One morning in August 2007, Dr. Joseph Colao dropped dead of a heart attack in his apartment in Jersey City, New Jersey, at the age of forty-five. His sudden death set off alarms among the hundreds of New Jersey police officers and firefighters to whom he prescribed and sometimes sold anabolic steroids and human growth hormone. Prior to his career as a hormone supplier, his pain-management practice had declined, and he embarked upon a professional conversion many other doctors have undertaken into the practice of an “anti-aging” medical practice based on hormone replacement procedures. Like some of these doctors, Colao practiced what he preached, injecting himself and becoming both a “chiseled” body builder and a steroid evangelist who dispensed with the standard diagnostic tests in favor of simply writing prescriptions for a clientele that was estimated to number up to 5000 “patients.” “In the world of police and firemen,” said one of his grateful clients, “he died a hero.”(1)
The news that 248 cops and firefighters had been prescribed taxpayer-subsidized hormones based on bogus diagnoses went almost nowhere beyond the borders of New Jersey. The CBS station in New York City picked it up as a news item that did not warrant additional coverage.(2) National coverage amounted to an appearance on the Infowars website run by the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.(3) Even less conspicuous venues included hghwatch.com and the police website Officer.com.(4) In a word, what was by far the largest and best-reported cops-on-steroids scandal in American history was local news that did not warrant national attention.
“One of the remarkable anomalies of the anti-steroid campaign of the past two decades,” I wrote on this website in May 2005, “is that it has virtually ignored the many reports of steroid use by police officers in the United States and in other countries.”(5) Only two months before these words were written, a Congressional committee had pounded Major League Baseball’s unwillingness to confront its own steroid problem. Today, almost a decade later, MLB’s legal war against the thoroughly unpopular Alex Rodriquez has confirmed once again that elite athletes remain our society’s steroid-abusing targets of choice.
No thoughtful observer of our hormone-therapy controversies can fail to be struck by the grateful New Jersey firefighter’s epitaph for his departed hormone-provider: “In the world of police and firemen, he died a hero.” This inconvenient fact threatens in a fundamental way our society’s objections to steroid use by police officers: the risk of hyper-aggressive behavior, the troubling implications of officers’ knowingly breaking the law, the exposure of officers to blackmailing drug dealers, and the erosion of the public’s faith in cops who behave in this manner. As one editorial put it: “What is perhaps most important in this entire investigation is determining whether a culture of lawlessness and permissiveness that fueled the steroid use has become pervasive enough among the ranks of New Jersey police officers to potentially yield bigger abuses.”(6) In other words, is a steroid culture within a police department a quiet but corrosive threat to law enforcement itself?
Based on the evidence from New Jersey, some public authorities there did not think so. In response to the Colao controversy, a spokeswoman for the mayor of Jersey City questioned the medical fraudulence of Colao’s hormone racket: “the mayor cannot presume that the mere existence of a prescription for steroids that was written by a medical doctor and filled by a licensed pharmacy for a city employee is not medically necessary or otherwise a fraud.” Was it cynicism or naïveté that prompted the author of this press release to simply ignore the existence of doctors who write phony prescriptions for a fee? The Attorney General’s Office claimed that prosecutors would not have been able to prove that the police officers involved intended to break the law.(7) In short, the general lack of interest in prosecuting the steroid-using officers was clear.
In fact, in police departments across the country, lenient attitudes on the part of chiefs or review boards toward officers caught using steroids are the norm. In 2010, for example, the Phoenix Civil Service Board reversed the police chief’s dismissal of an officer who had tested at 90 times the department’s allowable limit for Nandrolone. “I am completely confident,” said the chief, “that if that was any other dangerous drug other than steroids, they would have upheld the firing, because with steroids, they don’t seem to hold that as a dangerous drug.”(8) This widespread reluctance to regard anabolic steroid use by police as socially destabilizing behavior helps to explain why every police steroid “scandal” up to this point has remained a local matter.
(*) Most of the information in this essay regarding the Joseph Colao scandal comes from the George Polk Award-winning series of articles by Amy Brittain and Mark Mueller published in the Newark Star-Ledger in December 2010.
- Amy Brittain and Mark Mueller, “N.J. doctor prescribed steroids to hundreds of law enforcement officers, firefighters,” Newark Star-Ledger (December 12, 2010).
- “Report: Late NJ Doc Improperly Supplied Steroids.”[http://newyork.cbslocal.com/tag/dr-joseph-colao/]
- “N.J. Doctor Supplied Steroids to Hundreds of Law Enforcement Officers, Firefighters.”[http://www.infowars.com/n-j-doctor-supplied-steroids-to-hundreds-of-law-enforcement-officers-firefighters/]
- “Anti-Aging Docs Dying Young.”[http://hghwatch.com/antiagingdocsdieyoung.html]; [http://forums.officer.com/forums/archive/index.php/t-157737.html].
- John Hoberman, “Dopers in Uniform: Cops on Steroids” (May 22, 2005).[https://thinksteroids.com/articles/dopers-uniform-cops-steroids/]
- “Police steroid scandal could signal deeper institutional woes,” myCentralJersey.com (December 20, 2010).[http://www.app.com/article/CN/20101220/OPINION03/12200310/Police-steroid-scandal-could-signal-deeper-institutional-woes]
- “N.J. taxpayers get bill for millions in steroid, growth hormone prescriptions for cops,” Newark Star-Ledger (December 13, 2010).
- “Phoenix officer gets 30-day suspension in steroid case,” The Arizona Republic (July 12, 2010).[http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/2010/07/11/20100711phoenix-officer-steroids-rattlers.html]