How Congress succeeded in criminalizing the personal possession of steroids in opposition to all credible medical and scientific testimony
The Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 1990 (ASCA-1990) was passed when President George H.W. Bush signed the Omnibus Crime Control Bill on November 29, 1990. Its passage effectively criminalized the non-medical use of steroids by individuals seeking to enhance their athletic performance or to improve their physical appearance. The law amended the Controlled Substances Act to include anabolic steroids on the Schedule III controlled substance list alongside drugs abused for their psychoactive effects.
The ACSA-1990 authorized the arrest and prosecution of individuals who illegally possessed steroids solely for the purpose of self-administration. Prior to the ACSA-1990, only steroid dealers and medical doctors who illegally distributed steroids were targeted by law enforcement.
The passage of the ACSA-1990 was the culmination of a series of four hearings by the House Subcommittee on Crime and the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. The hearings began with the “Hearings on the Abuse of Steroids in Athletics” in July 1988. The goal of the hearings was to evaluate the possibility of adding anabolic steroids to the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).
Public health, medical and scientific experts overwhelmingly advised against the scheduling of steroids. The American Medical Association (AMA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) all unequivocally opposed legislation that scheduled steroids.
Gene R. Haislip, the Deputy Assistant Administrator for the DEA, argued that the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) was “poorly suited” to regulate anabolic steroids. The CSA was never “intended to be a means for controlling substances that are taken primarily for their effects on the physique rather than for their effects on the mind.”
The AMA repeatedly and vehemently proffered recommendations against such legislative action. The AMA was adamant that the “medical facts [did] not support scheduling anabolic steroids under the CSA.”
Dr. Edward Langston, a representative of the AMA, testified that anabolic steroids had multiple legitimate uses in medicine, they could be used safely under medical supervision and they did not meet the physical or psychological dependence criteria required for scheduling under the CSA. Furthermore, scheduling steroids would not reduce the use of steroids and society and would only increase the harms associated with black market steroids.
Congress was undeterred by the inconvenient medical and scientific facts standing between the passage. It was determined to add steroids to the CSA regardless of what health, medical and scientific experts had to say. If Congress couldn’t gain the support of the AMA, FDA, DEA, HHS and NIDA to legislate steroids as a scheduled drug based on public health concerns, they would reframe the issue as a question of morality.
Public health considerations became a secondary concern during the final Congressional hearings on the legislation known as the Anabolic Steroids Control Act of 1990 that occurred on May 17, 1990. The final legislation resulting from the various steroid hearings was transformed into one that focused on solving the problem of “cheating” and protecting the integrity of amateur and professional sports.
Congress didn’t bother to consult any medical or scientific experts during the final hearing prior to voting on the ASCA-1990. Rather it sought the testimony of athletes and representatives of various sports to discuss the morality of steroid use in sports.
The issue of “cheating” with anabolic steroids apparently represented such a grave threat to society that it justified disregarding all recommendations by he AMA, FDA, DEA, HHS and NIDA. The earlier testimony from these agencies was purposely excluded from the Congressional record of the final hearing.
Over twenty years after the bill was passed and vetoed into the law of the land, it is abundantly clear that the ASCA-1990 has been ineffective in addressing the issue of “cheating” in sports. The group of steroid users targeted by the legislative intent of the ASCA has largely been unaffected.
Professional athletes are rarely arrested, prosecuted, convicted or imprisoned for the possession and use of anabolic steroids. There has been no shortage of athletes who have admitted or been caught using steroids. But the ACSA-1990 usually isn’t applied to them.
The individuals that have been affected by the ASCA-1990 are primarily non-athletes, but otherwise gainfully-employed and law-abiding individuals, who use anabolic steroids primarily to improve their physical appearance.