Steroid seizures and arrests soar to record highs in Australia

Bottles of anabolic steroids seized in a 2014 raid in New South Wales. AAP/NSW Police Media

Two new reports reveal that Australia is catching fewer steroid shipments at our borders – yet the numbers of national steroid seizures and arrests have risen to record highs.

The latest Australian Crime Commission report on organised crime in Australia, released on Wednesday, suggested the decline in what we’re stopping at our borders may be due to more steroids being made locally, as well as their availability over the internet.

It comes just after the release of another Crime Commission report, on illicit drugs in Australia. This shows that the number of detections of performance- and image-enhancing drugs at the Australian border fell by a third in 2013-2014. That’s the first decrease seen since 2004-2005.

But the number of steroid-related drug seizures and arrests continued to rise across Australia, continuing a decade-long trend.

So what is the true picture of illegal performance- and image-enhancing drug use in Australia? And where are these drugs coming from?

Where are Australia’s steroids, peptides and hormones coming from?

Steroids are the single best-known performance- and image-enhancing drug – but that category also includes peptides and hormones.

The Australian Standard Classification of Drugs of Concern, which is used by the Crime Commission, distinguishes four classes of substances as anabolic agents and selected hormones. These are: anabolic-androgenic steroids, other anabolic agents and selected hormones, beta2-agonists, peptide hormones, mimetics and analogues.

Steroids still account for the majority of performance- and image-enhancing drugs detected on our border, with some 77.4% being steroids, while the rest are hormones.

In 2013-2014, steroid border detections decreased by 21.8% and hormones by 56%.

Most prominent embarkation points for performance- and image-enhancing drugs (PIEDS) into Australia. Terry Goldsworthy sourced from ACC data.

Postal channels remain the main method of importing such drugs, although importation by air cargo is increasing.

Methods of importation of performance- and image-enhancing drugs (PIEDS) into Australia. Terry Goldsworthy sourced from ACC data.

The latest Crime Commission report suggests that one reason for the drop in border interceptions could be increased domestic production.

There is also evidence of the domestic diversion of chemicals used to produce injectable forms of steroids, suggesting possible domestic production of these substances, which may account for some of the decrease in border detections.

Internet sales are another source for the drugs, with unregulated online pharmacies offering global accessibility to the drugs. The report also notes:

Internationally, organised crime groups are heavily involved in the trafficking of [performance- and image-enhancing drugs]. Organised crime groups, particularly outlaw motorcycle gangs and their associates, are involved in the trafficking of [performance- and image-enhancing drugs] in the Australian market.

ABC TV’s 7.30: Illegal steroid demand is being met by outlaw motorcycle gangs.

Who are the most likely users?

Despite increased media portrayals of performance- and image-enhancing drug use in professional sporting contexts, elite athletes are in fact, one of the smallest sub-groups of users.

Instead, the new Organised Crime in Australia Report states:

One of the key drivers of the market is a strong youth culture, particularly prevalent among young males, that is focused on a muscular and athletic physical appearance.

The 2012 Australian Needle and Syringe Programs Survey found that the majority of injecting users in 2012 were heterosexual males, who were typically 18 years at first drug injection – demographics that have remained stable since 2008.

Males made up some 90% of consumer arrests for steroids in Australia.

The 2013 National Drugs Strategy Household Survey found more than twice as many men as women are using performance- and image-enhancing drugs - specifically young men.

One Australian study suggests that use is higher among young people than the general population, with 2.4% of 12 to 17-year-olds surveyed reporting lifetime steroid use.

Similar recent findings in the US show that teenage steroid use was equivalent to or above use of methamphetamine, heroin and crack cocaine.

Young men who don’t trust medical experts

A number of trends in the drug-related attitudes and behaviours are unique to performance- and image-enhancing drug users, and these offer a clearer picture of the growing subculture.

A 2008 study by Drug & Alcohol Services South Australia revealed a concerning disconnect, with performance- and image-enhancing drug users often being sceptical of information and medical services provided.

One US study reported similar themes. It suggested there was a belief among users that unbalanced negative portrayals of steroids were “intentionally manipulative on the part of the medical community and government”. A consequence of this view is that internet forums and other users have instead become primary sources of (mis)information.

Australian trends

Australia has seen substantial increases in injecting performance- and image-enhancing drug users. In particular, New South Wales saw an increase in use from 4.3% to 9.2% from 2010 to 2011, while in Queensland it jumped from 1.1% to 7.4% between 2009 and 2011.

Nationally, the prevalence of performance- and image-enhancing drugs as the drug last injected increased from 2% in 2009 to 7% in 2013.

Needle and syringe program workers, who come across a lot of steroid and other drug users, have warned that users have inaccurate information about how to use performance- and image-enhancing drugs as well as their effects. This is often due to an over-reliance on internet and gym sources.

Another key trend those workers observed is that users are more likely to perceive themselves as “healthy”, since the goal of taking their drugs is to improve physically.

Despite engaging in many of the same behaviours as other injecting drug users, performance- and image-enhancing drug users do not characterise themselves as fitting typical “junkie” stereotypes.

Rapid growth in arrests

Although users may not identify themselves as drug users or as criminals, that’s not how they’re seen by the law.

There has been an increased law enforcement focus on steroid use.

Queensland has amended the Drugs Misuse Regulation Act (1987) to boost the scheduling of steroids to Schedule 1: the highest level for dangerous drugs in the state, carrying possession or supply penalties of up to 25 years. That move towards criminalisation is similar to tough penalties introduced in NSW and Victoria.

For the 2013-2014 period covered in the Crime Commission’s illicit drugs report, there was a 7.9% increase in drug seizures, with NSW accounting for 49.6% of seizures.

Weight of seizures decreased by 8.6%, a trend that has been been occurring since 2012-13.

But there were more arrests in Queensland than any other state (57.8%).

While the number of steroid-related arrests remains comparatively low when compared to amphetamines and cannabis, steroid arrests are rapidly approaching the level of cocaine arrests.

Steroid arrests as a proportion of national arrests compared to heroin and cocaine arrests. Terry Goldsworthy sourced from ACC data.

Steroid arrests have been trending upwards while cocaine has remained stable and heroin has decreased over the last five years.

Arrests for steroids rose 41.6% in 2013-2014. The longer-term trend is even more concerning. Between 2009 and 2014, arrests for steroids across Australia increased by 198%, far in excess of any other drug category.

Comparative % changes in national drug arrests by type. Terry Goldsworthy sourced from ACC data.

How should we respond?

Australia needs to develop a more comprehensive understanding of not only why people are motivated to use these drugs, but also how users justify their now-criminalised actions in the face of escalating law enforcement.

Bond University is conducting research into the illicit use of performance- and image-enhancing drugs. The purpose of the study – including this short, anonymous survey – is to measure how these drugs are used in the community.

We also want to better understand the perceived benefits and harms of using them, the type and severity of physical and psychological side effects that user may experience, the addiction potential or lack of addiction potential of these drugs, and criminal linkages.

With greater knowledge about this thriving subculture, we can better address whether criminalisation or harm-reduction strategies are the most appropriate ways to tackle this complex issue.