Monday, May 28, 2012

Australia - Steroid vacation

THERE'S something about the seedy Thai beachside town of Pattaya that keeps enticing Michael Dorn back - but it's not the sun, sea, sand or sex for which the resort is famous.

The 21-year-old from Blacktown is part of a thriving amateur bodybuilding subculture that uses anabolic steroids and growth hormones as a fast track to the ultimate ''ripped'' body. While the drugs are heavily restricted in Australia by laws that are among the strictest in the world, Dorn - and hundreds like him - have discovered a novel way around the problem: they travel to Thailand on ''steroid vacations''.

A Sun-Herald investigation has found that rather than risk prosecution in Australia, everyday gym users are travelling to Asia and ''stacking'' a dangerous cocktail of steroids that include powerful veterinary drugs and fertility medicine.

While police in Australia warn of a growing trade in steroids - and are increasingly finding them during raids aimed at party drugs - health experts say the products can cause life-threatening heart and liver damage, as well as baldness and infertility.

But in Thailand, price is part of the allure: during a two-week investigation, this reporter visited Bangkok and Pattaya pharmacies that sell some steroid brands for 10 times less than what they fetch on Sydney's black market.

The rise of the steroid holiday was highlighted last year, when Australia's No. 1 amateur bodybuilding celebrity, Aziz ''Zyzz'' Shavershian, died of an ''undiagnosed'' heart condition in a Bangkok sauna. He died weeks after his brother, Said Shavershian, or ''Chestbrah'', had been convicted for steroid possession in Sydney.

Numerous Australians in Thailand now tell The Sun-Herald of how they buy and consume their steroids offshore rather than end up with a criminal record at home.

In 2006 the bodybuilder John Hurlock was arrested and charged at his Townsville home for smuggling steroids into Australia. But Hurlock fled the country before he could be prosecuted. Today, he lives in exile in central Bangkok, where he buys the same drugs over the counter at his local chemist. ''I ordered steroids online and the second time I did so, the Queensland cops came crashing through my door with sniffer dogs. I find that crazy,'' Hurlock told The Sun-Herald in Bangkok.

Each week, he ''cycles'', which involves using a combination of Deca-Durabolin, testosterone cypionate and trenbolone, a powerful horse drug that is widely considered the best anabolic steroid on the black market, but the worst for side effects.

''Why should I not be able to take it, as and when I want?'' Hurlock asks. ''I'm not hurting anybody and, as an older bloke, these drugs have particular benefits. The deca works wonders for my joints and shoulder injuries.'' He is quick, however, to criticise younger users: ''They are arriving here en masse and you can spot them a mile off. They're like kids in candy stores. They get so dosed up, they leave here looking like giant water bombs with acne. Vanity is destroying them before they've even hit adulthood.''

Hurlock is referring to Australians like Dorn. When The Sun-Herald met Dorn in Pattaya, he was bulking up on his latest ''roid vacation''. Every 72 hours, he gets ''juiced up'' on testosterone cypionate and trenbolone. ''Anything I want, everything that could potentially land me in hot water back in Australia, is freely available over the counter here in chemists, no questions asked. I take the steroids, I train and party in paradise and then I go home.''

He believes Australians would be surprised by how many young people are flying to Thailand mainly to take steroids, and ''even more shocked'' to learn how widespread the trend has become back home.

''I'm here [in Pattaya] for three weeks this time round. This is my fourth trip and I've taken steroids each time. At first it was trial and error. Some pharmacies sell fake stuff so it was a case of finding a brand and chemist I could trust.''

Over time - and after extensive internet research about other users' cycles - Dorn says he increased his dosage to ''maximise results''.

''People are paying $200 for a 10-millilitre bottle of testosterone in Sydney whereas here you can walk into a chemist and buy it for between $20 and $30. I don't use in Australia and wouldn't even know where to get it because I don't need the trouble. I'm happy doing it here where nobody bothers me.''

A hormone expert at Sydney's St Vincent's Hospital, Associate Professor Katherine Samaras, says in poor countries ''anything can be bought for a song, whether it's people, sex, or anabolic steroids''. She warns that, aside from triggering ''behavioural issues'', steroid abuse causes ''irreversible damage'' to the heart, liver and body, including ''long-term testicular wasting''.

''Stupid people do stupid things,'' she says. ''If people want to flout laws that are designed to protect them and head to poor, lawless countries to destroy their bodies, there's only so much you can do.''

In some respects ''juicers'', as they are known, who travel to Thailand for steroids, are no different to the many thousands of Australians who head there on cosmetic holidays. Both groups view it as their basic right to sculpt or modify their bodies in any way they see fit. Both choose Thailand because it is cheap, with a tropical holiday thrown in. But for steroids users, it is a safe haven to inject legally.

The latest Australian Crime Commission statistics show there were 5561 border detections of ''performance- and image-enhancing drugs'' in the last financial year, a 106 per cent rise on the previous year. More than 90 per cent of those seizures were postal orders from websites in countries such as the US, Hong Kong, China and Thailand, where laws are more relaxed. In the previous year, plane passengers had accounted for most seizures.

In Australia these drugs are only legally available through tightly monitored prescriptions on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Used to stimulate bone growth and appetite, they are occasionally prescribed to short children and to people with chronic wasting conditions such as cancer and AIDS. Illegal importers face up to $110,000 or five years' jail.

While Michael Dorn says he has never suffered side effects, one of Australia's leading endocrinologists, Professor Ken Ho, warns users are unknowingly inducing a ''profound state of testosterone deficiency''.

''The body regulates the production of testosterone to a level which optimises health,'' Ho says. ''If those levels exceed what is ideal, there are internal biological mechanisms to control that. So when people load their bodies with huge amounts, the body senses there is too much and turns off its own factory.'' Once that happens, ''health goes down the gurgler''.

''Users want more of what they had. Their minds start telling them, 'This must be good stuff because I feel better again.'

''It becomes a form of addiction. This is what's happening on these trips. This is what's happening in gyms across Australia, and this is also what's happening in so-called anti-ageing clinics that currently sell these substances under the guise of good health. There is no smart way to take these drugs. It's a shady business.''


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