Size Matters

That's the motto among gay men in Miami Beach who have fueled a rage for illegal steroids -- health considerations be damned

Steroids of varying qualities are also legally available without a prescription throughout Central and South America. Pope, who has studied steroid use for nearly fifteen years, says that many users who can't obtain a prescription in the United States will either purchase steroids abroad and smuggle them back in or order them through the mail from foreign sources. Since the drugs are relatively cheap (a six- to twelve-week cycle runs from $300 to $600) and are legal in those countries, the postal option is low-risk.

Steroids are not a high priority for law enforcement. Seldom do agencies target anyone solely for dealing steroids. Lt. Michael Auch of the Miami Beach Police Department's narcotics division recalls only five steroid busts within the past two years.

When FBI and DEA agents arrested John A. Velasquez in May, possession of steroids with intent to distribute was among the less serious charges against the part owner of the Miami Beach restaurant Cafe Prima Pasta. The major ones concerned money laundering and conspiracy to sell Ecstasy (MDMA), which is a Schedule I drug under federal law. The Ecstasy-related charges against the restaurateur carry maximum penalties of twenty years in prison. Steroids are a Schedule III drug; maximum sentence for distribution is five years. Mere possession (without a prescription) carries a maximum one-year federal sentence. All of these penalties have been in effect since 1990.

The prospect of jail time keeps almost everyone involved with the underground steroid trade mum, at least about the particulars of how they get their cycles. As with many such subcultures, the steroid-use crowd has a wealth of Websites at its disposal, many of which are extremely detailed about the combinations (called "stacks") that produce optimal effects. Deca-Durabolin for bulk, Winstrol-V for cut, Equipoise for hardening, and so on.

Pope says discussions about such specific effects are mostly myth. "They all basically work the same way," he says. "There are all kinds of underground theories, underground gurus, but the bottom line is that it probably doesn't make much difference. The only consistent thing I can tell you is that the more you take, the bigger you get."

Steroids also carry with them a raft of side effects. The short-term physical side effects vary considerably and are usually minor: acne, growth of body hair, loss of hair on the head, gynecomastia (a buildup of fat behind the nipples known as "bitch tits" among users, gay and straight), and increased libido, sometimes made more irksome by another side effect: impotence. Decreased sperm count and testicular shrinkage always result. ("That's for the straight boys to worry about," quips DiBiaso.) Heavy, long-term steroid use can cause liver problems (occasionally even cancer) and accelerates hardening of the arteries, increasing the risk of heart attack or stroke.

The most consistent, immediate, and dangerous side effect is psychological, Pope stresses. At least half of all users report irritability and mood changes. Some ten percent, Pope adds, experience aggression and flares of temper. The medical term for this phenomenon is hypomania. In popular culture, it's called "'roid rage." Pope says he has served as an expert witness in "a dozen cases" where a man with no history of violence killed someone while on anabolic steroids.

"These kinds of personality changes are idiosyncratic; we don't know who is more vulnerable to them or why," Pope says. "It's a gamble."

The airy, mirrored, second-floor Washington Avenue gym called Crunch (formerly Club Body Tech) is about half full, a mixed crowd of men and women, gay and straight, buff and not so buff. This 20,000-square-foot space is where Jason DiBiaso and John hone their physiques. As LifeCycles whir and weights clank, the pair disclose what they call their "beauty secrets."

DiBiaso, in his baseball cap, black tank top, and baggy pants, offers this nugget while waiting his turn for a pulley contraption that isolates the biceps: The upside of a relationship like his and John's is that you can shave each other's backs in the shower. This practice becomes increasingly necessary if one or both of you are using steroids.

John likes to begin his workouts with some abdominal exercise. A massage therapist, he speaks at length about the anatomy of the abdominal muscle ("The 'six-pack' is just one big muscle") and the best way to isolate it. Six-foot-four, John is a very big dude with a lot of definition. He grimaces as he bends his six-pack to his will.

"It feels like you're going to puke, doesn't it?" he says as he finishes his set. "If I know I'm going out that night, I don't do as much on the abs. Because I know I'll be dancing with my shirt off, and I'll be tensing up my abs the whole time."

As John and DiBiaso move through today's regimen (back and biceps), they offer a running commentary on those sharing the gym with them.

Whop! Whop! A lanky man in red sweatpants is delivering low roundhouse kicks to the heavy punching bag in the corner. "You know someone's straight if they're at the punching bag," DiBiaso mutters. "They've got something to prove.

"You see that guy in the black tank top?" he asks, indicating a tanned, bulging man doing military presses. "He takes steroids. This guy over here in the white tank top? He's natural." DiBiaso isn't guessing; he knows both men, at least in passing. But he maintains that there is a certain look to the musculature, especially the increased size and definition around the neck and shoulders, that tells him if someone is "juicing" or not. Some of the heavier users, he notes, tend to look puffy.

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