Britain’s Steroid Dilemma – Not dangerous enough to criminalize but dangerous enough to be made safer

October 21, 2013

Doping, Health & Safety

By Kris Henderson – Thompson Rivers University 2L JD Student

The British Health Authority recognizes the adverse health effects of anabolic steroid use on the population and aims to make the population healthier. Their recommendation, however, is not a ban on all performance and physique enhancing substances. The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE), is instead recommending that gyms and other athletic training facilities provide sterile needles for individuals using intravenous anabolic steroids all in an effort to reduce the transmission of blood borne pathogens.

Providing clean needles for intravenous drug users is not a new concept, nor is it without its critics. The Vancouver safe injection site – InSite – located along East Hastings in the heart of Vancouver, Canada not only provides drug users with sterile needles, but staff provide first aid to individuals who fail to recognize their limit and overdose. Usually this consists of simply providing oxygen to the user. Helping two overdosed users in the safe injection site saves the provincial health authority the equivalent of InSite’s monthly operating budget as of 2010. The criticism of the site being open is therefore not cost of operation. The question is really what effect is it having on drug use? Drug use rates in Vancouver have not, by most accounts, seen a decrease since InSite began operating. Proponents of InSite, however, claim the true benefit comes from the reduction in blood borne disease transmission through the reduction of needle sharing. Other health authorities in Canada have also adopted clean needle programs to certain extents, all with differing measures of success.

It is easy to see that the potential clientele being served by this program in Britain would be drastically different that those being served by the clean needle programs in Canada. Individuals injecting themselves with anabolic steroids for the purpose of better athletic performance are obviously not the same ‘vulnerable population’ of heroin and other hard drug addicts being served in Canada. But to what extent does that matter? According to the NICE report, an estimated 70,000 people aged between 16 and 59 in England and Wales are thought to have injected anabolic steroids in the last year. While it is certainly not a staggering percentage of the population, it has proven sufficient to get the attention of the national health authorities.

Even if the clean needle program has no effect on user rates, any reduction in blood borne disease transmission can be measured as a success, both from a moral and government financing standpoint, as any publicly funded health care regime would see a decrease in costs associated with the treatment of these diseases.

This latest recommendation from NICE is sure to once again draw the ire of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Drug laws in England were heavily criticized during the lead-up to the London 2012 Olympics. Unlike previous host countries that stiffened criminal laws regarding personal possession and use of anabolic steroids and human growth hormones, the British government refused to criminalize possession and use of many performance enhancing anabolic steroids. The government stance was that athletes who use these substances during competition should face severe penalties such as lengthy bans from competition, but not criminal sanctions.

The NICE recommendation will likely affect the use of steroids in the UK, but what are the broader implications regarding the public perception surrounding their use? While I have no hesitation in accepting that the program will likely reduce the transmission of blood borne diseases such as various strains of Hepatitis and the HIV virus, the provision of sterile needles to steroid users may have a larger impact on sport and culture in the UK.

The unintended consequences of reducing the risks associated with steroid injections is very different than that of hard drug use. Individuals crippled by hard drug addiction, it is argued, are less likely to consider the sterility of their needle before making their next injection, or even their first injection. Potential or regular steroid users, however, see a reduction in the potential health risks to an activity that is still legal. The government position is that users should face heavy penalties though steroids aren’t so dangerous as to warrant its criminalization but dangerous enough to be made safer.

Will we see anabolic steroid use in the UK rise as a result of implementing a sterile needle program? Only time will tell. What we know for sure is that those looking to prevent athletes from using anabolic steroids in Britain through deterrence will be fighting an even steeper uphill battle, with an even greater reliance on the WADA.

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