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How Anabolic Steroids Became Controlled Substances

Q:   Why is possession of steroids a crime like possessing cocaine and heroin?

A:   Once upon a time, in the mid-1980’s, media reports claiming the increasing abuse of anabolic steroids in professional and high school sports came to the attention of Congress. Between 1988 and 1990, Congressional hearings were held to determine whether the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) should be amended to include anabolic steroids. In order to be placed into Schedule III, a drug must meet certain criteria, including that its abuse “may lead to moderate or low physical dependence or high psychological dependence.”[1]

At the hearings, representatives from regulatory agencies including FDA, DEA and the National Institute on Drug Abuse recommended against making steroids a controlled substance. Even the American Medical Association opposed it, maintaining that there wasn’t enough evidence at that time to prove that steroid abuse leads to the physical or psychological dependence required. However, Congress voted to classify anabolic steroids as controlled substances and President George H. W. Bush signed the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 1990 (ASCA)[2], adding anabolic steroids to the CSA. The law placed 27 anabolic steroids into the same legal class (Schedule III) as barbiturates, ketamine and LSD precursors. Individual state laws were then changed accordingly. Illegal steroid trafficking was already a federal felony but the ASCA made possession without a valid prescription a federal crime. Why did Congress ignore the advice of the experts and forge ahead with scheduling?

First and foremost was concern over the unfair advantage that steroid-enhanced athletes have over those who don’t use steroids. When sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his Olympic gold medal for doping in 1988, elite sports suddenly seemed less about hard work and sportsmanship, and more about who’s got the better drugs. Sports ethics became a joke on late night television. Somebody quipped that the steroid Dianabol had become the real “breakfast of champions.” Then-Senator Joe Biden gave voice to what Congress was afraid of: “…I think you are going to see, over the next several years some real backlash from the public about sports in America, from Olympians straight through to college sports, to pro sports. There is a feeling of resentment that is growing, and I do not know how it will manifest itself.” Empty seats? Lost profits? International embarrassment? The sports world just couldn’t afford another Ben Johnson scandal, and certain members of Congress were insistent on preventing it.

Another Congressional concern was “the message” that steroid use in elite sports sends to young athletes. Senator Herbert Kohl, owner of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team, emphasized, “But worst of all, steroid users set an intolerable example for our nation’s youth. Every time a sports hero betrays us through drug use, he or she also harms our children.” Elected officials are always eager to support efforts to “save the children.”

A third concern was the “diversion” problem – the lack of accountability by pharmaceutical manufacturers, pharmacists and physicians over their production and dispensation volumes. Congress thought that the CSA’s “paper trail” of records would provide enough government oversight to deter illicit trafficking.

Twenty-seven years later, has the ASCA succeeded? I’ve defended countless clients arrested for possessing steroids, often in state courts, but virtually none of them were the sports stars Congress was worried about. Sports doping (e.g., BALCO, MLB, Lance Armstrong, etc.) and teen steroid abuse both became more prevalent after the law was passed (although claims of a teen “epidemic” were overblown). As occurred with alcohol Prohibition, tighter controls on legitimate products ballooned an underground “home brew” market. The controlled substance stigma drove a wider gap between users and doctors, escalating the health risks that could have been avoided by medical monitoring. As one reviewer concluded: “By forbidding trained physicians from administering steroids in a controlled manner, [Congress] has forced athletes to either buy steroids off the black-market or seek out un-ethical and possibly incompetent physicians to supply them steroids…. [I]t appears that Congress’ attempt at preventing steroid prescription has at best been futile and at worst harmful.”[3] The truth is, most non-medical steroid users are neither cheating sports stars nor teenagers, but mature adults using for cosmetic reasons. Criminalizing steroid possession has resulted in the arrest of thousands of otherwise law-abiding Americans who’ve just wanted to look better on the beach.

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     [1] 21 U.S.C. § 812(b)(3).

     [2] Pub. L. No. 101-647, Sec. 1902, 104 Stat. 4851 (1990), amending 21 U.S.C. § 812(c) to include anabolic steroids. The law has since amended twice, in 2004 and 2014.

     [3] Jeffrey Black, The Anabolic Steroids Control Act of 1990: A Need for Change, 97 Dick. L. Rev. 131 (1992), at 140 (citations omitted).

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Reprinted from Rick’s monthly column in Muscular Development magazine. [© Rick Collins, 2019. All rights reserved. For informational purposes only, not to be construed as legal or medical advice.]

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