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[ Opinion ]

Should the US Follow the UK By Legalizing Anabolic Steroids?

By Sarah Morris

Say what you will about Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the 68-year-old former “Governator” of California has created one of the most diverse and idiosyncratic careers in show business. Going from a hugely successful body-building champion (a five-time NABBA Mr. Universe winner and seven-time Mr. Olympia victor, to be exact) to a Hollywood superstar and, most recently, the Governor of California for two terms, few people have finessed their appeal as well as Arnold has. However, what many people don’t typically think about when they think of “Arnie” is his drug history.

No, we are not talking about this drug history. We also aren’t talking about his surprisingly progressive stance on marijuana legalization. What we’re referencing is his admitting to taking steroids during his body-building career. Schwarzenegger described this period of his life by saying:

“I used steroids. It was a risky thing to do, but I have no regrets. It was what I had to do to compete. The danger with steroids is overuse. I only did it before a difficult competition – for two months, but not for a period of time that could harm me. And then afterward, it was over. I would stop. I have no health problems, no kidney damage or anything like that from using them.”

Although Schwarzenegger took steroids in the days when they were relatively new to the market and weren’t illegal in the US, he also estimates that the amount his doctor prescribed was less than 10 percent of what would commonly be taken now. In today’s world, the use of anabolic steroids, which are essentially forms of synthetic testosterone, is much riskier. 

The primary purpose of steroid use is to increase muscle growth and improve athletic performance, hence their use in body-building and sporting competitions. However, many long-term users can become addicted. In addition, the adverse effects of long-term anabolic steroid use can run the gamut from acne and breast development in men to heart attacks and liver cancer. 

Although once-legal drugs like steroids often become banned in many Western countries shortly after being released, anabolic steroids are not universally condemned. And despite the risks involved with anabolic steroid use, this may also not be a totally bad thing (though not yet an altogether “good” thing).

Legalizing Steroids In The UK

In England and Wales, for example, steroids have been classified as a Class C drug, meaning that producing or supplying them is punishable by up to 14 years in prison and/or an unlimited fine. However, unlike other Class C drugs, it is not considered an offense to possess anabolic steroids for personal use (even without a medical prescription). It is also legal to import steroids in person, but not to have them delivered. This legal anomaly has given rise to a lot of media coverage in recent years, especially given what is perceived by many as a general increase in the number of people using anabolic steroids in the UK and the health risks associated with their abuse.

By comparison, steroids have been illegal to possess, use, produce, or supply for recreational purposes throughout the US since the Anabolic Steroids Control Act of 1990. Punishments for violations range from state to state, but even possession offenses are sometimes considered felonies and can result in prison-time.

It is well-documented that steroids are not permitted in athletic competitions for a variety of reasons, which include health-concerns relating to over-use and the idea of steroid use as being tantamount to “cheating”. But the average American isn’t involved in professional athletics and doesn’t have any financial incentive to push the limits to overuse.

So is this just a case of the “nanny state” interfering or are there genuine, likely risks to users? What was the case for making steroids illegal in the US?

Associated Health Risks

Although anabolic steroids can be used to treat muscle wastage caused by treatment for diseases such as cancer with great success, when used without professional guidance and genuine medical necessity, abuse of steroids can have some devastating health ramifications. These can include, but are not limited to:

 – Behavioral Effects: Misuse of, and withdrawal from, steroids can cause aggression and anger (commonly referred to as “roid-rage”), mood swings, and delusions.

 – Psychological Dependency: It can be difficult for steroid users to go back to their pre-steroid exercise regimes when these will not yield the same results, and could actually result in them losing the muscle mass that they worked so hard to achieve.

 – Exacerbation of Pre-Existing Mental Health Problems: anabolic steroids are sometimes used by people suffering from conditions such as body dysmorphia and reverse anorexia. Although such users might believe that changing their appearance will improve their self-image, these diseases often have very little to do with the objective appearance of the sufferer. As such, taking steroids will only fuel these illnesses and, rather than providing the desired comfort, could also add a plethora of new physical health problems into the mix.

 – Physical Addiction: Those who stop taking steroids using a “cold-turkey” approach, rather than gradually weaning off them, can suffer from a range of withdrawal symptoms including insomnia, depression, anxiety, problems focusing, and decreased sex-drive.

 – Medical Issues: The list of associated risks is concerning and includes increased chances of headaches, high blood pressure and cholesterol, heart attacks and/or strokes, blood clots, liver and kidney tumors (potentially cancerous) or other long-term damage to the liver and/or kidney. Also, unsafe needle practices can lead to infections such as HIV or Hepatitis B or C for individuals who inject steroids.

In men, steroid use can cause the body to stop producing its own natural testosterone in an effort to rebalance hormones to more normal levels. As a result, it can lead to infertility, shrunken testicles, baldness, and breast development. In women, it can cause extra hair-growth or loss, irregular periods, a lengthened clitoris, acne, and a deeper voice.

Equally disconcerting is the fact that some of the evidence listed above suggests that anabolic steroids can become a gateway drug leading to opioids. A 2003 study of men in drug rehabilitation programs by the National Center for Biotechnological Information found that 25 percent of those who reported using opioids had also used anabolic steroids (compared to only five percent of those using other drugs alongside steroids). Of these, 29 percent had been introduced to opioids by their peer gym members, and 75 percent cited a form of anabolic steroid as the first drug with which they had injected themselves.

Steroid Use in the UK vs. Steroid Use In the US

In 2012, the BBC reported that recreational steroid use is increasing rapidly in the UK, with an estimated 100,000 regular users that year. Two years earlier, in 2010, the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs cited the British Crime Survey which estimated that 50,000 adults in the 16-59 age-range had used anabolic steroids in the last year, with 226,000 of the same age-range ever having tried steroids (0.7 percent); this represented a rise of 0.2 percent of the number of people admitting to having tried steroids in 2006. Other estimates vary, but there is general agreement that the use of anabolic steroids is on the rise throughout the UK.

Another common pattern amongst research findings is the change in demographics of users in the last couple of decades; with a move away from what used to be a reserve for adults, younger men and adolescents are now estimated to be the biggest consumers. This is particularly concerning as steroids can stunt growth in children.

A concerning number of US high school students admit to using anabolic steroids. The 2005 Monitoring the Future Study published results from studies done with thousands of high school students across a range of states between 1991 and 2005. The findings were separated into results from students in the 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-grades, and focused on steroid use within the last twelve months. Use was more common in older males and seemed to peak in all sub-groups between 1999 and 2001, with 3.8 percent of 12th-grade males reporting steroid use within the last twelve months in 2001 and 2002.

Although there was some reported decline in each age-group by 2005, in 2008 CRChealth.com reported that 2.5 percent of 12th-grade males had used steroids within the previous year, suggesting a plateau in use rather than continued decline.

To put these numbers into context, an average of 2.2 percent of American males in the 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-grades had taken steroids at least once in the preceding year between 1991 and 2005. Even if there had only been one million male high-schoolers in any one of those years, that would amount to 22,000 children having taken steroids that year. Considering the US population during that time-span, we would need to multiply that number significantly to reach the actual figure of young users each year.

So the use of anabolic steroids appear to be relatively prevalent in both the UK and the US. Permitting personal use of steroids hasn’t necessarily made a difference as to the number of users per capita, albeit that use may have increased more rapidly in the UK in recent years.

It might seem likely that the UK’s freer approach to steroid use would allow users to do so more safely. However, this does not seem to be the case just yet. NursingTimes.net reported a 42 percent increase in youth hospital admissions for steroid poisoning from 2004-2009, and there is a multitude of reports of serious illnesses ranging from cancer to heart attacks which are believed to have been caused by steroid abuse.

Why Legalization Doesn’t = Safer Use in the UK

Unfortunately, since it is illegal to import anabolic steroids without personally carrying them through customs, some UK residents are resorting to ordering questionable products online with no real knowledge of what they are administering to themselves. This could lead to a variety of other health concerns, on top of those directly linked to anabolic steroid abuse.

Perhaps the real issue is that the UK has not gone far enough to legalize anabolic steroids. If there was a legal marketplace for producing and supplying steroids with regulation as to strength and quality, would this reduce abuse?

This is not dissimilar to one of the many arguments that is often cited by proponents of marijuana legalization. In other words, if people are going to use it anyway, why not introduce it to ensure safer products and reap the benefits of taxation? After all, Amsterdam, Portugal, and an increasing number of US states have removed legal barriers to using marijuana socially, and Colorado has committed to spending a proportion of the tax generated from marijuana sales towards delivering drug education to youths. Perhaps the next drugs movement will advocate the same for steroids in the US?

However, the health risks alone make steroids a far more dangerous and unpredictable drug than marijuana. Overuse of anabolic steroids can very quickly lead to life-threatening conditions, and regulation would not address the biggest hurdle to combatting overuse: they are used by seemingly active, healthy people who others strive to look like. Unlike with most other illegal drugs, there is a common misconception that steroids can actually improve health.

Many of us who have tried to stick to a gym schedule know how difficult it can be to stay motivated, especially when results are slow and sometimes hard to notice. If we were to start a different workout program which sped up the process and delivered even better, previously unimaginable results, allowing us to look and feel great about ourselves, wouldn’t it be easier to stick to the regime? Or maybe go a couple more times each week, to see an even greater difference? For some people, anabolic steroids act just like that magical, non-existent aerobics class.

Exercise and personal fitness can be extremely psychologically addictive, too. “Just one more set and I’ll really feel the burn,” or, “I won’t get that adrenaline rush if I skip the gym tonight,” can hypothetically turn into, “Just one extra shot of steroids and I’ll look even fitter.”

To Be Legalized Or Not To Be Legalized – That is The Question

Making steroids legal would allow some who would never use illegal drugs to justify their use. Add that to the fact that we are constantly bombarded with the negative images of people who are deemed unfit, how could using a legal substance to help us get fit be rationalized as a bad choice? However, like any other drug that people will continue to be use regardless of their legal status, there is also a strong case to be made about it’s legalization. 

The negative effects of steroid laws in the UK cannot totally be used to justify prohibition because, frankly, it hasn’t become legal enough. In other words, until people are not only allowed to posses steroids, but are also allowed to purchase steroids safely and legally, we are not going to be able to ascertain whether or not these kinds of practices are beneficial.

The same case that is being made about steroids in the UK, for instance, can also hypothetically be made about heroin or cocaine, two other drugs with the potential for abuse. Portugal, however, had fully decriminalized these drugs 14 years ago and the results have been overwhelmingly positive. So should the US follow the UK in legalizing anabolic steroids? Perhaps the UK hasn’t made steroids legal enough to tell, and perhaps the UK should follow even further in the footsteps of countries like Portugal. Maybe then we would be able to begin tackling the drug epidemic once and for all.