Why are Steroids Illegal in the United States? The History of 1990 Steroid Control Act

It’s a theme that pops up again and again when discussing bodybuilding in the mid-twentieth-century. How did iconic lifters like Arnold or Frank Zane create their championship physiques? Was it all down to genetics? Hard work? Or was it due to steroids? What about a combination of all three? As someone who grew up on the forums of Bodybuilding.com, the success of ‘golden age’ bodybuilders was something that was debated on a regular basis.

Every now and then certain posters would begin to ask more interesting questions about these bodybuilders steroid cycles and what, if anything, such a cycle would do for them. Now the purpose of this post is not to criticize or endorse the use of anabolic steroids but rather to highlight a very real difference between the golden age athletes and the weekend warriors from the 1990s and 2000s. Steroids were legal during Arnold’s time in bodybuilding.

In fact, steroids could be obtained from a physician in the United States well into the 1980s before congressional law-making ensured that steroids became a controlled (aka banned) substance. Today’s article looks at the ban of steroids in the United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s – looking at the motivations behind this decision and, more importantly, its ramifications.

Why Ban Steroids?

No, I’m not being facetious and no, I’m not endorsing steroids. I am, however, asking why steroids were banned in the United States in 1990. We know from Dr. John Fair’s wonderful work on Bob Hoffman and US Olympic Weightlifting that steroids were being used in the United States as early as the 1950s.

In the early years of anabolic steroids, few people understood their benefits for muscle growth or, more importantly, their potentially lethal side effects. As Dr. Fair’s work makes clear, in some instances American weightlifters were unsure whether their strength increases were due to steroids or their experiments with hypnosis.

Moving into the 1960s, 1970s and even the 1980s, steroids were still available in the United States provided they were prescribed by a doctor for medical purposes. The importance of this pathway should not be underestimated.

Performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) were banned from the Olympics from the 1968 Games onward and while many countries still used PEDs in the following decades (and continue to do so), there was an awareness that drugs in sport were tantamount to cheating.

This left bodybuilding in a rather strange scenario. Bodybuilding was, after all, a sport defined by the endless pursuit of muscle. Steroids improved muscle growth and bodybuilding, unlike the Olympic Games, has a looser governance structure.

What I mean by this last comment is that during the 1980s and 1990s, if one bodybuilding federation decided to institute drug tests, as was the case with the 1990 Mr. Olympia, competitors could simply move to a federation that didn’t test for drugs. This, incidentally, did happen when bodybuilders joined the WBF in 1991.

So if athletes were banned from taking PEDS in their respective sports, and bodybuilding existed in a gray zone, why did the US government decide to ban drugs outright in 1990?

The answer lies in two areas – doctors bending the rules, and high profile drug stories. Regarding the former, we know that by the 1980s, several doctors were being criticized, and even investigated, for their steroid prescriptions to athletes.

One such example was Dr. Robert Kerr, a physician who, in 1982, published a book entitled The Practical Use of Anabolic Steroids With Athletes. In the book, Kerr claimed to have  treated more than 4,000 athletes from 20 countries with PEDs. Kerr, and many of his contemporaries operating within this space, began to incur a great deal of media attention during the 1980s for his steroid prescriptions.

Concurrent with Kerr and others prescriptions, were several high profile drug cases in North America. While most people are probably familiar with Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson’s failed drug test at the 1988 Olympic Games, Johnson was just one of many athletes caught using PEDs during this time.

Concurrent with Johnson’s failed drug test at the Olympic Games, was a general media scare in the United States about anabolic steroids and the possibility that teenagers and young men may be abusing them for reasons of vanity.

This was, of course, also caught in with President Ronald Reagan‘s decision to announce a ‘War on Drugs’ during the 1980s. Although steroids could be obtained with a subscription there was a growing underground drug trade going on.

The most obvious example of this was found in the form of Dan Duchaine, the man also responsible for the BodyOpus diet previously covered on this website. In the early 1980s, Duchaine published his Underground Steroid Handbook and, by the end of the decade, was known in the media as the ‘steroid guru.’

All of this is my rather labored way of saying that by the end of the 1980s anabolic steroids, and PEDs in general, were under increasing media scrutiny. They were still influencing Olympic sports, they seemed to be a treat to teenagers and men at large, and doctors were acting in bad faith by prescribing them to physicians.

The End of (Legal) Steroids in America

After two years of Congressional hearings and debates, a decision was made in 1990 to formally end the legal use of steroids in the United States. In doing so, the Controlled Substances Act was amended to included anabolic steroids with very strict understandings as to what was, and was not, illegal.

It was a great day for those opposed to the use of anabolic steroids but not everyone was happy. In a wonderful breakdown from steroidlaw.com the author made clear the objections from some including the ‘FDA, DEA and the National Institute on Drug Abuse recommended against making steroids a controlled substance.’

Their reasoning was simple. To be on counted under the Controlled Substances Act, steroids needed to produce some form of physical dependence or psychological, which these bodies felt was not yet evident in the literature.

In later years, this would be one of many problems with the Act. Due to the very strict wording regarding what was, and was not, an anabolic steroid, the Act inadvertently encouraged individuals to market products that were legal, but were in essence anabolic steroids. Producers were able to exploit a loophole which meant that their very specific product could be sold legally.

One obvious example of this was the prohormone craze of the early 2000s, which saw prohormones sold legally in supplement stores before being banned as an anabolic steroid. When Patrick Arnold began marketing prohormones in 1996, he did so exploiting this loophole. Such loopholes were addressed with a revision to the 1990 Act in 2004 but workarounds still exist.

Equally problematic was the fact that the interest in steroids grew exponentially in the 1990s. Rather than curtail this interest, the Act sent the steroid trade underground with criminal results.

Speaking in an interview on this very topic, Rick Collins, a lawyer with experience in steroid law, made clear the implications of criminalizing anabolic steroids

You had an influx of veterinary steroids and foreign steroids from Mexico and other countries. Then 9/11 happens, and you have a higher level of scrutiny over incoming packages to the United States—so these finished products get flagged by customs. Then you have what’s marketed today, which is the importation of powders—mostly from China—that are manufactured into liquids and pills by underground chemists in their own kitchens and basements. You slap on a label and sell it over the internet, on various websites or sometimes even on social media. That’s the market as it exists today. The quality control is more open to question. We went from regulated, FDA-approved products to unregulated, black-market products, which may contain little or none of the active ingredients. Or they may be contaminated.

The other thing it did was drive doctors and pharmacists out of the equation. It had a chilling effect on doctors being involved in any capacity, and it had a chilling effect on the users wanting to tell their doctors.

However well intentioned the 1990 Act and its successors may have been, there were a number unintended consequences. Whether such issues can ever truly be resolved in the internet age is the million dollar question.

As always … Happy Lifting!

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