Busted: Legal Q & A

Zero Tolerance and Steroid Users

Q: What’s the best way to protect steroid users from hurting themselves?

A: Great question! But first let’s acknowledge the libertarian argument that the government has no business protecting mature informed adults from their own bad decisions, even if those decisions can result in them hurting themselves. We let mature adults skydive, mountain climb, smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol to excess, make food choices that cause heart disease and diabetes, and engage in countless other activities that may bear comparatively higher risks. Certainly, there are populations that do need to be protected more rigorously – e.g., minors. But why shouldn’t mature adults be allowed to use anabolic steroids to build bigger muscles, especially under a physician’s monitoring and when they do not compete in sports? It’s not an unreasonable question. Of course, regardless of what merits the libertarian argument presents, the laws and policies of most countries around the world forbid steroids for building muscle in healthy people.

In the U.S., anabolic steroids are controlled substances, classified in the same federal statute as heroin and cocaine; even personal “cosmetic” users are committing a crime for possession. In competitive sports, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency utilizes drug testing to deter or identify steroid use. However, in some countries, national anti-doping authorities work hand in hand with the police to target not only competitive athletes but even everyday gym members. In Denmark, a very aggressive approach allows anti-doping authorities to lawfully force individuals who exercise in gyms to submit to drug testing policies and protocols (80% of all Danish gym members fall under the jurisdiction of Anti Doping Denmark (ADD)).

In addition to collecting urine from gym members, ADD offers a web-based counseling service for individuals seeking information on performance-enhancing drugs. Those using steroids or considering using them can anonymously contact the service and ask questions about risks, side effects and safe practices. And that’s where a “zero tolerance” policy kicks in. Zero tolerance ignores individual circumstances in favor of an unforgiving, one-size-fits-all approach. Headshaking stories about zero tolerance policies have peppered the Internet for more than a decade, such as where a young child violates a “no weapons” school policy for possessing nail clippers or rubber bands or when “kids as young as three and four [face] charges of sexual harassment that will stay with them permanently on their school records” for common playground behavior.[i] However, zero tolerance approaches can do harm in other ways – such as in drug policies.

ADD has a fixed policy not to “offer counseling on which anabolic steroids are safest (or least harmful) to use and/or how to use them,” as noted by two Scandinavian researchers in an article published in Performance Enhancement & Health.[ii] “Thus,” they write, “no matter how determined the individual may seem, ADD’s consultants apply a zero tolerance policy and thus always advise not to use anabolic steroids.” The researchers then cite examples where such a just-say-no policy conflicts with policies that “at least in the short term could protect the inquirer and decrease associated health risks.… The question thus arises whether the currently applied guidance policy is the optimal way to secure individuals’ health in all situations.” For example, if an inquirer asked, “Is it okay to use 5,000 mg of gear a week or should I use a lot less?” the answer would be “Don’t take steroids” with no further guidance.

The policy is particularly troubling because the researchers found that most of the inquirers were not competitive athletes or experienced bodybuilders but ranged from “semi-experienced gym users” to novices – those most in need of information to reduce the risks of steroid side effects. Rather than applying “a somewhat detached zero tolerance policy” in every case, the researchers suggest a more pragmatic approach that would incorporate specific “harm reduction” advice by, for example, “aiming at lowering doses and increasing time off drugs.”

When it comes to steroids, harm reduction approaches should be on the menu of available options for appropriate cases. If I were to state a very broad rule about zero tolerance, it would be that zero tolerance is a stupid idea. It means zero intelligence, zero context, zero nuance, zero reasonable discretion. Of course, there are exceptions to every very broad rule. And that, my friends, is precisely the point that makes zero tolerance so stupid.

Rick Collins, JD, CSCS [www.rickcollins.com] is the lawyer that members of the bodybuilding community and nutritional supplement industry turn to when they need legal help or representation. [© Rick Collins, 2020. All rights reserved. For informational purposes only, not to be construed as legal or medical advice. Previously published in Muscular Development magazine.]

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