Online steroid culture reacts to recent drug bust

Tuesday, October 2, 2007 | 4:47 p.m. CDT; updated 3:39 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

With last week’s announcement of the largest underground steroid bust in U.S. history, federal authorities say they have put a dent in what is estimated to be a more than $400 million industry.

But users of the drugs, who live across the country and congregate online on discussion boards, say the government’s priorities are misplaced and that they are being persecuted for using substances that simply enhance their appearance.

The sting, known as Operation Raw Deal, targeted the illegal manufacturing and trafficking of anabolic steroids, mainly of Chinese origin. The operation resulted in more than 120 arrests and shed some light on the underground steroids culture. The message boards of sites devoted to steroid use were abuzz last week when news about the operation broke. Many users expressed outrage about the operation, and others warned people to be wary in their future exploits.

One member of these discussion boards, Greg Powell, contacted the Missourian after a request for interviews was posted on the steroid Web site That site has since been taken offline. Powell described himself as a member of the “upper echelon” of the online steroid community and said he “wanted to puke” when he first heard news about the operation.

“Probably 90 percent (of steroid users) are average, everyday Americans who work, pay taxes and raise their families,” Powell said. “They’re good people. They’ve got good hearts. What are they guilty of, trying to look better?”

Four people were arrested in the Missouri portion of the bust, known as Operation Juice Box. Bryan Greggory Wilson, 38, who maintains homes in Columbia and Kansas City, and April Dawn Wilson, 32, of Columbia, were charged last week with conspiracy to distribute anabolic steroids and one count of distributing anabolic steroids.

Along with the Wilsons, federal authorities also indicted Jason Ray Varner, 33, of Jefferson City, on possession with intent to distribute anabolic steroids. Mikal Gunn Schrage, 28, of Nixa, was indicted on the same charge, but investigators said the two did not work together.

John Wood, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, is prosecuting the four Missouri defendants under the Anabolic Steroid Control Act, which states that anabolic steroids are illegal to possess or sell without a prescription. Don Ledford, a spokesman for Wood’s office, said Bryan Wilson faces a maximum sentence of 10 years and the other three defendants each face five-year sentences. All four are free on bond, he said. The Wilsons’ next court appearance will be Oct. 9 at the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri in Jefferson City.

A market like any other

Estimates of the size of the underground steroid market vary. According to a report by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the market accounts for more than $400 million in sales of steroids in the U.S. annually. Roughly a million Americans use steroids, according to a survey cited in the report.

Gary Wadler, an expert on drug use in sports who works with the Montreal-based World Anti-Doping Agency, said that even school-age children use steroids. He estimated that between 3 and 4 percent of 12th-graders and 2 percent of eighth-graders use the drugs.

“It’s difficult to get any hard facts because the use of steroids is an illegal clandestine behavior. It’s drug abuse,” Wadler said. “Anyone violating the law is not going to self-report.”

Powell, who has been part of the Internet bodybuilding community for 13 years and says he has registered at more than 100 discussion boards, estimated the size of the community to be from 500,000 to one million people. He said he knows at least 200 people in his southern hometown who use steroids and aren’t active on the boards.

“I know more people who use steroids than drink,” he said.

Powell said there is a large demand for steroids in the Southwest, in places such as San Diego and Las Vegas, where much of the professional bodybuilding culture is located. But, he said, “it’s everywhere. There’s owners who’ve lived in New York, New Jersey. There are a lot of discussion boards whose owners are overseas.”

In December 2005, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced Operation Gear Grinder. That operation targeted eight steroid manufacturing companies, mostly of Mexican origin. The DEA estimated the companies’ combined U.S. steroid sales were $56 million per year. Before Raw Deal, it was the largest steroid bust in U.S. history.

Last week’s sting focused mainly on Chinese suppliers. DEA spokesman Tom Murphy said the operation’s impact remains unclear because the Chinese government is still deciding whether to go after steroids more aggressively.

“We’re just gonna have to wait and see,” Murphy said. “We have to see which way China’s gonna go.”

Powell said he believes the arrests will cause the steroid community to go further underground but that steroid demand won’t decrease.

“Because the demand is always gonna be there, the supply will always be there,” he said. “Somebody will always step up to fill the void.”

DEA Special Agent Don Mendrala said Operation Raw Deal will have a substantial impact on the underground steroid market, but he doesn’t think it will be the last steroid bust.

“China picked up where there was gaps left from other foreign countries,” Mendrala said. “They realize they can make money off it, and off you go.”

A Missouri connection

Investigators say the Wilsons, who divorced in June 2006, were the ringleaders of a Missouri-based anabolic steroid operation.

The couple owned and operated The Smoothie Stop, a fruit drink stand located inside the Maximum Edge Discount Sport Supplement Store, 2703 E. Broadway. The business opened in March 2005, but both federal authorities and Columbia police said the store was not tied to their investigation.

Powell said he got to know Bryan Wilson online through Web forums and had never met him in person. On the forums, he said, they never talked business, instead sticking to general topics relating to bodybuilding or health.

“He was always a very respectable guy,” Powell said. “He was always helpful with sharing bodybuilding kits, nutrition kits, things like that.”

Powell said Wilson was a “pretty decent lifter” who tried to help new members in the community.

“He gave quite a bit of advice on diet,” Powell said. “He was real patient, willing to help anybody out with any questions that they may have.”

Rob Rolley, general manager of Key Largo Fitness and Tanning, 16 N. Tenth St., said his gym does not condone the use of steroids.

“We do not support it in any way whatsoever,” Rolley said. “To my knowledge, no members at the facility use steroids. When they go home, I don’t know what they do in their own household.”

Noting that Key Largo has a larger proportion of women among its members, Rolley said steroid use is “normally associated with certain facilities with certain clientele. Guys that are into steroids tend to gravitate toward each other. They like to work out together.”

Ronald Do, an MU senior who was lifting weights Tuesday at MU’s Student Recreation Complex, said he doesn’t use any supplements, except for an occasional protein shake. Most students he knows work out to stay healthy.

Steroid users, meanwhile, have a far more intense approach to lifting and are easy to spot because the veins stand out in their arms.

“They think that getting big is the most important thing,” Do said.

People are “trying to be more attractive”

Investigators say most of the people arrested in Operation Raw Deal were steroid distributors. Federal authorities also seized 56 steroid labs across the country, 11.4 million steroid dosage units and 242 kilograms of raw steroid powder of Chinese origin. Most such powder is processed in unsanitary conditions.

“For anyone to have a vision of a sanitary laboratory is wrong,” Mendrala said. “They usually operate out of a storage shed, basement or bathroom.”

Powell acknowledged the conditions are a problem, but said the government is at fault.

“They’ve created the black market, they created the unsterile conditions,” he said. “Some of these guys are making this s--- in a kitchen sink.”

Mendrala said many steroid users are athletes who are trying to improve their performance.

“Generally people going after these Internet sources are younger, kids who are trying to make the high school team,” he said. “They are usually athletes or someone with a broad athletic interest.”

But, Wadler said, another motivation is simply wanting to look better.

“Our culture is to have a fit, lean, muscular body and people are resorting to these drugs to achieve that,” he said. “Most people think of it only in terms of bodybuilding, but it is also abused by those concerned about body image. Some people have an insatiable desire to be big. It’s on the opposite spectrum of anorexia.”

Powell agreed that self-image is an important motivator. Most of the people on the boards, he said, are either smaller guys “doing what they can to break the 200-pound barrier” or overweight people “trying to be more attractive.”

“It’s not the norm on these boards to have 280-pound freaks walking around,” he said.

Potential side effects

Steroids are available in tablet, liquid and cream form, though most users inject the substance intramuscularly.

Marilyn James-Kracke, an MU pharmacology professor, said steroids can have a host of potential side effects, including liver problems, the development of breast tissue in males, increased facial and body hair in females, acne and baldness.

“Testosterone-like agents are some of the hardest drugs to describe because they have many widespread actions on the body,” James-Kracke said.

Steroids can also have a major effect on a person’s behavior, James-Kracke said.

“ ’Roid rage, or male aggressiveness, is when a man can’t take no for an answer,” she said. “This can get them in trouble with the law. They may pick fights, have a quick temper and can be sexually aggressive.”

Powell said side effects of steroids are often exaggerated. He said steroids aggravate pre-existing conditions, instead of causing them.

“If you’re predisposed to being bald, steroids will aggravate it. Steroids can aggravate your cholesterol levels,” Powell said. “You have to know your family history and what you have in your genetic code.”

For Powell and many other steroid users, drugs such as heroin or methamphetamine should be a higher priority than steroids.

“Steroids aren’t as dangerous as many of the things that are readily available,” Powell said. “I’m sorry, but when was the last time you saw a ghetto anywhere in this country that was caused by steroid use?”

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