I – PREFACE
This essay is frankly and entirely one-sided. I have no interest in remarks like “On the one hand this may be true but on the other hand that may be true and then again, who knows, maybe everybody is right.” I don’t like this wishy-washy approach. Better to be flat out wrong and even irritating than to be indecisive and maddeningly bland.
I will state right at the outset that I believe all condemnation of steroid drugs is a terrible mistake. I am so far to the left of even my most liberal friends that I will even defend so-called cheating, not merely the idea that the use of steroids should be made legal. However, this is a side issue for me, and not terribly important. What is important is that I will DEFEND three views:
- Whether the use of steroids is unhealthful or not, people do not have the right to deprive those who wish to run the risks access to these drugs. Steroid use should be legal and, at the very least, decriminalized.
- The medical evidence is not clear but the best indicators are that the dangers of steroid use are exaggerated.
- The argument that steroid users have an unfair competitive advantage over nonusers turns out to be superficial and false.
I lead off right away with the main part – a defense of drug use, regardless of whether or not the use of drugs is safe. Some portions of the discussion are a bit hard going but I think the patient reader will be glad he waded through it all.
Most physicians are very ignorant even of the medical literature that researches steroids, and readers should know that. Most physicians merely pose as experts when they are simply mouthing the orthodox slogans of the profession. Quite simply, this is not a nice thing to do.
Several persons have been very helpful to me in one way or another and I acknowledge their assistance. Foremost, perhaps, is Mark Holowchak, a former philosophy colleague of mine, an outstanding powerlifter and staunch opponent of steroids. I have made liberal use of Mark’s ideas as a backdrop for my own. Almost as important as Mark in helping me shape my ideas was Rick Collins, a New York attorney who is probably the most knowledge able lawyer in America on the subject of steroids and the law. Rick maintains a website on which he shares his vast knowledge with whoever wants to know more. Rick kindly read a version of the Gendin/Holowchak debate and offered enlightened commentary. Third, there are at least a half dozen bodybuilding experts who maintain websites on the pharmacology of steroids. Most of these persons are self-taught experts but, for all that, they know more about the medical aspects of steroids and related compounds than 95% of all physicians – and that’s a conservative estimate.
II – A SHORT PRELIMINARY
Mark McGuire’s admission in the summer of 1998 that he uses androstenedione created an uproar in the press and on TV. More importantly it provided an opportunity for us to think hard about drug use. We should not treat his admission as just one more occasion for a chorus of glib condemnation.
I will consider the two fundamental reasons why the use of performance-enhancing drugs is frowned upon. One reason is that the use of anabolic steroids is harmful to the user: the health risks far outweigh the potential benefits. The other reason is that those who use them gain an unfair advantage over those who don’t. The arguments given for these positions are profoundly flawed and I hold that the use of all performance-enhancing drugs should be legal. (As a shorthand expression, I sometimes use the word “steroid” even when I mean to include all performance-enhancing drugs. Performance-enhancing drugs is a mouthful.)
So much that is usually said on the subject is utterly banal and repeated so often that any fourteen-year-old sports fan can trot out the cliches and deliver them with the fluency with which he pledges allegiance to the United States. It is not easy to make headway against a view so well entrenched. In going against the grain I realize I deal with a prejudice that reason alone may not be able to overcome. Moreover, the philosopher’s way is not always so direct as one might wish. I will develop analogies and examine presuppositions and concepts that may make impatient readers grow weary. (For example, my distinction between habits and addictions.) Still, I believe patient readers will be rewarded. They will encounter interesting arguments and will never have their intelligence insulted. A final preliminary. I am no respecter of authority. The reader may be surprised at the vehemence of my hostility toward the medical industry. In any case, forewarned is forearmed. I hope the reader will not be “turned off” but actually come to share some of my disdain for those who think of themselves as “our betters”.
III -THE PATERNALISTIC OUTLOOK
Before I turn to the claim that the use of steroids is dangerous I must first address the general philosophy that lies behind this worry. This general philosophy goes by the name of “Paternalism” and it is the doctrine that certain groups – typically medical, legal, governmental – have the right or duty to look after the best interests of the general citizenry. The name is taken, obviously, from the term “paternal” which means “fatherly”. It is generally conceded, (and I make that concession myself), that parents should look out for their children’s best interests. In other words, a father should be paternal. However, we may differ about the age at which children gain “majority” – the right to decide matters for themselves. Most of us hold that this is a sliding matter. Thus, with respect to what books to read, children are their own masters fairly early. Whether to smoke or not requires them to defer to the authority of their parents for a couple more years. What makes the argument for parental control easy is that parents generally love their children. Parental control usually has as its motive the genuine concern of parent for child and is hardly ever motivated by a lust for control or power. Moreover, parents happily relinquish control gradually. Rational, loving parents are pleased to note the progressive maturity of the child. Their aim is to help make the child an autonomous person whose decisions are entirely his own, even though those decisions may be contrary to the personal philosophies of the parents.
Governmental paternalism and medical paternalism are in another boat. First, they are impersonal forces, unlike our parents. They promise to improve our lives but demand complete control over us – control that is never relinquished. Medicine never ceases to remind us how much freer we are from disease, how much longer we live, and even how much taller we are than our great grandparents were. It wants our undying admiration. Government never stops telling us that we are more civilized, freer from censorship, our economy is stronger, and we are better in this way and better in that way. It, too, does all it can to ensure us that its heart is pure. The truth, however, is that paternalism, whether in medicine or government, is never benign. It can never escape the suspicion that more is wanted than just the good of those over whom it exercises power. Even when he starts out with the best intentions the paternalist eventually goes astray. Thus, the celebrated remark of the great nineteenth century philosopher and political theorist, Lord Acton:
“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
In a telecast in March 1999, Henry Kissinger called power a sweet addiction. Each of us has borne witness to this insight hundreds of times. People campaign for public office on a promise of limited terms in Congress but eventually surrender to the joys of power and remain in office until carried off to senior retirement communities – still barking orders at nurses’ aides.
James Madison, the father of our Constitution, wrote in THE FEDERALIST, number 63, that attention to the judgment of others is important because, independently of its merits, any government plan must have the appearance of being wise and honorable. Indeed, appearance may be more important than merits. When Ramsey Clark was appointed Attorney General of the U.S. his father, Tom Clark, resigned from the Supreme Court. That Tom Clark could have continued to do his job admirably without prejudice is something I strongly believe. Unfortunately, that too many others would have been suspicious is even more certain. Thus Tom Clark did the right thing.
A good leader does not impose his will on his subjects but leads them by reason. He shows them respect and, in turn, they willingly agree to his recommendations, or they reject those recommendations. It doesn’t matter. The leader’s role is to be wise, not to be forceful. A good leader understands that the people may be wrong to reject his proposals but he understands, too, that they have that right. Paternalists fail to understand this basic principle of democracy. They are compulsively driven to make sure their subjects (or patients) do the right thing.
I believe in liberty. Indeed, I am passionate about it. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said the freedom of speech he wants to preserve is the freedom to say what the rest of us find hateful. Similarly, I believe that the liberty to do only what is safe and good is no liberty at all. This does not mean that anything goes. I believe in free speech but not calumny. I even believe in the right to suicide but not the right to throw yourself off the roof of a high building, possibly killing others and, in any case, surely making a terrible mess. For reasons I will give later, I believe in the banning of heroin and cocaine but not marijuana or steroids.
This nation was founded upon the importance of individual liberties. Today we look back on our history with some shame when we contemplate how long it took for black persons to have their chains removed. We look back with shame on how long it took to realize that depriving women of the right to vote was not merely depriving them of a civil right but treating them as less than human. In all corners of life we find, if only we look hard enough and with an open mind, other groups that are not taken seriously. Not all of these, of course, have the importance of those I have just mentioned, but a minority doesn’t lose significance because it is of small size or because its civil right is not a matter of life or death. Indeed, precisely because a minority is very small and its problems not earth-shattering, it may expect neglect and even derision.
One such minority is the anabolic steroid-using community. Possibly numbering one hundred thousand persons, possibly more but probably fewer, we don’t take it seriously. Battered by public opinion, steroid users are not visible as are blacks and women. Treated simply as cheaters and fools they exist as an underclass whose exact numbers no one can ascertain. The best they hope for is to find ways to circumvent the rules without being caught and it hardly occurs to them to lobby for revision of laws. I regard this as a great pity and an injustice.
In 1859 the English philosopher, John Stuart Mill, published his brief essay, ON LIBERTY. To this day it remains the very model of good sense on what the purpose of government should be. Early in his essay, Mill writes a paragraph that has been deservedly reprinted hundreds of times. It goes approximately as follows:
The object of this essay is to assert that the sole end for which mankind is warranted in interfering with the liberty of action of any their number is self-protection. Power may be rightfully exercised over a person, against his will, only to prevent harm to others. His own good, physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. Over matters concerning only himself, every person is sovereign.
In the body of the essay Mill argues for two things.
(A) He offers reasons for believing that normal persons are the best judges of their own best interests. He shows that those who set themselves up as our paternalistic benefactors are neither virtuous enough nor smart enough to be entrusted with the responsibilities they so eagerly assume. He offers sensible and powerful reasons for thinking society is better off as a whole by permitting its members to run their own lives.
(B) Mill also argues that liberty is a good thing in itself, regardless of its effects. I recall that some years ago there was a television commercial in which someone said, “Mother, I’d rather do it myself”. It was said with some exasperation, the implication being that the person would rather do it her way even at the cost of blundering than have her mother do the task for her and get it right. It is a feeling all of us have experienced. Even when you are willing to have a job done for you, it is YOU who does the relinquishing of control. You do not want it snapped up from you. Others should help you only when you have consented to their help. What is especially precious is the liberty not to have to conform to the values of others. So long as each of us, in the course of going our own way, is no wrongful hindrance to others going their own ways, no one may rightfully bend us to his will. What makes a true democracy great is not the simple right of each of us to participate in the political process but to have certain of our rights immune to the political process. We now understand better than our ancestors did that we may vote on whether to build a certain road but we cannot rightfully vote one way or the other on whether to enslave certain people to build that road. Democracy is two-pronged: the right to equal participation in decision-making processes and the right to be immune from certain decision-making processes. What we must do is apply this democratic principle thoroughly and consistently. That is not so easy as we could wish.
Paternalists think that Mill’s presumption that people generally know what is best for them is just plain false. They say that the average adult admits his dependency, even his inferiority, to physicians. In a thousand ways we are bombarded every day with messages that remind us of our inability to think for ourselves. A certain product is ballyhooed on television and finishes with the warning: “Only your doctor can say whether X is right for you.” even when using or not using the product is just a matter of simple common sense. We think about changing to a new toothbrush and are advised to “Check with your dentist first.” yet no dentist would ever admit he has not the slightest training in the “field” of toothbrushes. Physicians prefer to substitute “Tylenol” for “acetaminophen” and “Motrin” and “Advil” for “Ibuprofen” when they instruct their patients. They use the word “Metamucil” for every brand of psyllium fiber. Unfortunately, we do tend to accept this diminishment of our understanding unquestioningly. We take for granted that a dermatologist has expertise in shampoos and unembarrassedly tell our friends: “My dermatologist recommends Head and Shoulders over Inositol.” An honest dermatologist would send you to a hairdresser, who has hundreds of times more experience. He would confess not one word was spoken about shampoos in his six years of medical training.
Unhappily, people do thrive on authoritarianism. We do not bristle when we hear someone say he is doing such and such “on doctor’s orders”. Comfortably, we say “My doctor insists that I must…” rather than “My physician advises me to…” All this is WRONG! We are not children. We should not abdicate the right to be in charge of our lives, however foolishly we lead them (and we probably won’t). Let us agree never to use such cliches again as:
“You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to know that…”
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that…”
These slogans only reinforce the built-in arrogance that is part and parcel of these professions. Except for their specialized knowledge of brain surgery or rockets these people have no claims to being gurus. I was appalled when I read a letter in the New York Times that went something like this:
“As a cardiologist with more than twenty years experience, I am utterly baffled about American policy in Bosnia.”
He went on to say why he was baffled. Most of us would read this without a second thought. Surely if we had read the following we would have been startled:
“As a master plumber with more than twenty years experience in sewer lines, I am utterly baffled about American policy in Bosnia.”
So thoroughly brainwashed are we, that we can be amused or startled by the second while being oblivious of the arrogance of the first.
Our awe of persons with “advanced” degrees is misplaced. Awe should be reserved for God. Look, I have a doctorate degree in philosophy. I have been studying philosophy for forty-eight years – longer than most physicians have been alive. I am not being unduly modest when I say there is not much I know. I know something about a small specialty called philosophy of law, but not so much as you might think. What I have learned is how to think critically; I know how to retrieve information and utilize it. Intelligence is not a matter of having accumulated a vast storehouse of information. The same is true of lawyers, medical practitioners and rocket scientists. But what absolutely nobody knows is how other people ought to live their lives. If I want to know how to blow up a bank I may consult a demolitions expert but I wouldn’t ask him whether I should do it. I am depressed when I see a TV show on abortion which has a dialogue between a woman who had an abortion and a physician. Why the physician? After all, the abortion issue is a moral problem, not a technical know-how question. The physician is merely like the demolitions expert. He knows the “how”, not the “whether”. He may know the physical risks but beyond that he has nothing to contribute over and above what the master plumber with twenty years experience in sewers can contribute to the abortion issue. It is paternalism rearing its ugly head. When it comes to steroids, paternalists have found a cause that makes them exceedingly self-righteous. Consider the following example.
The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons released a “Position Statement”. After grudgingly conceding that steroids can be useful it said “their use can cause serious harmful physiological, pathological, and psychological effects”. What’s that? Psychological effects? Was that discovered in the course of fusing two spinal discs together? The Academy Position Statement continued: “When feasible, the relevant sports medicine bodies should implement aggressive drug testing programs to detect their use and impose harsh penalties…” Harsh, did I hear? Did the Academy send its members to a law symposium where legal theorists debated sentencing hypotheses and did these orthopedists then come back fully “expertised”? Why should we think that because the orthopedist knows the dangers of steroids (if he does) he also knows what penalties to impose for their use? Consider the following imaginary Position Statement by the Association of Master Plumbers:
“It has come to our attention that America’s sewers are being contaminated. Among the dangers are…[A list is given.] We believe in very harsh punishment for the offenders. As master plumbers we believe fifteen years of hard labor is more appropriate than the currently imposed schedule of fines.”
Ridiculous, is it not? We hardly notice the analogous nonsense of the orthopedists.
Paternalism is rooted in the desire for control and power. It is fueled by the belief that ordinary people don’t know what is best for them and it zealously promotes only what is puritanical. The paternalists always want to preserve ultra-conservative ideals.
Paternalists are most comfortable treating us like children. If we submit meekly in one area we develop an inclination to submit in others. If you accept your state legislature’s demanding that you wear seat belts it will be easy for the legislature to move on to shoulder harnesses. Later come crash helmets and eventually fire repellent asbestos suits. Actually, none of these strikes me as a bad idea but there is a much better way: give advice, not orders; try to persuade, not to demand; live and let live.
IV – THE PROPAGANDA WAR
The fuss about Mark McGuire’s use of androstenedione is particularly pathetic because androstenedione is probably worth less. In the first place, this so-called “drug” is not a drug according to the Food and Drug Administration but a naturally occurring hormone. It is readily available in health food stores and some supermarkets. Mr. McGuire did not sneak into ugly dope- saturated dungeons to buy his “drug”. Androstenedione is marketed in hopelessly small units (50 or 100 mg) and consequently is cheaper than cashew nuts. The International Olympic Committee, now followed sheepishly by several other organizations, has banned androstenedione. The ban is arbitrary and capricious. (1) Arbitrary, because the IOC has not done the same with other supplements generally conceded to be much more effective than androstenedione. Creatine is the best example. (2) Capricious, because neither the IOC nor the others believes androstenedione gives the athlete who uses it any advantage. Their own tentative studies have led them to that conclusion. There you have it: a legally obtained over-the-counter substance is now banned by several sports federations who don’t think it gives any advantage to those who use it. Here, then, is a clear-cut case of paternalism in action – you are deprived of a substance not because it is thought to give an undeserved advantage but because the banning gang is worrying about your health. Our “leaders” could simply send athletes notices that read: “WARNING! Current research suggests that androstenedione may be bad for your health and, in any case, probably won’t improve your performance. Use at your own peril.” (Last year, Javier Sotomayor, the world’s number one high jumper was briefly banned for using cocaine. Obviously this was because he was considered a naughty boy. Nobody thought using cocaine helped him to jump higher. In fact, it probably made him worse.)
Steroid drugs could have somewhat similar notices: “WARNING! Although steroids may improve your performance, the dangers of taking them are well-established. Among these dangers are gynecomastia, liver diseases, cancer, baldness, severe acne, decreased sperm count, shrinking of the testicles, unbearable headaches, and undesirable voice changes.” It might also mention the usual litany of side-effects that are found with every medicine including the contradictory ones meant to cover all bases such as insomnia and drowsiness, constipation and diarrhea. What else is new? Do we really need daily washings and scrubbings of our brain? There are, literally, dozens of steroids that athletes know about. They know which are injectable and which are taken orally. They know the possible and likely side effects of each. They know these things much better than 99% of all physicians for reasons to be explained shortly. We need a moratorium on brain washing just as we need one on control and power.
Athletes, no matter what their age, are treated disrespect fully because they too often act like children. Indeed, professional athletes readily accept contracts with clauses that bar them from criticizing officials even in the mildest manner and allow themselves to be fined for violating these clauses. In the past they permitted coaches to dictate the length and style of their hair. They are still told how to dress, especially when “on the road” for they swallow whole the unthinking presumption that they should be role-models – ostensibly for children but, in truth, for idolizing adults. Athletes may not fraternize with their opponents and baseball players may not bet on football games nor football players on baseball games. “Good reasons” are always given for these rigid rules but the fact remains that really good reasons work by the force of rationality. It is absurd that some person designated a “Commissioner” working at the behest of franchise owners is empowered to treat thirty-five year old men with families as children.
But athletes can be easily bullied only if they ARE what they are considered. Powerlifters, curiously enough, among the most easily bullied, now sign consent forms that go something like the following. (It is curious because, unlike professional athletes, they lose little by not surrendering to the bullies.) This particular example is found on all entry blanks of an organization called USA Powerlifting:
“In consideration of the acceptance of my entry blank…I agree that any testing method which the director of this meet uses to detect the presence of strength-inducing drugs SHALL BE CONCLUSIVE. Whether I think the results of the tests are right or wrong, I agree I have no right to challenge the results…I agree to pay any attorney fee and litigation expenses incurred by any person whom I may sue in an effort to challenge this release from liability. “
I doubt that this bizarre consent form would withstand legal challenge but I doubt, too, that powerlifters will offer a challenge. Officialdom counts on this meekness and its consent forms will, in time, grow bolder.
Now it is true that not all adults are fully informed of the risks they run by using steroids, climbing mountains, and several other things. Our duty is to promulgate the risks but that is the extent of our duty and, more importantly, the extent of our right. We should not say, “This is no good for you, whether you understand or don’t understand, and I/We won’t permit it.” This ugly way is a deep expression of arrogance but, worse, is born of a need to exult in power. There is great pleasure in telling people how to live their lives. As one who has spent most of his life exercising authority over students, I recognize, ironically, that it is a “drug”. I struggle constantly to keep this vice in check. I personally have known members of important sports organizations who are fond of saying how overwhelming is the work they must do. They whine about how underappreciated they are but they will not quit. The work MUST be done. “Fine”, I have replied, “I’ll do it; go take a rest.” They are wildly indignant. “You! Give up my post for you? It took me twenty years to reach this exalted position and you think I’d give it all up for a Johnny-come-lately like you? You must be crazy.” Indeed, I must be, if I fail to understand how delicious it is to be in charge of other people’s lives. The words of Lord Acton haunt the corridors of my mind whenever I hear these “good people” announce how heavy is the burden on their shoulders.
The National Institute of Drug Abuse (a division of the National Institutes of Health) is a particularly outrageous agent of propaganda. It puts out a series of childish, but very slick, glossy brochures called Mind Over Matter. The “heroine” of the series is a little girl named cutely “Sara Bellum”. Get it? She’s smart; you’re not smart – at least not until she gets done with you. Nowhere in the series does the NIDA ever use the word “use”. The implication is that if you have used drugs even once then you are an “abuser”.
Inside her three feet by two feet brochure, Little Miss Bellum explains to “girls” and “guys” why it is better to do pushups than to abuse drugs. Nowhere does the good Sara ever use the words “men” or “women”. She wants to be a regular guy, just like you and me. She wants to get “down to your level” so you’ll be able to understand her and also know she is being straight and honest with you. Sara has other brochures, too, in which she has plenty to say against marijuana, opiates, drinking, you name it. No doubt NIH is working on other brochures featuring an army officer, Sir Ebrum, who will point out that hard studying before exams beats cheating and who concludes each of his brochures with that wise, old proverb, “Cheaters always lose”. It isn’t as if all this is wrong; rather it is awful drivel, so insulting that only persons crushed by power or in the habit of bowing to authority would not recognize it as such.
It is important to say why neither steroids nor marijuana are in any way comparable to cocaine or heroin. The use of heroin or cocaine should not be legal but the other two should be. Steroids and marijuana are neither habituating nor addictive. The distinction between habit and addiction is often missed, even by so-called “health professionals”. A habit is a settled learned tendency to act in a certain way. “Habit” is a neutral term that does not give a clue as to whether the tendency is good or bad. Brushing one’s teeth is for most people habitual, and a good thing, too, but it is not an addiction. Whereas a habit is a settled disposition to behave a certain way, an addiction is a physical dependency to a substance. Furthermore, we never use the term “addiction” neutrally but to condemn, and this is how it should be.
Bad habits are maintained because, although it isn’t clear to those who don’t have them, they are immensely pleasurable. In habits, unlike addictions, it is the doing, rather than some end result, that is the attraction. Cigarette smokers enjoy the inhaling, the very lighting of the cigarette, even drawing the cigarette out of the pack. All these are elements of the pleasurable habit. What is “craved” is the very doing, the smoking and not the nicotine. (Prior to 1819, nicotine was not known so people could not have craved it yet they craved smoking.)
Addictions are different. A person who injects heroin into his veins does this too infrequently to acquire a habit. He probably does this no more than once daily. Some addicts do it no more often than three or four times per week. The addict is not interested in the action of injection. He is after the experience the heroin delivers. If he could accomplish the same end-state by rubbing heroin into his skin that would satisfy him. If injecting were his goal he would take injections throughout the day even if he had nothing inside the syringe. I have never heard of a person who was habituated to injections. When we say heroin addicts “crave” heroin, we mean they crave the effects the heroin produces. When we say the heroin addict is addicted what we mean is that he is chemically dependent on heroin and suffers terribly if deprived of it. Physical agony is the nature of addiction, not habituation.
Cigarette smoking is principally a very bad habit (although, possibly nicotine is addictive, even though, as I said above, it is never craved). The AMA and FDA and their allies in the “war” against smoking prefer the term “addiction” to describe the cigarette habit because “habit” is a neutral term and the propaganda war demands condemnation. Cigarette smokers rarely experience horrible withdrawal symptoms requiring hospitalization when they try to stop, but they do suffer considerable psychological distress. It is, surprising perhaps, how much harder it is to break a habit than to break from an addiction. An addict can be put into special surroundings to “dry out” and be made “clean”. This can be accomplished sometimes in only a week or two. If he is lucky, as few addicts are, and the environment to which he re turns is very favorable to normal life, he will stay “off” drugs without battling cravings. The cigarette smoker who “goes clean” (say five years without a cigarette) may remain in danger of falling back and must ever be on guard. One puff and he may regress to his old ways. Alcohol use seems to be both habitual and addictive. In the early stages of withdrawal, the alcoholic suffers a great deal of physical torment. Much later – say, after five years – the addiction is gone but the habit still lurks in the background. The alcoholic faces temptation even then, and is always in danger of falling back. But the important point is that this is so because although the addiction is broken, the habit remains buried in those neural pathways.
Now marijuana smoking is a recreational activity and the use of heroin, crack and cocaine are not. The typical social setting for marijuana use is at a party. Conceivably heroin and cocaine are recreational at the beginning of their use but not after the addiction is present. At that point, the heroin user seeks relief, not pleasure. Its use is now a very grim business. If marijuana were legal it would not be consumed with the frequency that cigarettes are because its effects are so strong that even the Department of Health and Human Services concedes that people don’t need to smoke it with the frequency that they consume cigarettes to achieve the desired effects. (“Marijuana and the Cannabinoids”, 1991 Third Triennual Report to Congress from the Secretary.) As with all other things, diminished frequency, diminished habituation. As it now stands, with the exception of some persons living in Jamaica, I have never heard of someone habituated to marijuana. But suppose I am wrong. A habit that is so underground, so immune to observation, that I know of no cases is hardly worth our bothering with. What matters most about marijuana is that it does not turn people into dysfunction al beings. They get up and go to work just as cigarette smokers do. About 19.4 million Americans are recreational users according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Marijuana users blend in with the “normal” population invisibly.
What the propagandists tell us is that marijuana is a gateway to harder drugs. This claim is dishonest, not merely wrong. The propagandists claim that most persons who use the hard drugs begin with marijuana. That is the extent of the gateway. The claim may be true, but what of it? What needs to be proved for the “gateway” argument is that all or most persons who use marijuana recreationally end up using the hard drugs. Since everyone knows this is false, the “gateway” argument is dishonest. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration estimates that 19.4 million Americans occasionally use marijuana and 4.2 million use cocaine. Perhaps 180,000 persons use heroin. One might as well say that buying an airline ticket is a gateway to death since nearly all people who die in airplane crashes bought air line tickets shortly before they died. Obviously the objection to buying airline tickets would have to depend on the “fact” (which it isn’t) that nearly all persons who buy airline tickets die in airplane crashes. Since the argument against the use of marijuana is exactly parallel to the argument against buying airline tickets we must conclude that the propagandists are dishonest, not merely wrong. They count on the fact that people will not notice the parallel. Indeed, many people do not.
The use of marijuana does not cause dysfunctionality but the use of heroin and cocaine does (and so do hallucinogens like LSD and PCP, inhalants like amyl and butyl nitrates, sedatives such as barbiturates and methaqualone and tranquilizers of various sorts). Conjointly, these result in about 485,000 emergency admittances to hospitals in a single year. That makes these drugs a concern for public health. Every steroid user would have to be admitted five times per year to match this horror. Heroin and cocaine users are a drain on social resources. More over, this destructiveness is further complicated by the desperate measures heroin and cocaine addicts take to get hold of drugs. They will kill and rob their own family members. They are immediate threats to society, not merely to themselves. That is why objecting to them is not compromising my argument against paternalism. There is no serious analogy between marijuana use and heroin use. There is even less analogy between steroid use and heroin use. Steroids are not even mildly habituating. Typical steroid users “cycle” their steroids. For example, one might use one’s favorite steroid for three weeks and then “go off” for two weeks. No cigarette smoker or heroin addict can adopt such a routine. Steroid users sometimes find their source has “dried up”, in which case they simply are obliged to stop. End of story. No mad shakes, no terrible cramps, no bizarre hallucinatory episodes culminating in emergency room admissions, nothing other than some loss of muscular mass and a lot of psychological misery. If the user runs out of money he does not wait desperately in dark allies to attack rich, little old la dies. He is done. End of story.
Typically, the steroid user may be injecting only once per week (it all depends on the particular steroid) and this can hardly qualify as a habit. There really is nothing to debate despite what “medical authorities” say to the contrary. If any “authority” says otherwise, ask him to compare the habituating or addicting properties of Deca-Durabolin with Anavar. Or how about Dianabol, Nolvadex, Equipoise, Cytomel, Anadrol®, Clomid, Halotestin, Cyclofenil, or any of another couple dozen steroids he has never heard of? Will he know which are taken orally, which via injection? Will he be able say how many times one can “abuse” this drug or that drug before acquiring a habit? In short, does he know anything? It is very unlikely he will know a fraction as much as several steroid “gurus” who willingly share their knowledge via Internet.
V – STEROIDS! JUST HOW DANGEROUS ARE THEY?
When you hear that steroids can cause this or that dread problem, what exactly do you know? We know aspirin can cause severe stomach distress. That tells you little and by itself doesn’t give you a reason never to use it. “Airplanes can crash and kill you.” is a worthless remark. What exactly is the risk? More information, please. Statistics, sir, if you’ll be so kind.
Yes, steroid use is more dangerous than taking aspirin – a lot more dangerous. But what does “a lot more” mean? In the famous aspirin study done at Framingham, aspirin was found to be a “lot more” effective than a placebo for preventing heart at tacks. The researchers called off the study for fear that they were depriving the placebo group of a valuable therapy. “A lot more” in this celebrated example meant 5% more effective. In other words, if one hundred people out of one hundred thousand who used placebos got heart attacks during the research period (over several years), only ninety-five aspirin takers got heart attacks. Most physicians don’t tell their patients the statistical story for fear that their patients won’t appreciate the math. But let me be kinder. Heart disease is a public health problem and not merely a matter of individual concern. A reduction of 5% annually in the total number of heart attacks that the American population experiences would be an enormous public health gain. Taking a global view instead of an individual perspective, 5% is no joke. But it is a joke when it comes to steroids. The main risks of steroids are not lethal. Even in his tirade against steroids, “The Consequences of Anabolic Steroid Abuse”, Dr. David Lamb, of Ohio State University, admits “Young people should be told that very few athletes are known to have become seriously ill or to have died from steroid abuse.” [Published by the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, an avowed enemy of drugs.] More over, the number of people taking steroids is so few that if every steroid user discontinued the practice the resulting drop in lethality would be trivial and there could be no marvelous public health gain. (My personal guess is that there would be one life saved per two year period.) Again, because the numbers are so low, the very substantial drop of 50% in acne, a particularly common side effect, would not be a marvelous social gain. (Perhaps there would be a drop from 4000 cases to 2000 cases each year.) And, of course, acne, a grave concern to those who have it, presents no public health concern since it isn’t contagious. The number of persons developing some form of cancer or heart disease because of steroids is not known but it certainly is too low to regard as a significant contributor to the public health problem. Cancer and heart disease are matters for public health because they put a tremendous strain on our resources. All of us chip in to maintain the insurance and hospital costs. Acne, shrunken testicles, baldness, and gynecomastia are not social diseases; they are matters of individual concern. Individuals need to know the statistics (which don’t exist) so they can assess the risks they run for themselves. The aforementioned Dr. Lamb warns that orally administered steroids usually cause abnormal liver function but confesses these abnormalities are usually harmless. He says “some” deaths have been reported. He says that “many” athletes have high blood pressure and also claims that “many” athletes have shrunken testicles. “Many” have poor sperm production. Athletes “have been known” to purposely crash their cars into trees under a “steroid rage”. Not a single statistic occurs anywhere in the article. Right now, government and medical policy is simply to alarm us about a risk that no one can quantify. Even if steroid use became legal it is doubtful that steroids would appeal to more than two million people. Marijuana appeals only to about fifteen to twenty million people and there is no reason to suspect that steroids could ever approach marijuana in popularity. So what is the danger to America from steroids?
I am raising plenty of questions about risks but I can’t give many answers. That is because the precise nature of the risks is not known. This is not remediable. The federal government has classified drugs into what it calls “schedules”. Altogether there are five of these. Schedules I and II are reserved for hard drugs with no medical use. I and II are differentiated by reference to power of addiction. Steroids are Schedule III because they have recognized medical purposes and are grudgingly conceded not to be addictive. As Schedule III drugs, steroids are not permitted to be researched for performance-enhancing effects. Such a purpose is not deemed medical. Moreover, not much research is any longer being conducted for their medical value. Recent studies have used very small sample sizes, precluding stratification by age, race, or gender. Some of them have not incorporated control groups thanks to the fact that legal reasons make it hard to randomly assign subjects to treatment or placebo when one is dealing with Schedule III drugs. [For details, consult recent issues of the journal, SPORTS MEDICINE, 1997 or 1998.]
A much more important problem in assessing the dangers of steroids is that more than half of “steroids” may not be steroids. They are obtained on the black market, most commonly entering the U.S. from Mexico. Impurities are the rule. Some times plain junk altogether replaces the steroid. Even if the steroid is pure there are dozens of them with very different chemical compositions and routes of action. So, when we learn steroids are dangerous, we need to ask, “Which ones?” And are we talking about pure steroids or “steroids” (either impure or altogether fake)? Moreover, the dangers of oral drugs far exceed the dangers of those that need to be injected because they must be processed in the liver before reaching the blood. Injectables bypass that route. Some users stay away from injectables because they are painful. They knowingly prefer the risk of the orals, which can be toxic to the liver. When we are told that steroids “can” be very dangerous, we are NEVER informed of the relative dangers of the orals vis-a-vis the injectables. Commonsense alone tells us that even among the orals, the dangers must be different – different with respect to what they can do and different with respect to the frequency of their adverse effects. Neither the medical world nor the government ever bothers to differentiate these – if, in fact, they have a clue about these differences. Every steroid user, however, knows something about these differences but his choice of drugs is not easy. First, given that he obtains his drugs illegally he takes what is available. Second, prices vary widely. Steroid users are not the wealthiest segment of society. Steroid users prefer drugs that cost under $250 per month to those that cost over $400. The steroid user knowingly runs the risk that the cheaper product may have something wrong with it. NO ONE has attempted to stratify the dangers of drug use according to price. Furthermore, different steroids serve different purposes. Some are intended to make muscles more massive; some are meant to make them harder; some to create a “vascular” look; others are de signed to enhance strength without necessarily increasing size. NO ONE has attempted to stratify the dangers of drugs according to their purposes. Some steroids are “stacked” with others to produce a multiple effect. NO ONE knows the extent, if any, to which the interactions multiply the risks. Another complicating factor is that competitive athletes may have to limit their choice of steroids to those that are hard to detect. NO ONE knows whether risks can vary with that. (Although it is known that one drug, at least, nandrolone, is very mild in toxicity but very easy to detect.)
To assess the risk of steroids in a fair way one would have to compare the effects of a drug used in an appropriate dosage with the effects of wild overdosing. I know of no such study and doubt there has been any. I know of only one recent case of a world class bodybuilder who died from steroid overdose – Andreas Munzer, who died in the spring of 1996, three years prior to the time of this writing. Moreover, it is a fact that Munzer used all kinds of drugs, not just steroids, in incredible dosages. Munzer’s case is well known in the steroid-using community. He had been on a death-defying track for about one year, stuffing his body to the tune of $6000 per month with common and exotic ergonomic aids of which steroids were hardly the mainstay. During these three years there have been many more deaths in several noncontact sports (basketball, for example) than have been caused by steroids. Contact sports have had many more. If steroids were legal, physicians would gradually grow more savvy about their use for performance-enhancement and, combining that knowledge with their knowledge of steroids for medical purposes, could be better guides than they now are. Undeniably, the risk of steroid use would be even lower than it already is. Everyone knows that any over-the-counter drug can be more dangerous than it has to be when taken to excess. Even vitamins taken indiscriminately can be very toxic. Why, then, should we be surprised if unmonitored, black market-obtained steroids are?
Before turning to the final section in which I discuss the argument from unfairness, I want to say a bit more about the ideological warfare. If the government wanted to allow us to make informed judgments it would present all the statistics it could marshal. It would not hide behind the idea that we poor “laymen” would only misunderstand. Thus, the first thing we need to know are base rates. Without base rates, all talk of “you are one hundred times more likely to die if…” is meaningless. Consider this purely hypothetical example. Suppose people who climb mountains are dying at the rate of ten per one hundred thousand every year while people who refrain from that activity die at the rate of only one per one hundred thousand every year. That is an enormous, statistically significant difference. But what is it really? Would you, if you were a mountain climbing enthusiast, consider for one moment giving the sport up now that you have learned the facts? To the contrary, you would take heart. You might have thought it was one hundred times more dangerous, not ten, and you are gladdened by the news. When you learn that doing something is ten times more dangerous than not doing it, this can be bad news or good news, depending on what your previous estimate was. You must first know the base rate for the general population before you can make sense of departures from the rate. In the case of steroids, since no one has base rates for many things we are being warned about, we are totally in the dark. Just how often do ordinary people get dizzy or get acne? So when we are told that steroid users suffer from acne, what exactly does that mean? Is it happening only to them? Is the increase 1000%? Not likely. 100%? I doubt it. 50%? Perhaps. And, what of it? Is the resulting incidence enough for us to declare, “”Wow! That’s too often for me”? Now some steroid worries are peculiar to steroids – that’s true. For example, gynecomastia (a swelling and feminizing of the breasts) and testicle shrinking. These are pretty much unheard of in the general population. Still, we don’t know their incidence in the steroid population. No one does. We have nothing to go on but anecdotes. We all tend to suffer from Addiction To The Dramatic Instance. In other words, we make too much of the cases we hear about. (“I know somebody who once fell out of an airplane and didn’t get hurt”, etc. We report the anecdote tacked on to a “You never know what can happen” with the implication that it happens more than you might imagine.) As it happens, gynecomastia is one of the most common unwanted side-effects and it occurs in up to 50% of the athletes taking certain steroids (but not most) but only in the unregulated climate of god-knows-what-is-really-inside-that-syringe.
Our government is not one that puts its faith in the public’s wisdom. It believes that secrecy is necessary in a wide variety of matters. Witness the fact that there are six million classified documents! Government maintains that national security would be compromised if most of these were made public. It does not allow impartial judges to make that assessment because it says that these judges, themselves, lack security clearance. Government is judge and jury of what we should know.
Given the hopelessness of cooperation from government sources, steroid users must, like critics of government secrecy, declare their competence in the face of astonishing resistance. STEROID USERS ARE KNOWLEDGEABLE. They have little to learn from physicians who are, for the most part, amateur dabblers in steroid chemistry. The very idea of a national institute on abuse is, to my way of thinking, an abomination. The very idea that a bunch of orthopedists should issue a Position Statement calling for harsh penalties is a disgraceful abuse of power and authority. That a bunch of bush league sports federations tries to court favor with major federations whose expertise is even less than theirs is depressing in the extreme.
Androstenedione has now been banned by most of these bush league organizations wishing to impress their betters. A team of Harvard biochemists is only now beginning to do research on the effects of androstenedione but the apple-polishers cannot wait for the results. Why bother? In their view jocks are just a bunch of jocks.
V – THE ARGUMENT FROM UNFAIRNESS
Some people use steroids and some don’t. Most athletes don’t. Many of the athletes who don’t use drugs are fond of trotting out the hackneyed objections they have been taught and memorized. They like to brag that they are “clean”. They like to say, self-righteously, “Look, I don’t care what you do; just do it in your own confines and don’t mix with us.” This, “I don’t care what you do” is just a smug way of saying “I’m right and you’re wrong; go away.”
This won’t do. It won’t do at all. Most people unthinkingly suppose something like this: “If a certain kind of behavior is illegal then it is wrong. Using steroids is illegal so it is wrong. Good people abide by the law and those who don’t are taking unfair advantage.” That is all there is to this slender argument. But if it were valid then any other argument structured like it would also be valid. Yet I think no one would accept the following: “If a certain behavior is illegal then it is wrong. Helping runaway slaves is illegal so it is wrong. Good people abide by the law, and slaves who escape their masters have an unfair advantage over those who get caught and are returned.” As most people should know, the infamous Dred Scott decision made it illegal not to return slaves to their “masters”. Thank goodness we know now know better. In the late 1930s and early 1940s in Nazi Germany, certain Jews were picked not to be sent to death camps because they pleased the Nazis in some way. That they should have been saved while others weren’t could be considered unfair, but was it wrong? Would it have been better had they, too, been made to suffer and die? No sensitive person can believe that. Thus, we must always consider whether the laws are right or wrong, stupid, cruel, or discriminatory, or in many other ways, moral failures. Suppose taking steroids was legal but using vitamins was not, and suppose vitamins are, as they seem to be, essential to good health and hence to superior performance. Now some people abide by the law and some don’t. Those who don’t abide by the law take unfair advantage of those who do but they do no wrong.
The great eighteenth century philosopher, Immanuel Kant, said no law should be obeyed. None whatsoever. This sounds absurd but it isn’t once you understand Kant’s meaning. Kant did not mean we should disobey all laws. That way leads to chaos. Kant claimed – rightly, in my view – that the most important possession of humans is their autonomy, the right to determine their own fate. Obedience is always the surrender of autonomy. But Kant distinguished between obedience – the blind following of law just because it is law – and conforming one’s conduct to the requirements of the law when one grasps the rationality and the rightness of the law. There is a law that we should drive particularly slowly in a hospital zone and most of us understand the point of it. Kant would say we conform our conduct to the law because we understand the rationality of it. Kant would despise anybody who followed the law blindly. Right behavior requires acting for the right reason. If I don’t shoplift because I know I am being watched by a store detective then I deserve no credit for conforming my conduct to the requirements of the law because I did it only to avoid going to jail, not because I grasped the reasonableness of the law that condemns shoplifting.
Imagine, if you will, Little Jack, a twelve-year-old child with below-average intelligence. His parents discover that a certain drug, associated with modest risks to his health, will raise his ability to study for hours on end as well as increase his powers of retention. The child wants to try the drug. The drug is expensive and not many parents can afford it. Would it be unfair for Jack to try it just because some other children can’t? Would you deprive Little Jack of the chance to become an average to above-average student on the grounds that his access to the drug was not shared by others? I hope not. Even if Jack’s drug is not legal and others don’t have easy access to it, there is no good reason why he should wallow in the underclass while waiting for a more enlightened age. In short, we must get beyond the hackneyed accusation of unfairness. We must get around the hackneyed accusation that the law is being violated. We must be certain that the laws are as they should be.
What should a competitive athlete do about substances that are banned by certain sports federations even though their use is not illegal? Assuming he rationally has weighed the costs and benefits of the use of those items and has decided they are worth using, then he should ignore the ban and quite simply cheat, if he can. Right now those substances are such things as androstenedione and norandrostenedione but they could just as well be zinc or selenium. A federation might decide these substances give an “unnatural” boost in performance and proceed to ban them. Athletes who continued to use them would be taking “unfair advantage” of those who abided by the rules of the federation but it would the ones who abided by the rules who deserved our condemnation for relinquishing their autonomy. What if zinc and selenium were made illegal by the government? The issue seems more complex but is it, really? To see why the principle is the same, consider more realistic possibilities. Suppose it is discovered that among the many “contaminants” in cigarettes is a substance essential to any cigarette and which contains an energy or strength booster. That would be the nail in the coffin for cigarettes, I assure you. Within a couple of months they would be illegal. Now, as a nonsmoker, I have no personal stake in the matter but I would be sorry about this. We already know that cigarettes are bad for the health and we permit people to smoke so long as they can do so in places that don’t endanger others. The fact, if it should turn out to be a fact, that cigarettes also contain a strength booster, could not possibly be a good reason to ban them if we haven’t sufficient reason al ready. Even more realistically, consider caffeine. The pros and cons of caffeine have been debated in the medical world for decades. Suppose, without any new knowledge to make matters decisive, the government makes caffeine illegal. How could it be that drinking coffee was right one day and wrong the next merely because a bunch of people voted, 51-49 perhaps, that henceforth it is wrong? Personally, I would not feel obliged to conform my conduct to the requirement of the law and would stock up secret stores of all the coffee I could lay hands on.
There is a curious idea that, generally speaking, if one person runs a risk that others refuse to run then the gains the risk taker makes are unfair. In general this just isn’t so. If I run the risk involved in all brain surgery in order to reduce my Parkinson’s Disease symptoms and you refuse to then I should be congratulated if the operation is a success. I do have advantages over my fellow Parkinson’s sufferer but those advantages are fair, not unfair. So on with a million things, in sports or otherwise. If a downhill skier dashes down a hill at what all his competitors regard as a stupidly unsafe speed and he wins the race, why should he be condemned? If the ruling sports federation insists that no one ski above 60 MPH but I do anyhow, I should be praised for my courage and you shouldn’t be rewarded for your docility.
So what about steroids? The law banning their use is wrong. That is plain and simple. That is the whole point of the call for decriminalization. Of course, one might want to decriminalize certain behavior even if it is wrong on the ground that there are better ways of dealing with “the problem”. But steroid use is not like that. It is a problem only because it is illegal. Nearly all of those who abide by the foolish anti-steroids rule have not examined the issue for themselves. There is no credit that attaches to blind obedience, and blind obedience is no basis for criticizing others. So what to do? Obviously, I cannot advise people to ignore the law for my advocacy could land me in deep trouble. (Harmless people used to go to jail for fruitlessly advocating the overthrow of capitalism.) Still, those of us who are in a position to scream out to the world, “That man did nothing wrong!” should do so. We need to be loud and vociferous. Calling for decriminalization is too timid because it gives the wrong impression – namely, that we accept the wrongness of steroid use as we accept the wrongness of heroin use but we only believe there is a better way to deal with “the problem”. I don’t want steroid use to be thought of as akin to heroin use, and neither do you.
VI – THE ARGUMENT FROM UNNATURALNESS
Sometimes the argument that using steroids is unfair rests on some curious idea about their being unnatural. Last year I received a letter from a young man – I believe a long distance runner – who was very angry at me. I had sent a letter to some track magazine defending steroid users. The young man was very proud of the fact that he was a hard worker who was achieving all he could achieve without artificial intervention. He told me in his bitter outpouring of emotions that I was a disgusting cheater, a physiological freak and a moron – and these were the nice parts of the letter! With due respect to the young man’s sensibilities, I plead not guilty.
The young man had no clear idea of what “natural” means nor why it should have any moral significance. “Unnatural” is a charge levied against most abused minorities. Homosexuals are told their sexual practices are unnatural. Women are told that to serve in the infantry is unnatural. Side show “freaks” who eat glass are unnatural and are therefore condemned as abominations. Racists claim that blacks have natural rhythm and actually hold that against them! So, in this case, having some alleged natural advantage is bad. So “natural” and “unnatural” cut both ways.
Now “natural” may mean many things. “He is a natural” said of an athlete means he is gifted and didn’t have to work hard for his accomplishment. Surely there is no moral virtue in that. A person who is a high achiever despite his lack of natural gifts deserves praise, not condemnation. When I was a kid, those who were smart without working at it were praised and those who worked hard to get good grades were nerds. As adults, I hope we all know better.
Many things are good that are not natural. We don’t want to halt technology. In track and field we now have fiber-glass poles instead of the “natural” hickory shafts of eighty years ago. No one would dream of demanding that vaulters go back to hickory. Once upon a time fiber-glass poles were state-of-the- art technology and precious few athletes could afford the “unfair” advantage they provided. Even today, Mr. Sergei Bubka gets his poles at no cost because the company supplying him with them wants to try out the latest and wants the good publicity that attends Mr. Bubka’s many triumphs. Technology cannot be halted and it shouldn’t be, for, in sports at least, eventually it comes around to the benefit of all. In 1928 a runner set a world record in the 100 yard dash but it was disallowed because he used gadgets he called “starting blocks” instead of digging “natural” holes in the ground. Within eight years it became illegal to dig holes in the ground. What had been an unfair advantage was now a requirement.
When Jacques LaPlante, the Montreal goalie emerged one evening with a grotesque mask on his face, players, officials, and fans were outraged at this display of synthetic unnaturalism. Today every goalie is obliged to wear face protectors. There is no doubt that the security and relaxation that he gained, gave LaPlante a definite advantage. In a word, there is nothing wrong with something merely because it is unnatural. Technology has also struck home in powerlifting where one finds the most outcry over steroids. The principal example is the use of the bench shirt, a shirt so tight that a person needs at least two strong men to help him don his shirt and it takes over three minutes. He needs the same help removing it when he is done. The shirt permits an initial thrust that allows the lifter to lift as much as twenty pounds more than he could do “raw”. How ironic it is that no sinister steroid has yet been discovered that gives the same pluck for the buck that this entirely legal shirt gives. The shirt is expensive and most people who do not use it choose not to use it because it costs about $100. Some of these people can’t readily afford $100 and so they bitch, under their breath, about “unfair” advantage. Crazily, the people running the lifting shows have capricious rules. You can wear denim shirts but not canvas or you can wear canvas but not denim or you can wear a single ply shirt but not double or you can wear double but not triple. Eventually they will have rules like “You can wear them on Saturdays but never on Sundays and you can only wear them on Saturday provided it didn’t rain on the Friday preceding Saturday unless that Friday was the last day of the month of June or October.” You think they won’t go that far and that I am being facetious? Maybe they won’t and maybe they will, and, in any case I am only partly facetious. Take a look at track and field. The Fosbury flop, (almost no one uses any other technique today), in which the high jumper goes over the bar backward, was invented by Richard Fosbury and Debbie Brill in the late 1960s but was inspired by a method the “authorities” ruled illegal a few years earlier. Certain athletes had discovered that by bounding back ward like gymnasts and taking off on two legs instead of one they could add almost a foot to their jumps. No new technology was invented. It was a matter of clever innovation but the powers- that-be didn’t care for it. It is still “illegal”. So get ready, boys for the Sunday ban on your bench shirts.
Advantages are sometimes called unfair because they may not have been earned. It is often overlooked that unearned advantages may still be legitimate. Genes yield unearned advantages. Most competitions are won because of some advantages that cannot be compensated for. Steroids do not work like magic. They give straightforward physiological advantages but the main advantage is that they increase the capacity for hard work. Take steroids all you want but never exercise and your body will still look like that of the skinny kid in the Charles Atlas ads – the one who always got sand kicked in his face. Does anybody imagine that if he matched Mr. Ronald Coleman, the reigning Mr. Olympia, workout for workout, supplement for supplement, he would challenge him? Even if you added steroids to your diet and he abandoned them, he’d still beat you. To think otherwise is as crazy as thinking that if you practice like Michael Jordan and use his fancy custom-made sneakers and he plays in street shoes then you will challenge him. Mr. Coleman’s so-called “unfair advantage” over the rest of the world has more to do with his natural genetic gifts. What he does to accentuate his gifts he does mainly because he likes looking the way he does and not because he has figured out how to beat you.
In truth, the objection to the “roid” look is aesthetic, not moral. Most people unconnected to the world of “iron pumping” find the look of exaggerated muscles very displeasing. To this, there is only one good reply: Don’t look! Who needs you? Some thing like 90% of people who pump iron in gyms are noncompetitors. They do like big muscles. They like to admire their muscles in the mirrors. Some people regard that as egomaniacal. The simple answer to them is this: “Good! Don’t look. Who needs you?” Since most bodybuilders are noncompetitors, no one can cheat them by using steroids. The steroid users like the way they look and the only reasons other bodybuilders do not use steroids is that they are afraid they may be jailed and they are afraid of the dire physical consequences the government propagandists promise will batter their heads (or else crush their testicles). Instead, they subscribe to bodybuilding magazines that are filled with ads for exotic supplements that promise them “the anabolic look”. Many of these ads brag that their legal drugs are better than steroids. Indeed, one company advertises a product as having “the feel of Deca”. This is a reference to the popular steroid “Deca-Durabolin”. I find this ironic and amusing for doesn’t it seem that if it looks like Deca, feels like Deca and works like Deca then perhaps it ought to be banned like Deca? Persons who use this product are falling into the trap of thinking that since one substance is legal and the other is not that it is okay to use one and wrong to use the other. I have already disposed of this fallacy. Furthermore, the fact that very few people complain about the advantage these expensive mystery products allegedly yield shows that the arguments from unfairness and unnaturalness are not taken all that seriously. I suspect the reluctance to use steroids is simply a mask for concern over their safety combined with a “Don’t challenge authority” mentality. If the public were assured that steroids were as safe as the “feel like Deca” drugs and they were made legal then all com plaints would cease.
Now, as I have admitted, it is true that steroids don’t succeed merely because they enable a person to work harder. They do have an ergogenic effect. That is, all by themselves, when combined with an exercise program, they enhance muscle growth. This seems no worse than enhancing mental growth in little Jack, especially if I am right in thinking their dangers are exaggerated. Hence any advantage they provide would not be unfair if steroids were legal. Since there is no good reason why their use should not be legal, the “unfairness” is as trivial as it is in the case of Jack. If steroid use were legal – as it should be – it would be each person’s choice to use them or not but it would not be his right to whine like a crybaby if he elected not to use them. The fact is that competition imposes high standards for success. As the means required for excelling evolve, the standards evolve. No one is required by law to compete; no one under goes serious social pressure to go to the gym and prove himself the best. If someone elects to compete then he should take his conditions as he finds them and not bellyache – especially once the conditions are legal and not underground. It is also important to keep in mind that if I am right in thinking steroids would be a lot safer if they were not black marketed, then fewer persons would refrain from using them. In time, as the technology became more commonplace, even fewer would find steroid use unnatural. After all, are there people left who nostalgically call for digging holes in tracks and bemoan the use of starting blocks?
Powerlifting, much more than most sports, has no real external rewards. Powerlifters measure their success one trophy at a time. Steroid-using powerlifters, like “clean” powerlifters, still end up in the red at the end of the year. Even in the world of bodybuilding, (which must be distinguished from powerlifting because money is at stake), where steroids are used by a higher percentage of athletes than in any other sport, athletes use steroids mainly because they like the effects and not because they are trying to keep up with the Joneses. Rest assured that if all the world used steroids except the top fifty bodybuilders, nothing much would change. Possibly the order among these top fifty would be slightly altered but they’d still be the top fifty. Does the word “genes” ring a bell?
Speaking strictly for myself, I would not hesitate to use steroids if the use was legal so that I didn’t have to worry about the risks that inevitably attend black market drugs. As a sixty-six year old man, without a prayer’s chance of winning any thing I am certainly not looking for “an edge”. Oh, sure, I might gain a trivial victory over the one or two other sixty-five and over men who, like me are stupid enough to compete. As it is, for my $55 entry fee plus $400 travel expenses, steroids costing $450 per month might help me get a trophy that probably cost the meet director $5. Whose business could that be but my own?
As things now stand, those who don’t use steroids are using every legal trick they know to get that “roid” look. (That includes me.) They spend so much money on their supplements that, if they added steroids to their budget they would hardly notice the increase. Here is a partial list of what they buy: creatine ($30/month); protein powder (recommended doses three times per day at about $2 per shot, when dissolved in milk – $180/month); androstenedione; 19-androstenedione; 4-androstenediol; 5-androstenediol; 19-norandrostenediol; tribulus terrestris; DHEA; enzymatic conversion accelerators; growth hormone stimulators; hormone-releasing peptides; you don’t want to know the cost of all these exotica. Then, too, there are high protein candy bars (“only” $3 each); superfuel drinks; testosterone “boosters”; yohimbine and a dozen other herbs; ten dedicated vitamin supplements in addition to the de rigueur multi-vitamin, and a wide variety of alphabet magic like HMB and others I can’t remember. Bill Gates should be grateful he is not trying to sneak around steroids. Thus, confounding everything is the fact that the majority of those “serious” athletes who don’t use steroids and bitching about those who do use them are using every conceivable trick they can come up with to gain the same results. Their means just happen to be legal. Big deal. Remember Al Capone’s wise expression “the legitimate rackets”, by which he meant to call attention to the fact that the government was no better than he was. Beware, self-righteous people. Almost everything on that above list is susceptible to capricious removal from legitimacy by the power brokers. Then, where will you be? Up the creek without a paddle. In the meantime I am considering having a T-shirt made to order for me. It will read:
USE STEROIDS OR GO HOME
NO CRYBABIES ALLOWED