March 2005: Steroid Users Only See the Big Picture
Steroid Surge: It’s not just pros more ‘average guys’ shoot up; Statistics reveal troubling trend: Ignore risks for bulging muscles. “I don’t think we know the scope.”
26 March 2005 – Toronto Star
By Morgan Campbell
Remy poked a needle into the vial of testosterone enanthate and drew out 300 milligrams. Then he did the same with Equipoise, pulling 150 mg this time, and let the two drugs mix in the syringe. He had heard shooting testosterone on its own makes you sore at the spot you inject.
Remy had weighed the risks – hair loss, mood swings, the growth of breasts – but he had also weighed himself, and thought he needed to squeeze a few more pounds of muscle onto his 5-foot-7 frame.
Alone in his Oakville apartment, needle poised inches from his skin, Remy, who doesn’t want his real name published, didn’t even feel nervous. He just fantasized about how his physique would blossom over the next 12 weeks.
He soaked a cotton swab in alcohol and sterilized the patch of skin he planned to inject. Then he sunk the needle into his right buttock and shot the drug cocktail deep into the muscle.
Remy, 21, had begun his first cycle of anabolic steroids.
Performance-enhancing drugs made international news again last week when Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco and other Major League Baseball stars testified about steroid use at a U.S. congressional hearing. Congress also heard from Donald Hooton, a Texas resident whose 17-year-old son Taylor, a high school baseball player, committed suicide after a long period of using steroids.
In Canada, journeyman hockey pro Dave Morisette published a controversial memoir earlier this week that alleged widespread steroid use in the NHL.
While the spotlight shines most often on professional and high school athletes who use steroids, interviews with public health workers, fitness industry pros and steroid users themselves tell a different story.
The average steroid user, they say, isn’t a pro ballplayer or a teenage athlete eager to reach the next level. Instead, they’re guys like Remy – people who weight train as a hobby and take steroids to achieve personal goals, to pump up their muscles and to inflate their self-esteem.
They’re in the city’s health clubs and on the Internet, where they can buy steroids and swap advice and anecdotes about using them. In web forums, protected by aliases, men speak about their “cycles,” and the best ways to deal with “gyno.”
They feel steroid users have been unfairly portrayed in the media and they’re eager to list their reasons for using the drugs, even if they don’t want to reveal their names.
Remy turned to steroids because he hopes to enter bodybuilding contests next year.
A Toronto resident who identifies himself only as Sam says he hit the weight room hard after a girlfriend dumped him four years ago. Lanky at 149 pounds back then, he’s now a solid 203.
Most others online said they used steroids simply because they wanted to be bigger and stronger.
In these forums, men come halfway out of the closet about their quasi-legal habit – selling steroids is a crime in Canada; possessing them is not.
Cecil McDougall runs Halton Region’s needle exchange program. It began in 2001 to help stop the spread of diseases like HIV and hepatitis among people who use needles to inject drugs. Over the past four years, he has overseen the distribution of thousands of needles, but most of them haven’t landed in the hands of heroin or cocaine addicts.
Instead, more than 60 per cent of the program’s clients are steroid users. In 2002, the program gave steroid users 7,972 needles, about two-thirds of that year’s total, McDougall said. As the program grew more popular that number jumped to 17,945 needles by 2003, or about 63 per cent of the total distribution. Numbers from 2004 haven’t been released yet. McDougall says the average user picks up about 100 needles per exchange.
“I was somewhat surprised that those were the numbers,” McDougall said. “I don’t think we know the scope of steroid use in the province.”
A recent study published by Health Canada estimates about one per cent of the population – approximately 32,000 Canadians – have used steroids.
Antonio, who didn’t want his last name used, knows plenty of them.
A steroid-free bodybuilder, Antonio runs a store in Burlington that sells nutritional supplements. The store is also a liaison between the needle exchange program and steroid users too nervous to show up at McDougall’s clinic. Users can drop off used needles and order clean ones at the store, which relays the requests and sends used needles back to McDougall.
Antonio finds a few common factors motivating the steroid users he meets at the store, and most times sports isn’t one of them.
“For the most part it’s guys in their 30s,” he says. “I don’t think they’re using for athletics. A lot of guys will complain about low testosterone levels. They say (using steroids) makes you feel more youthful.”
And once steroid use starts, Antonio says, the complaints usually stop.
“I’ve never talked to anyone who’s like, ‘That’s behind me and I’ll never do that again,'” he said. “They don’t talk about negative side effects. They only talk about the positive aspects.”
For the first few weeks of his three-month steroid cycle, Remy didn’t feel any stronger, although his muscles grew – a little. But he had researched steroids for months before he finally paid an Internet steroid supplier $200 for a 12-week supply. He knew that the combination of drugs he took needed a while to kick in.
And did it ever kick.
“I would go to the gym and I was not only pushing around a lot more weight than I used to, but I also could last a lot longer,” he says. “Once I finished the workout I felt like I could go back in and do some more.”
At the end of his 12-week cycle, Remy had gained 24 pounds of muscle. Once a 120-pound teenager who dabbled in track and field, Remy now weighs more than 180 pounds, and he loves it.
“My bodyfat is one or two per cent higher (than before the steroids) but it’s not really noticeable,” he says. “My muscles are thicker and fuller all around.”
That’s not a coincidence, says Dr. Christiane Ayotte, director of Doping Control at the Armand Frappier Institute in the Montreal suburb of Pointe Claire.
She explains that anabolic steroids are variations of the male hormone testosterone. When a steroid molecule enters a muscle cell, it prompts that cell to make more efficient use of amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein, and of proteins, the building blocks of muscle.
For Remy and other steroid users it means their bodies recover more quickly from the strain of intense training. The soreness disappears, replaced by strength and muscle.
But Ayotte points out that steroids alone don’t make your bigger or stronger. She says they only work in conjunction with vigorous exercise.
Most steroids have legitimate medical uses and are available by prescription, she says, but warns they aren’t meant for healthy people.
“Every medication has side effects,” she says. “Even with supervision it’s only managing the risk, but it doesn’t annul the risk.”
To prove her point, Ayotte highlights a list of potential steroid side effects:
*Females developing male characteristics.
*Gynecomastia, or “gyno” – growth of breast tissue in men.
*Aggressive behaviour, also known as “roid rage.”
Remy said side effects factored into his decision to take steroids but didn’t discourage him. He didn’t worry about baldness because both his grandfathers have full heads of hair. And he finds “roid rage” affects people who are naturally aggressive. On steroids Remy felt calm.
“You get a general sense of well being because you feel more confident,” he said.
Many steroid users who frequent Internet message boards say the media and anti-doping advocates exaggerate steroid side effects. They say freakish things happen to people who haven’t done enough research and who use steroids continuously instead of cycling on and off of them.
“The problem is a lack of education, not steroids,” Sam said. He claims the worst consequence of his steroid use has been oily skin.
“I have not experienced any side effects I couldn’t control with normal, basic stuff,” he said.
Ayotte doesn’t buy it.
“There is no controlled way to use steroids,” she says. “This is what we dispute.”
She says steroid users like Sam and Remy may consult other users, but they aren’t doctors, and probably aren’t aware of long-term consequences.
“It’s nothing based on science,” she says. “It’s something they experience on their own. There are many effects that we don’t yet know in young people. Don’t tell me this will not create effects 20 years from now. (Using steroids), you run the risk of not seeing what is at the beginning a subtle side effect.”
Remy thought it might happen, but he couldn’t see what went on inside his body about halfway through his cycle. Ayotte says every man’s body converts a small amount of testosterone to estrogen, the female hormone. When a male steroid user floods his body with testosterone, his system has more fuel for estrogen.
Remy couldn’t see that process occurring, but he felt it one morning in his sore, swollen nipples.
It was “gyno.”
If Remy didn’t act quickly, he risked growing breast tissue atop his bulging pectoral muscles.
“I freaked out,” he says. “I thought, ‘What if this doesn’t go away?'”
He sent $40 to an overseas pharmacy for 120 tablets of a drug called Novladex, an antiestrogen used most often to treat breast cancer.
He took 40 milligrams a day until his breasts went away, then another 10 mg daily until his cycle ended.
Remy doesn’t regret taking steroids. In fact, he will probably use them again within the next year. But he says he’ll see a doctor soon to make sure his hormones have returned to normal.
And he would never recommend steroids to his close friends.
“You’re going to feel responsible if they do it and something goes wrong,” he says. “You’ve got to treat (steroids) responsibly. Gyno can really creep up on you.”
If you’re a pro athlete who uses drugs to win, Rick Collins has no patience for you. And if you’re a teenager thinking about taking steroids, Collins would beg you to think again. But if you’re an adult American in legal trouble over steroid use, Rick Collins is your guy. He’s a Long Island-based lawyer who specializes in defending steroid users charged with drug offences.
He describes himself as “overworked,” and says his heavy load is due to a decision U.S. Congress made in 1990 to place steroids in the same class of drugs as cocaine and heroin. Suddenly, Collins says, athletes and “gym rats” who had used steroids under a doctor’s supervision became criminals. People faced jail time simply for possessing the drugs. The recent hysteria over doping in sports has intensified scrutiny on all steroid users, giving Collins more clients.
“Steroids have provided a shot in the arm to politicians seeking to show the public that they’re taking a hard line on drug abuse,” he says. “They have been the hottest topic in America when it comes to criminal justice. When was the last time you saw a heroin or cocaine issue in the media?”
Collins, who runs a website called steroidlaw.com, would love to meet a lawyer in Canada who does similar work, but he doesn’t know of any.
Canadian cops aren’t as aggressive on steroids as their U.S. counterparts. In Canada, steroids are Schedule 4 Controlled Substances, explained Staff Sgt. Al McDonald of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. That means importing and selling steroids are illegal and can bring a jail sentence of up to three years.
But they’re not a priority for the RCMP.
“We don’t investigate (steroids) unless it’s brought to our attention,” McDonald said. “We don’t have enough manpower and we have other, more important investigations on the go.”
Acting on tips from customs officers and Canada Post, McDonald says the RCMP seized 176,000 kilograms of steroids in pill form last year, along with 24,000 millilitres of liquid steroids.
Those numbers may seem high, but Remy still finds the border pretty porous. Last summer he tried prohormones – pills that were once available over the counter in the U.S. and reputedly had the same muscle-building effects as steroids. They were banned in the U.S. this past January but already illegal in Canada when Remy took them. Still, he never missed a shipment from his online supplier.
“Borders are easy to get through,” Remy said. “Customs is no problem.”
And neither are police once the steroids arrive.
McDonald says police can’t lay charges for simply possessing steroids unless they can prove the person plans to sell them.
“We don’t go after people for possession,” he says.
Collins admires Canada’s approach to enforcement.
“Canadians have a less stringent approach to drugs in general,” he says. “Canadians view drugs as a public health issue rather than a criminal justice issue. If you look at the American model, it’s a disaster.”
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