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Mike first began experiencing symptoms within months of returning from the first Gulf War in 1992. They started with the headaches, then muscle cramps and diarrhea -- each one debilitating, together pure hell.

As an athlete and health nut, he wasn't used to feeling so sick, so depleted. After all, he'd joined the Navy's elite SEAL training precisely to test himself against the hardest the armed services had to offer. Unfortunately, Mike had been injured halfway through the program and was forced to finish his duty as a regular enlistee; still, he worked hard and took care of himself.

But by 1993, the mysterious sickness was exacting a brutal toll. Because of the pain and endless trips to the bathroom, Mike's body was caving in on itself. When he entered the military, Mike weighed a solid 210 pounds, packed densely onto his 5' 8" frame. Two years after he'd been discharged from the Navy, he was an anemic 120 pounds.

The Georgia native had been stationed at Buckley's Naval Space Command, so he decided to stay in Colorado. (Mike asked that his last name not be used for this story.) He went to Kaiser Permanente as well as Veterans Affairs doctors for answers, but tests were inconclusive. On paper, Mike was as healthy as anyone. Still, many days he had to choke down eighteen Imodium tablets just to make it through his thirty-minute commute to work. It was painful and depressing.

So he did what anyone with an inexplicable illness does these days: He logged on to the Internet and began surfing. Soon he made his own diagnosis -- and prescribed a cure. "I'd played a lot of sports when I was young," Mike says, "so I knew about steroids."

Testosterone seemed promising. The male hormone, injected in the right amounts, could stop the dizziness and dry up his insides, he learned. Mike's wife, an intensive-care nurse, saw the research, too, and together they decided that, if he was careful, he could use steroids without a health problem.

Although possessing anabolic steroids is illegal, Mike discovered that finding someone to sell him the drugs was a cinch -- not much different from ordering a book online. Cruising a message board on a steroid-friendly site in 1997, Mike hooked up with a Florida guy willing to ship him the meds: Deca-Durabolin and testosterone. He sent the payments by wire, and his remedy arrived without a hitch.

Mike's symptoms disappeared practically overnight. His weight -- much of it muscle -- flew back on. Before the fix, he could barely make it through the day; now he was preparing for local bodybuilding competitions. Between shows, he tipped the scales at a cut 220, with a super-lean 10 percent body fat. But with a strict diet, intense workouts and the Deca, Mike's show weight dropped to a ripped 185 pounds. His body fat measured about 3 percent.

Over the past year or so, new tales of steroid use among athletes have popped up almost daily. Professional sports organizations, all of which specifically prohibit steroid use, have struggled to convince their players not to take the drugs by threatening a range of penalties, mostly aimed at the pocketbook.

Based on a player's per-game compensation, the penalties can be expensive. Yet one factor that is often overlooked in the daily discussions of the drugs and their effect on sports is that not only are steroids prohibited by athletic organizations, but they're illegal to possess -- just like cocaine and pot and meth.

In the vast majority of cases, steroid users are not prosecuted criminally. An informal survey of Front Range drug-enforcement agencies turned up fewer than a dozen cases in the past several years. One reason for the slim files seems to be a lingering ambivalence about whether steroids, when used by capable adults, are such a bad thing. Although drugs that mimic the effects of the male hormone testosterone have been used to enhance the size and strength of the human body for more than half a century, steroids have been considered illegal in the United States for fewer than fifteen years. And the decision to criminalize them was far from unanimous.

Ironically, the drugs' birthplace was inside the Olympics. In 1954, a doctor for the Soviet Olympic weightlifting team told his American counterpart, Pennsylvania physician John Ziegler, of the amazing effects that a synthetic form of testosterone was having on his bodybuilders. Intrigued by the possibilities for U.S. athletes -- and alarmed at the specter of them falling behind the Soviets -- Ziegler set to work. Four years later, he was handing out a pill he'd invented called Dianabol, manufactured by Ciba.

The use of D-bol and its descendants (Ciba stopped manufacturing genuine Dianabol in 1983) spread quickly among athletes. Despite the recent barrage of revelations of steroid use in modern baseball, recollections from players starting to come forward actually suggest that the drugs enjoyed widespread use as early as the 1960s. Over the years, steroids were also commonly used on the professional bodybuilder circuit, as well as in professional and college sports.

Such popularity notwithstanding, medical information about anabolics has varied widely over the years. In a 1977 position paper, the American College of Sports Medicine claimed that anabolic steroids had no effect on muscle strength or mass. Any perceived gains, the organization insisted, were merely the result of water retention. But those who used them knew different. In most instances, steroids worked like magic. A dedicated athlete new to the drugs could put on several pounds of muscle every week using D-bol -- gains that were otherwise impossible.

At first, concern over the drugs was limited to the physical advantage steroids gave their users. Many athletes on anabolics enjoyed an edge over their drug-free competitors. They were stronger, and they recovered more quickly from grueling workouts, which enhanced their gains even more. But in the mid-1980s, a number of articles began appearing in national publications suggesting that steroid use did more harm than merely creating two classes of athletes. The drugs were also, apparently, dangerous to one's health. Even more alarming, later reports indicated that steroid use had begun trickling down -- that a performance-enhancing drug once used exclusively by elite athletes, gym rats and muscle-heads had begun to appear in high school weight rooms.

Medical professionals and researchers still disagree as to how dangerous steroids really are to adults. Congress, however, decided it was time to act. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 made it a felony to distribute steroids without a valid doctor's prescription. The following year, the Anabolic Steroid Restriction Act also made it illegal to use the mail to transport the drugs.

But the statutes did not specifically target steroid users. In fact, when the subject was broached, several federal agencies specifically recommended against criminalizing the possession of steroids. In 1988, a DEA official testifying before a House subcommittee expressed the agency's hesitation.

A year later, a representative from the American Medical Association concurred. Speaking in front of the Senate, Dr. Edward Langston admitted that steroid abuse was a problem. But, he added, steroids were different from other illegal drugs. Citing one of the government's own requirements to list a drug as a controlled substance, Langston stated that "abuse of steroids does not lead to the physical or psychological dependence as is required for scheduling."

Other medical experts disagreed, however, and, combined with the emotional testimony of the many athletes who showed up to bemoan the tilt in the playing field brought about by performance-enhancing drugs -- sprinter Carl Lewis was a star witness -- the anti-steroids testimonies won the day. The Anabolic Steroid Control Act was passed on November 29, 1990.

The new law made it a felony to possess anabolic steroids -- drugs related to testosterone that "promote muscle growth" -- without a prescription, a crime punishable by a year in prison and a $1,000 fine. Those convicted of distribution of anabolic steroids could face five years behind bars and a $250,000 fine. Prior drug convictions, of course, could tack on many more years in prison.

In the years following the passage of the 1990 federal law, most states passed corresponding legislation that added steroids to their own lists of banned drugs. Those laws vary widely -- not only in terms of how they define steroids and which forms are listed as illegal, but also in how each state chooses to punish its offenders.

In Rhode Island, for instance, anabolic steroids and human growth hormone (hGH) are listed as controlled substances. Pennsylvania does not include hGH in its laws. Alaska and Vermont's state drug laws don't mention steroids at all. Colorado makes using steroids a misdemeanor -- but, curiously, possessing them is a felony.

With the testosterone and Deca coursing through his body, Mike's energy levels soared. The time he needed to recover between sets of weightlifting dropped as well. "My muscle soreness went down -- it didn't disappear, but it definitely lessened, and the amount of weight I could lift went up," Mike says.

And he wasn't alone. Plenty of other people seemed to have discovered the superman effects of the drugs, too. After competing for several years in local competitions, including the annual Northern Colorado Bodybuilding Championships, and getting to know many of the state's bodybuilders, Mike says he discovered that nearly every competitor was juicing: "Pretty much every contestant in competitions other than those advertised as 'natural' is taking steroids."

And in those competitions that insist they're drug-free?

"About 60 percent."

Mike felt and looked great. Despite all the warnings about using steroids, he had no health problems. To make sure things stayed that way, he found a local physician to collect quarterly blood draws on him to check his liver function and drug levels. Although his doctor knew what he was doing was illegal, "she was happy I was being honest with her," Mike recalls. "Most doctors won't prescribe steroids for you. They'll say, 'It's bad that you're taking that.' And I'd say, 'Yeah, I know. But can I do some labs to monitor it and make sure I'm not hurting myself?'"

If anything, life was a little too good, too busy. He was attending school to study computer networking while working full-time at a post office job, all the while trying to be there for his wife and new daughter. "I was falling asleep at stoplights," he remembers. Adding to the stress was the fact that money was tight; he just couldn't seem to make ends meet.

One night, while logged on to one of his steroid message boards, Mike began chatting with a student. The guy told him he earned some extra scratch selling steroids -- not a lot, just enough to put a bulge in his wallet. It wasn't hard. Just ten bottles of Deca, the guy told him, and he had an extra $300 in his pocket, a monthly car payment for a few minutes of work a day.

Mike didn't need a lot of convincing. He took out a $2,000 loan on his credit card. His Florida connection set him up with his supplier, and Mike took his first order. From there his Aurora home business exploded.

"I didn't worry a lot about getting caught," he says now. "Of course, you don't want to get caught. But these message boards aren't exactly private. Guys are way out there in the open selling and using. The feds have got to know about it. It just can't be a big priority for them, though."

Finding customers was a piece of cake. They were there in cyberspace, just waiting on the steroid message boards for someone to offer to send them the drugs. "Everyone's there to talk, of course," Mike says. "But they're all looking to buy, too." They weren't just muscle-heads, either. Models bought steroids. So did cops -- lots of them.

He didn't sell anything exotic, just testosterone, D-bol, Deca, the basic anabolics. He unloaded pills, vials. (Syringes are legal to buy in Colorado without a prescription.) He never hooked up with a customer face-to-face; it was too risky. Besides, he didn't have to. The Internet gave Mike complete anonymity. All payments were made by wire, through Western Union, which on orders less than $1,000 doesn't require identification.

The web also permitted Mike to charge less than an in-person dealer. D-bol can go for $1 a pill in a health-club locker-room transaction. Mike sold it for half that. He purchased his supply from all over: Thailand, Egypt, Pakistan, Mexico and Germany. Soon, he says, wholesalers were contacting him, trying to get him to carry their goods.

At the height of his business, Mike was answering hundreds of e-mails and sending out thirty packages of steroids daily. He says he was making between $60,000 and $70,000.

Every month.

On December 3, 2003, a dozen law-enforcement officers gathered outside the Colorado Springs home of a 42-year-old rental-car employee named Cary Tannery. They were there because of a small blue envelope that had arrived in San Francisco from Xiamen, China, three weeks earlier. Inside the envelope were 1,000 small white pills.

Steroids are still legal in some countries, so most busts begin at the border. U.S. Customs & Border Protection has seen a steady rise in the number of steroid seizures over the past decade. In 1996 the agency reported 2,988 seizures; by 2003, the number had more than tripled, to 9,664. (Last year it dropped to about 7,300.) "Most of the seizures are incidental," says Andy Rivas of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. "They'll do random checks of packages and maybe find something."

Still, at that point, many prosecutions simply stop. In some cases, the recipient of the package is sent a notice that his mail has been intercepted and found to contain a suspected illegal substance. If he's stupid enough to continue ordering -- and another package is intercepted -- or if the quantity of drug is sufficiently large, the case is usually referred to local law-enforcement agencies for further investigation.

Even then, nabbing a suspected drug user who orders through the mail is more complicated than it seems. It's a labor-intensive and exacting arrest. Some cases can take as long as a year to develop. Typically, the local cops, working with U.S. postal inspectors, must arrange what is known as a controlled delivery. A cop posing as a mailman delivers the illegal package to its address, and if all goes well, the intended resident accepts it. Several minutes later, more cops, accompanied by a search warrant, enter the place and bust the guy with the goods. If anything goes wrong, the charges often don't stick, and all the police work swirls down the drain.

The lawmen gathered in front of Tannery's door weren't about to make any mistakes. The Chinese pills confiscated in San Francisco -- later identified as stanozolol, the same steroid used so successfully by Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson -- had been overnighted to Colorado Springs. The police also started putting together the information necessary to obtain a search warrant for Tannery's house.

On the afternoon of December 3, Tannery picked up his package while being staked out by a police narcotics team. About an hour later, a Colorado Springs police tactical enforcement unit entered the house with guns drawn. Tannery was placed in handcuffs and read his Miranda rights.

Tannery quickly admitted that he'd ordered the stanozolol from a website, www.crownvicboys.com. (The site is still up, and its home page is hardly secretive: "This Web Site contains anabolic steroid oriented material." The page also includes this caveat: "If the use of Level III controlled anabolic + androgenic compounds are illegal in your country, then we advise that you adhere to the laws of your jurisdiction." Product descriptions and order forms follow.) The cost for 1,000 pills was about $300, which Tannery paid anonymously, using a Western Union wire.

Tannery insisted it was the first time he'd ever done anything like this and said he'd ordered the steroids only because he had suffered weight and image problems after his divorce and wanted to get back into shape. After a few more questions and a thorough search of Tannery's apartment, the police advised him that they were letting him go and that he'd be sent an arrest warrant by mail.

In addition to the logistical complications of completing a successful bust, many cops harbor a relatively casual attitude toward steroids. Building a steroids case means taking resources away from more immediate and serious problems. In the case of U.S. Customs, that could mean bombs or harder drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine.

Not only are steroid cases "kind of difficult to prosecute," admits postal inspector Rivas, "it's also not one of the highest priorities." Besides, he adds, his agency has discovered that often "the U.S. Attorneys just wouldn't prosecute," even when evidence was presented to them. As a result, Rivas says, he's heard of only half a dozen cases coming through the pipeline in the past year.

Further muddying the waters is the fact that steroid users, as a rule, don't cause as many problems as other drug users. Unlike junkies busted for, say, crack, those who juice rarely cross-use with other drugs -- or do much of anything illegal. "Usually these guys have very clean criminal histories," says one Colorado Springs narcotics detective who asked that her name not be used because she often works undercover. Cary Tannery had had only a single contact with Colorado Springs police prior to his bust, and that was for a traffic violation.

Even though steroids are considered Schedule III drugs in federal and state anti-drug statutes, they differ from those substances generally connected with the typical abuser. They aren't stimulants, or depressants, or narcotics or hallucinogens. They aren't really even considered addictive (though some health-care professionals have claimed a psychological addiction can occur). Juicers don't take anabolics to feel high; mostly they take them to look good. As a result, unlike many junkies, who appear unhealthy, dirty and stoned, those who use steroids often look hyper-healthy. You aren't likely to find steroid users prowling Colfax Avenue late on a Saturday night. They're probably at home, preparing for their Sunday morning workout.

Steroid users are also cliquish. They either use alone or with a very tight-knit group of juicer jocks whom they trust. "It's such a closed culture," says Steve Prentup, a lieutenant in the Boulder County Drug Task Force. "You've gotta be a bodybuilder sitting next to someone else [to catch someone using]. You've got to be in that circle."

Cops and DAs also concede that prosecuting a steroid user just isn't that satisfying. Last spring, Tannery pleaded guilty to possession of a Schedule III drug, with intent to distribute. He received a two-year deferred sentence and was ordered to complete 100 hours of community service.

If you've been busted for steroid possession -- and you're smart -- you call the Long Island offices of Rick Collins.

A self-professed "health nut from way back," Collins says he was a fairly active team-sports athlete as a child, "but when I discovered bodybuilding, I knew I'd discovered my niche." He competed successfully for several years in local bodybuilding competitions before starting his own personal-training business in the early 1990s.

"When it comes to muscle, he knows what he's talking about," says John Romano, an editor at Muscular Development magazine.

Collins worked as an assistant district attorney for several years after law school before leaving the government payroll and turning to criminal defense. In the mid-'90s he started combining his interests, at first representing a few acquaintances here and there on steroid-related cases. Eventually, he says, "steroids became what people came to me for." Over the past five years, defending those charged with possession or distribution of steroids has become the bulk of his bustling practice; Collins estimates that he's worked in excess of 1,000 steroid-related cases.

In the years immediately following enactment of the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 1990, he says, criminal cases against steroid users and sellers trickled in one or two at a time. But the stream soon became a river. Easier access to the drugs online was a huge factor.

"When the Internet exploded," Collins explains, "suddenly anybody sitting at his keyboard terminal in Denver could connect to a website in Thailand, where the laws are different. With a few clicks of his mouse, he could order steroids online to be delivered by mail within a few days."

Even today, years after the drugs were criminalized, dozens of websites advertise and sell them; others, such as mesomorphosis.com, steroidtruth.com and steroids-shop.com, provide detailed information on how to use them most effectively. The introduction to steroid-encyclopaedia.com is typically up front about its illegal products: "If you're thinking about using anabolic steroids, but want to make sure you do it safely and effectively, or if you're looking how you can access reliable steroid supplier information then this is for you..."

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center four years ago added to Collins's caseload. "Since September 11th, there's been a higher level of scrutiny of international mail parcels," he says. The result has been a greater probability of detection from Customs and postal inspectors searching for national security threats and, subsequently, a greater number of arrests.

The final factor that has goosed Collins's law business has been a burst of anti-steroids publicity, led, unexpectedly, by the president of the United States. In January 2004, George Bush took the occasion of his annual nationally televised State of the Union speech before Congress to condemn steroid use among athletes -- thereby equating the drugs' importance with the war in Iraq, Social Security reform and a host of other pressing national and international problems. In the past year, Congress has heeded his call, holding hearings on steroid use in professional baseball, football and basketball.

Every day, it seems, brings another revelation of steroid use among famous athletes. Barry Bonds may have used them; Mark McGwire probably did; Jose Canseco definitely did. Lyle Alzado claimed they contributed to the brain cancer that killed him at age 42. Despite the threat of regular testing, Olympic shot-putters and power-lifters have juiced with regularity. Bill Romanowski reportedly was on steroids with he bashed Oakland Raider teammate Marcus Williams in the face during a team practice. Newly acquired Bronco punter Todd Sauerbrun was identified in a CBS report as one of three Carolina Panthers who obtained illegal steroid prescriptions in South Carolina. Broncos wide receiver Adrian Madise and Rockies minor-league outfielder Jorge Piedra have tested positive for the drugs within the past year.

Yet it is significant, Collins notes, that none of these people -- or any of the hundreds of other famous athletes whose names have popped up in connection with steroid use -- have been criminally prosecuted for using illegal drugs. This despite the fact that keeping steroids out of sports was a driving force behind the passage of the 1990 law criminalizing anabolics.

"The media has presented two faces of steroid users: high-paid athletes and teenagers," Collins says. "But both of these populations represent a minority of steroid users. The typical non-medical steroid user is a 25- to 45-year-old male, gainfully employed; a health-conscious non-smoker who spends a lot of time in the gym. His diet is superior to the average person's, by far. And he's using steroids not to cheat in any sports, but strictly for cosmetic purposes. And, more often than not, he's also the one getting busted."

"I limited myself," Mike says of his booming anabolic steroid business. "I'm sure I could've gotten bigger if I'd wanted to."

Still, he didn't want to attract attention. The Colorado middleman tried to be careful with all his newfound money, spending it judiciously and in reasonable amounts. "You take trips, you pay cash for stuff, buy a car for cash out of the paper. A little work on the house."

A thousand miles away, though, Mike's empire was starting to crumble. His main supplier, with whom he combined and traded wholesale orders, was under surveillance by the Drug Enforcement Administration. In January 2001, the DEA raided Eric Stetzel's East Texas house, finding "large volumes of packaged and unpackaged anabolic steroids."

According to U.S. Attorney Randall Blake, Mike and Eric had "met over the Internet and discovered they had a common interest in steroids." Blake says they traded supplies back and forth. When contacted by the cops, Mike's partner rolled on him, and the DEA turned its attention toward Denver.

After several months of watching Mike's business over the Internet, the cops decided it was time to shut Mike down. The target claims he knew about it before they arrived: "I got a tip from a cop, one of my customers, that they were coming," he says. "I basically cleaned house. There was nothing here when they arrived."

Authorities had not failed to notice, however, that Mike was making an unusual number of trips to his local King Soopers to pick up mail from Western Union. Sometimes he picked up forty orders in a single day. And the one thing that Mike didn't purge from his house was his computer, which was seized and scoured for information related to Mike's drug business.

Together with the evidence garnered at Stetzel's house, the computer had just enough information on it to put Mike out of business. Although he wasn't arrested the day his home was searched, Mike was indicted in August 2002 and charged with conspiracy to distribute Schedule III drugs.

He agreed to plead guilty, and in November 2002 became one of the few who have actually spent time behind bars for steroids. In early 2004, he began serving a 366-day sentence in federal prison. He was released this past winter after serving ten months, most of it at the federal penitentiary in Englewood.

Today Mike works in the lawn-care business. Short and stocky, with clear blue eyes, he's lost some of his competition muscle definition and wouldn't stand out in a crowd; even so, he continues to push significant iron. He still takes steroids, but now he has a prescription. "I have naturally low testosterone levels," he explains. "Technically, I take it for health reasons. Of course," he adds, "when I start training again, there'll be people who'll say I'm taking it for my weightlifting."

Although he insists that he takes full responsibility for breaking the law, he adds that he doesn't consider himself a drug-abuser -- at least not in the traditional sense. This veteran claims he wasn't addicted and never knocked over a liquor store to feed his Deca habit. Moreover, he notes that he never suffered any physical or mental problems from taking anabolics -- and he doesn't know anyone who has.

"Steroid users put themselves in a different category," he says. "It's going to sound comical, but I'm not a criminal."

Five months ago, the latest anti-steroid law, the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 2004, went into effect. Unlike the old law, the new statute contains a laundry list of steroids that are specifically banned. (Included in it is tetrahydrogestrinone, or THG, the drug at the center of the BALCO scandal that has implicated many athletes in the San Francisco Bay area.) The law also makes several subtle but important wording changes. For example, it removes the qualification that steroids must be compounds related to testosterone that "promote muscle growth."

The enactment of the new law could unleash a wave of steroid-related arrests and convictions. After all, the last major steroids sweep -- a nearly three-year blowout called Operation Equine that eventually extended across the country -- occurred soon after the 1990 law was passed. Based on recent history, it seems more likely that police will continue to write up only those cases they stumble on, and little else.

Collins says he advises those seeking his counsel to not break the law -- although he's also happy to suggest ways to not get caught. Even so, that doesn't mean he thinks outlawing steroids was a good idea, and he never misses an opportunity to point out the laws' weaknesses.

"If the intent of the law was to eradicate steroids from sports, protect the public health and diminish the black market, how well is it working?" he wonders. "In the last fourteen years, would you say that steroid use in competitive sports has gone down?"

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