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Rx For Trouble: Inside the Steroid Ring
Fernando Llosa
March 12, 2007
SI's Luis Fernando Llosa and L. Jon Wertheim, on the scene for the Florida raids, continue to report on the ongoing investigation that promises to rock sports
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March 12, 2007

Rx For Trouble: Inside The Steroid Ring

SI's Luis Fernando Llosa and L. Jon Wertheim, on the scene for the Florida raids, continue to report on the ongoing investigation that promises to rock sports

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? Jose Canseco, the retired major leaguer and an admitted steroid user, received somatropin, testosterone, stanozolol and HCG, as well as 340 syringes, in 2004. The shipment to his California residence was arranged through the same defunct antiaging clinic that Matthews allegedly patronized. ( Canseco did not return calls seeking comment.)

?No birth date was indicated on the prescriptions, but according to the Applied database, former Atlanta Braves reliever John Rocker received two prescriptions for somatropin between April and July 2003. (Through his spokeswoman, Rocker denied any knowledge of the prescription and denied ever receiving a banned substance.)

Sources tell SI that the clients appearing on invoices and customer lists are unlikely to face prosecution, because the targets of the raids and investigations are the members of the network of suppliers. "Our focus here is to shut down distribution channels," says Albany County district attorney David Soares, one of the leaders of the investigation. And because the reports only allege receipt (and in some cases, purchase) of the banned drugs--not usage--the athletes are unlikely to face disciplinary action from their respective leagues or governing bodies. ( Major League Baseball didn't add HGH to its list of banned substances until 2005.) Still, the information offers a clear and chilling glimpse into just how easily banned substances, including steroids and HGH, can be obtained by anyone, of any age, who possesses Internet access and a credit card.

The origins of this wide-scale, multi-agency investigation can be traced to upstate New York. In the fall of 2004 state narcotics investigators based in Albany noticed that a local doctor, David Stephenson, was running a website, docstat.com, and was purchasing massive quantities of a variety of drugs, including narcotics and steroids. According to authorities, Applied was his chief supplier. After receiving the drugs at his residence, Stephenson repackaged them and resold them to "patients" who had visited his website. One investigator placed an order through docstat.com, claiming to be an overweight pilot with a heroin addiction and a drinking problem. As part of a questionnaire offered when registering on the site, clients were asked the reason they were seeking particular drugs. The investigator responded that he needed prescriptions for hydrocodone, methadone, nandrolone, Ritalin and testosterone because "I want to get high to fly." Within days the drugs arrived by way of express mail.

In the summer of 2005 Stephenson pleaded guilty to felony criminal sale of a controlled substance; he is serving a six-year jail sentence. The Stephenson case, however, stood for much more than a rogue doctor abusing his license. Studying the chain of supply, agents from Albany County were able to lay bare a drug pipeline that marries the power of the Internet with spurious antiaging centers, board-certified compounding pharmacies and venal doctors. Soon, the agents shared their findings with federal and state authorities across the country.

As Mark Haskins, a senior investigator for New York State's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, explains it, "Basically you have an antiaging clinic with an Internet presence. [Clinic operators] put the product on the Internet. The customer finds them online, fills out a brief questionnaire and requests steroids, hormone therapy, whatever. Someone from the clinic contacts the customer and then develops a prescription for the steroid treatment or hormone treatment. Then [the clinic] sends or e-mails the prescription to a doctor, who is often not even in the same state. He'll sign it [because] he's being paid by the clinic, usually $20 to $50 for every signature. The signed prescriptions get faxed to the compounding pharmacies, which know from the very beginning that there is no doctor-patient relationship. The pharmacy then sends the product to the customer."

Last spring, during a raid on his Scottsdale, Ariz., home, Jason Grimsley, then a pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks, admitted to using HGH, steroids and amphetamines. In an affidavit he explained to investigators that another major leaguer, later identified as former first baseman David Segui, "told [me] of a doctor in Florida that he was using at a 'wellness center' to obtain human growth hormone."

"It makes total sense for athletes to do it this way," says agent Alex Wright of Florida's Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation. "If they get caught, they can say, 'I sent my blood work to the clinic like [it] asked me, and the doctor said my [testosterone] levels are low.' This is the best way they can get stuff. They have the comfort of anonymity because there is no face-to-face. They are just a name and a credit card."

In addition to exposing the architecture of the distribution ring, the ongoing investigations appear to confirm what doping experts have suspected for years: HGH is a popular drug among athletes. A synthetic hormone, HGH is thought by some to accelerate recovery times, speed healing, decrease body fat and, particularly when combined with steroids, increase muscle mass and therefore strength.

HGH can be prescribed by doctors for legitimate medical purposes. Historically, this has meant combating rare pituitary disease and treating patients with progressively debilitating conditions resulting from AIDS and some forms of cancer. Yet lately some doctors have ascribed a liberal definition to "legitimate medical purposes," contending that aging is, in effect, a progressively debilitating disease and that any patients with diminishing hormone levels are eligible for the drug. The American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, a Chicago-based group that supports using HGH to replace growth hormone as its levels decline with age, counts more than 10,000 health-care practitioners among its members. This "off-label," or unorthodox, use of HGH is the source of significant controversy in the medical community. "It's a ruse," says Dr. Thomas Perls, an associate professor at Boston University School of Medicine, who maintains the website antiagingquackery.com. "The public has equated hormones with youth, and HGH is the drug of choice for these hucksters to push." (Through a spokesman the academy said in a statement to SI that Perls's comment "is on the level of that of a 'flat earth society' uninformed person.")

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