New York Daily News - http://www.nydailynews.com
'Roid law muscling up
BY T.J. QUINN
DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER
Sunday, October 23rd, 2005
Our federal criminals have a special affection for the Satellite Prison Camp in Atwater, Calif.
Great location at the edge of the desert just a couple of hours from San Francisco, nice weather all year. No bars, no cells, a running track, a baseball diamond, basketball and volleyball courts.
That's where BALCO owner Victor Conte is likely headed in December when he begins his four-month jail sentence for trafficking steroids. Any federal prison is still a prison, but they don't call minimum-security camps "Club Fed" for nothing. After his stay there Conte faces four months of home detention, then a two-year suspended sentence.
Those in the fight against steroid abuse were outraged when the terms of Conte's plea deal were first announced, but under federal sentencing guidelines, his punishment fits his crime.
"The BALCO sentences (last) week will serve as another bit of motivation to us to continue to push forward," says U.S. Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.). "We've got to toughen the sentences."
Conte and his three co-defendants should be happy they were busted when they were. Even before he reached a deal, the U.S. Sentencing Commission had started the process of developing tougher steroid-related penalties, which would treat steroid traffickers more like recreational drug dealers.
Last year the Anabolic Steroids Act, signed into law by President Bush, directed the sentencing panel to bring steroid penalties into line with other "Schedule III" drugs, such as most of the stronger painkillers. The commission held hearings in April and has met with teams of legal and scientific experts since then, and is expected to recommend tougher sentencing to Congress in March.
If Congress approves the new standards, experts expect more prosecutors to go after steroid traffickers, and they hope the tougher sentences will be a greater deterrent.
"Right now the guidelines are so low that not many steroid cases are brought at the federal level," U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), the author of last year's law, said in a statement. "Steroids pose a serious public health risk, especially to young people, and more serious penalties will help make sure that big-time steroid dealers can be brought to justice."
A trafficking sentence depends in part on how many "units" the dealer is caught with. For every Schedule III drug other than anabolic steroids, one unit equals one pill. A "unit" of steroids, however is 50 pills, or 10cc's of liquid. A hydrocodone dealer would have to be caught with 40,000 pills to get serious jail time - roughly in the 5-to-20-year range - but someone with steroids would need two million pills to get a similar sentence.
"Unless they catch you with a semi-truck full and a couple of machine guns, it wasn't worth it to prosecute you because all you'd get was a slap on the wrist," says steroids expert Charles Yesalis, a professor of health policy at Penn State who argued for stronger sentences 15 years ago.
But when the guidelines were set in 1990, that's how law enforcement wanted it.
The DEA and even the American Medical Association argued that steroids, which are hormones with significant medical benefits, shouldn't be treated like recreational drugs. Steroids - artificial testosterone - aren't believed to be as physically addictive, the people who use them don't usually knock over liquor stores to get money for their habits and an overdose of steroids is less dangerous than an overdose of aspirin.
"A bottle of aspirin can kill you. A bottle of dianabol will just give you a stomach ache," says attorney Rick Collins, the author of "Legal Muscle" and the founder of Steroidlaw.com.
The argument then was that law enforcement officers shouldn't be spending time chasing muscle-bound freaks when they could be chasing crackheads.
But the public's view of steroids has changed significantly in the last couple of years. The Department of Justice officially wants steroids punished the way other Schedule III drugs are, and the AMA filed a brief last year agreeing that steroids should be treated as Schedule III drugs.
"What we're looking at is a crime that used to affect selected high-profile athletes and it's now affecting hundreds of thousands of ordinary American kids, and in that sense it's become a much more important problem for our society," says former U.S. Attorney Robert G. McCampbell, who testified before the Sentencing Commission in April.
In the wake of prosecution of Conte and the BALCO case, Jose Canseco's autobiography, the deaths of admitted steroid users Lyle Alzado and Ken Caminiti, the highly publicized suicides of two steroid-using high school-age athletes and reports about growing steroid use among school-age athletes, the priorities have changed.
"The emphasis is now on the children," Collins says. "The 'save the children' mantra is very effective politically to get legislation passed and to get legislators recognized - and because it's a very persuasive argument."
Collins, however, argued before the Sentencing Commission that the average steroid user is not a high school athlete or an elite athlete, but a man approaching middle age who wants to look and feel better. Media reports and anti-doping crusaders have painted a skewed picture, he says, so steroids should be treated differently.
The Sentencing Commission is almost certain to recommend tougher standards, although it still needs to figure out how to determine how much a "unit" of steroids is. Rather than look at pills or doses of creams or liquids, Collins and others have urged the Sentencing Commission to base units on the milligrams of the drug inside.
However the commission decides to measure steroids, Sweeney says, Congress no longer will allow steroid dealers to live by a different standard.
"We're giving (commissioners) time to do their work, but if they don't move you're going to see more from Congress to make that happen," Sweeney says.