into a tree at 40 miles per hour.
Until 1988, steroids could be purchased over the counter. Relatively cheaply, too, thanks to chemist Russell Marker's discovery in the 1940s that two types of wild yam indigenous to Mexico—barbasco and cabeza de negro—could be synthesized into sex hormones.
A few critics warned Congress against making steroids illegal. "The medical facts do not support scheduling," Edward Langston of the American Medical Association told a Senate committee in the spring of 1989. "First, anabolic steroids have an accepted use in the treatment of several medical conditions. Second, abuse of steroids does not lead to physical or psychological dependence."
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) also opposed adding anabolic steroids to the Controlled Substances Act. At a 1988 hearing, the DEA's Gene Haislip argued that steroids did not share the "principally psychoactive" quality of other scheduled drugs, and were mostly used "to develop muscles, to increase physical performance, and perhaps simply to look good and appear to be more attractive to the opposite sex." Haislip also didn't want to add to the DEA's workload. "We do, in fact, have our hands full with some other problems."
But both Congress and sporting bodies saw steroids as a problem. And so in 1990, when Congress added anabolic steroids to the Controlled Substances Act, they were put in Schedule III, rather than Schedule I or II. That's a crucial distinction, because unlike drugs labeled Schedule I—a category that contains marijuana, psilocybin, and LSD, among others—doctors can prescribe, pharmacists can sell, and patients can legally possess Schedule III drugs.
In 1988, domestic sales of legal testosterone were roughly $18 million, according to a 2002 Institute of Medicine survey. By 1999, the market was $100 million. Between 1999 and 2002, the number of testosterone prescriptions written in the U.S. each year more than doubled, from 648,000 to 1.75 million. From 2010 to 2013, the number of men filling testosterone prescriptions jumped from 1.2 million to 2.2 million. Today, the prescription testosterone market is worth more than $2 billion, and is expected to crest at $3 billion by the end of the decade. In its attempt to purge anabolic steroids from American culture, Congress paved the way for them to become an unremarkable fixture in the country's medicine cabinets.