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Muscling up: are steroids an emerging criminal threat?

Many more Australians want to build the ‘body beautiful’ and we want to do it in a hurry, increasingly through the use of performance and image enhancing drugs (PIEDs). shutterstock

High-profile claims of links between elite sports and organised crime in Australia – such as those outlined in last year’s Australian Crime Commission (ACC) report – have put performance and image enhancing drugs (PIEDs) squarely in the consciousness of mainstream society. But what are they, and how widespread is their use?

PIEDs is a term used to describe a range of substances that include steroids, hormones, insulin and peptides. There are several categories: anabolic and androgenic steroids (AAS) as well as ergogenic. They refer to any substances that will physically enhance the capacity for mental and or physical activity.

The (ongoing) saga of both the Essendon and Cronulla football clubs regarding allegedly illegal supplement programs continue to dog the headlines. But there are broader, more concerning trends regarding the use of PIEDs than merely at the elite level. Recent statistics have shown that the community hunger for PIEDs is increasing rapidly.

It seems many of us want to build the body beautiful and we want to do it in a hurry.

A growing market

Data from the ACC’s 2011-12 Illicit Drug Data report indicated that the market for PIEDs has expanded, with record numbers of seizures, detections and arrests.

Between 2007 and 2012, Australian arrests for steroids increased by 213%. In comparison, amphetamine arrests for the same period only increased by 5%, despite amphetamines being traditionally regarded as “hardcore” drugs. While the number of arrests for steroids is comparatively small, there is no doubt it is an emerging crime trend which is rapidly becoming a serious threat.

Steroid use is overwhelmingly a male issue: only 9% of arrests for steroids in 2011-12 involved females. New South Wales leads the way Australia-wide, accounting for 70% of the national seizures of steroids, while Queensland comes a distant second. Interestingly, however, Queensland accounted for 58% of steroid arrests for the same period.

Nationally, the detection of PIEDs increased by 56% in 2011-12, with actual figures rising from 5,561 to 8,726.

Injecting rates

Anecdotal reports from Needle and Syringe Program services in NSW and QLD suggest an increase in the number of people who are injecting steroids. At the jurisdictional level, PIED injection rates rose from 4.3% to 9.2% in NSW between 2010 and 2011. Injection rates in Queensland increased from 1.1% to 7.4% between 2009 and 2011.

Over the past year, some needle exchange programs have experienced a substantial increase in the number of clients asking for injecting equipment for PIEDs, with data showing that the biggest client base was steroid users. The burgeoning steroid use is not limited to Australia. International rates are also increasing, according to reports from the UK and Canada.

There has been some anecdotal evidence to suggest that PIED users do not see themselves as drug users in the same context as an opiate or amphetamine injector. While they will use the networks in place to service their requirements, they do not avail themselves of the harm reduction education available around vein care, hepatitis C or HIV.

The greatest barrier faced is the perception that PIED users do not identify themselves as a person who injects drugs nor as someone committing a criminal act. Much of the steroid literature outlines that steroids are natural body hormones and are not the same as other illicit drugs. The alleged use by elite athletes and sports clubs may also portray the use of PIEDs as an acceptable method to gain results.

Criminal links

Many law enforcement agencies are concerned that PIED consumers are increasingly coming to the attention of organised crime. Bikie gangs in particular have been linked with the PIED market.

The Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission noted that while the prevalence of PIED use seems to be low at this point, it is an emerging market area that has been on the rise since 2009, particularly on the Gold Coast and in Northern Queensland.

Seizures of and arresting relating to steroids are on the rise, but should it be cause for concern? AAP/Supplied

For users, the ends justifies the means – to some degree. This tends to legitimise the use of steroids and reinforces user perceptions that they are different from other drug injectors committing criminal acts. While this may be valid in terms of medically prescribed steroids, it is fair to say that the majority of consumers obtain steroids from sources other than medical professionals.

The issue of PIEDs is not limited to mainstream society either. Problems with the abuse of such drugs have arisen even within law enforcement agencies themselves. Investigations have uncovered inappropriate use among police in Australia and overseas.

When considering the criminal impact of PIEDs, there is not only the issue of criminality in use, possession and distribution, there is also the derived criminal behaviour from the side-effects of use. There is some debate over the link between the use of steroids and acts of violent crime. However, some studies have indicated that those who engage in the use of anabolic steroids are twice as likely to engage in violence compared to non-users.

A general survey of research literature would seem to confirm this link. Given the recent community concern regarding violent public assaults this is just one more reason for attention to be paid to the increasing use of PIEDs.

As we move toward the start of another season in the major football codes, we should consider that steroids and other PIEDs are not only a threat to a level playing field for our elite athletes, but are also a broader emerging criminal threat to the wider community.

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