Performance-enhancing drugs are increasingly being used by high-school students and weightlifting buffs on Long Island, who illegally buy and sell the powerful substances in an effort to bulk up and improve athletic performance, law-enforcement officials and treatment experts said.
Anabolic steroids and synthetic human growth hormone, which have been linked to health difficulties, have long been popular with fitness buffs looking for an edge. Supply has soared because of booming Internet sales, falling prices and widely publicized use by professional athletes that has reduced the stigma of the drugs, authorities said.
The result is an apparent uptick in steroid and HGH abuse among local 17- to 25-year-old men -- particularly in suburban enclaves of Nassau and Suffolk where young people tend to have more disposable income, experts said.
"People can't turn a blind eye to this kind of abuse," said Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice, whose office has prosecuted several major steroid cases in recent years. "Steroids should not be socially acceptable."
The drugs can cause serious health problems, including liver damage, high blood pressure, severe acne, shrunken testicles, impotence, stunted growth, baldness, anger issues -- commonly known as "roid rage" -- and withdrawal symptoms that, in some cases, lead to suicide.
Trainer: Stigma has faded
Ryan O'Connor, 18, of Setauket, said he has friends who have taken steroids to improve their physique and performance in school weight rooms, where they trade tips about how and when to inject them.
"They buy them in locker rooms at their school or at the gym where they lift," O'Connor said after a workout recently. "There's usually at least one guy who can get you whatever you want. It helps you a lot. You just can't stay on it forever."
Peter Marino, a landscape professional and certified personal trainer in Garden City who competed in amateur bodybuilding contests, said he had seen a "big, big increase in the number of young guys taking them to bulk up and get stronger.
"When you see all these professional baseball players, big-time athletes doing it, it lessens the stigma," said Marino, who said he stopped using steroids in the late 1990s because they damaged his liver. "The number of high school kids I see juicing now are off the charts. For them, the way they look is everything."
No recent surveys about steroids have been conducted on Long Island, making it difficult to gauge how many people use them. But, Rice said, "it's fair to say there's some anecdotal evidence showing a rise in illegal steroid use."
The scope of the problem nationally was highlighted by a recent study showing teenage use of HGH increased 120 percent from 2012 to 2013. The Partnership Attitude Tracking Study (PATS) sampled 3,705 high-school-age teens nationally, finding that the percentage who used HGH at least once without a prescription increased from 5 in 2012 to 11 in 2013. The study also found one in five teens thought it easy to get steroids and had at least one friend who used them.
"It's the same here," O'Connor said. "I could buy some right now if I wanted."
Local authorities have poured huge amounts of funding and manpower into the battle against heroin and opioid pill abuse -- which claims dozens of lives on Long Island each year -- but few resources have gone toward anti-steroid programs, budget documents show.
That's because steroid use rarely results in sudden death and health effects may not be immediately noticeable, experts say.
Steroid-related ailments also can include heart problems and prostate-gland enlargement, with risks varying depending on the chemical makeup of each drug.
"Young people are seeking out and using performance-enhancing substances . . . without really knowing what substances they are putting into their bodies," said Steve Pasierb, president of the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.
'Poison into their bodies'
Anabolic steroids -- typically produced overseas -- are classified by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency as any of a group of hormones, usually synthetic, that are derived from testosterone.
Used in tandem with rigorous training, they can increase size and strength of muscles and improve endurance. Most steroids have legitimate medical purposes but are illegal when illicitly produced, sold or used without a prescription.
Long Island health professionals say they have seen an increase in people using the drugs.
"We're seeing a lot more steroid users come through our anger-management program," said Steven Chassman, clinical director at the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. "We're seeing people who have amassed a host of different charges, including assault, and we strongly recommend they get treatment" for drug abuse.
Marino, the former amateur bodybuilder, said several young weightlifters he knows have obtained steroids through the Internet at prices lower than what they sell for in gyms.
A single "cycle" of steroids, which lasts several weeks, can cost a few hundred to more than $1,000, depending on type and quality, authorities said.
"These guys are 17, 18, some in their early or mid-20s, and they're blowing their paychecks to put poison into their bodies," said Ronald Comey of Queens, an anti-drug activist and former steroid and cocaine user. "This is a generation who thinks it's normal to do this. The number of kids using this stuff now in our communities is the highest I've seen."
Suffolk Chief of Detectives William Madigan said police are concerned about illicit steroid use but that the drugs are not as high a priority as heroin, cocaine and marijuana, which drive violent crime.
Those who use the muscle-building compounds have little idea about the risks they are taking, said Suffolk Deputy Police Chief Kevin Fallon.
"How do they know where these drugs really came from?" Fallon said. "It's risky."
Steroids are closely associated with athletics, but they're not exclusively found in weightlifting circles. Nassau police said the same dealers pushing heroin or cocaine sometimes sell steroids as well.
"Traditional narcotics sometimes leads to steroids" during drug investigations, said Kevin Smith, Nassau's chief of detectives.
O'Connor said he has discouraged friends from taking steroids, to no avail.
"They see it working, so they live with the consequences," he said.
WHAT DO STEROIDS DO?
Various anabolic steroids, which are illegal in the United States when used illicitly, have different characteristics:
-- Deca Durabolin and Dianabol help increase lean body mass.
-- Winstrol aides in preservation of lean body mass during weight loss.
-- Synthetic human growth hormone can help build muscle and improve athletic performance.
-- All anabolic steroids can cause serious health problems, including liver damage and emotional instability.