Steroids beyond sports
Celebrities now among those linked to drug shipments
By BRENDAN J. LYONS, Senior writer
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First published: Sunday, January 13, 2008
PATCHOGUE -- The names of R&B music star Mary J. Blige, along with rap artists 50 Cent, Timbaland and Wyclef Jean, and award-winning author and producer Tyler Perry, have emerged in an Albany-based investigation of steroids trafficking that has already rocked the professional sports world, according to confidential sources.
Information has surfaced recently showing those stars are among tens of thousands of people who may have used or received prescribed shipments of steroids and injectable human growth hormone in recent years. Law enforcement officials have said they have no evidence in their sprawling multistate probe that customers, including Blige or other entertainers, violated any laws. Instead, they are targeting anti-aging clinics, doctors and pharmacists who prescribed the drugs.
Still, medical experts say that use of steroids and human growth hormone -- an estimated $10 billion-a-year operation worldwide -- reaching into the entertainment industry illustrates how pervasive steroids use in the United States has become. It is not unique to athletics, where performance-enhancing drug use has marred many sports. For many celebrities, the lure of hormonal drugs is their supposed, unproven anti-aging effects.
While Congress is preparing to focus on baseball players alleged to have taken the drugs, medical experts are warning that steroids and human growth hormone are being illegally prescribed nationwide at an alarming rate under the misconception they will aid healing, enhance looks, strength and speed, or slow aging.
Records shared with the Times Union and information from several cooperating witnesses on Long Island indicate Blige and other stars were shipped prescribed human growth hormone or steroids -- sometimes under fictitious names -- at hotels, production studios, private residences, an upscale Manhattan fitness club and through the Long Island office of Michael Diamond, a chiropractor affiliated with the celebrities, sources said.
Diamond, who has not been identified as a target in the case or accused of breaking any laws, helps run an anti-aging program at Clay Gym in Manhattan, according to the company's Web site.
The Albany investigation became a nationwide spectacle last February when authorities raided a Palm Beach County wellness center and the offices of Signature Compounding Pharmacy in downtown Orlando. The wellness center's owners and the pharmacy's operators are awaiting trial in Albany on charges related to the sale of millions of dollars worth of prescription drugs, mostly steroids, through a suspected criminal enterprise involving allegedly corrupt physicians and a series of anti-aging "clinics" that advertised predominantly through the Internet.
In the past year the case has netted 10 guilty pleas, including felony convictions of three physicians and several operators of anti-aging clinics in Texas, Florida and New York.
Along the way it has exposed allegations of steroid use by Major League Baseball players, pro wrestlers, NFL figures, police officers, prison guards, top-ranked body builders, people with ties to high school and college wrestling programs, and now, celebrities.
In a brief interview at his Patchtogue office Friday, Diamond said patient privacy laws prohibit him from discussing the stars he has treated or why.
"I don't have anything to do with athletes, I don't do athletes," Diamond said. "Anyone that wants to publicly state that they work with me can do so, it's just I'm not allowed legally to state who I treat or who I don't treat."
Still, it appears evident Diamond caters to famous clients as evidenced by the many stars, including Steven Seagal, whose photographs -- some autographed to Diamond -- adorn his office's walls.
"Because of this recent development as far as what I found out was going on with (Signature) pharmacy I was approached and I was ... told not to discuss anything right now ... because there's investigations going on," Diamond said, not elaborating.
Diamond said he had previously met officials from Signature pharmacy at anti-aging conventions, but that he learned of the year-old criminal case only recently.
Entertainers using steroids is not new. Last year, Hollywood action-film stalwart Sylvester Stallone paid a $2,975 fine in Australia to settle criminal charges he illegally possessed vials of steroids and human growth hormone discovered during a customs inspection of his luggage.
Stallone, 61, said he needed the drugs to treat his body for a slowdown of his pituitary gland production of growth hormone and for the grueling training he's done over the years making films, according to the Australian Associated Press. But taking the substances in an effort to slow aging or promote healing, which is an unproven claim, is not an allowable reason for a physician to prescribe steroids or growth hormone.
Dr. S. Jay Olshansky, an epidemiologist and co-author of a report on growth hormone published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, said celebrities identified as customers is not surprising.
"In the end the story is less about the entertainers and the athletes and more about the people who are providing them with the drugs," Olshansky said. "They can't get those drugs without somebody with a degree giving it to them."
Still, big names draw interest, including in Congress, where hearings are set to begin this week on a report issued last month by former Sen. George Mitchell that exposed widespread steroids abuse in professional baseball.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., is pushing a bill that would make human growth hormone a controlled substance, like anabolic steroids. Human growth hormone currently is not a controlled substance under federal law, which means it is not a crime to possess the drug and the federal government has minimal control over its production and distribution, Schumer said.
Albany County District Attorney David Soares declined to confirm information about, or to comment on, celebrities named in this report.
Soares said his decision more than two years ago to pursue the case was less about exposing the drug use of athletes or celebrities and more about dismantling a drug pipeline that has funneled millions of dollars in steroids and other drugs into New York. The state has some of the strictest prescription laws in the country and prosecutors said it's unlawful here for a physician, even from another state, to prescribe drugs to a New York patient they never examined.
HGH production declines naturally in a person as he or she grows older. Pharmaceutical versions of the hormone cannot be taken orally and must be injected.
Olshansky, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois' Chicago School of Public Health, said federal regulations also make it illegal for a physician to prescribe growth hormone to a patient he hasn't examined. In order to diagnose a patient with growth hormone deficiency, a rare condition affecting about one in 10,000 people, the physician must conduct a time-consuming, expensive test in which hormones are intravenously infused in patients while monitoring their pituitary gland.
"These doctors who are administering growth hormone without ever seeing patients should be in jail," Olshansky said. "The risks are documented."
Soares, who is in his inaugural term as district attorney, compares the Internet-fueled industry to the powerful cocaine cartels of the 1980s. He pointed out that Stan and Naomi Loomis, the husband and wife owners of the brick-and-mortar Signature pharmacy, own multimillion dollar properties and a fleet of expensive sports cars and boats.
"They're living the lifestyle of the Tony Montanas of the '70s and '80s because they're drug dealers," Soares said, referring to the character made famous by Al Pacino in the movie Scarface. "Our purpose here is more regulation. We want consistency state-to-state and we want tougher regulation over this cyber-economy that right now pretty much anyone with a computer can go out and obtain ... things that shouldn't be obtained without the control or observation of a treating physician."
Signature's attorneys have scoffed at the prosecutor's characterization of their business, claiming no laws were violated because doctors signed the prescriptions they processed.
Dr. Thomas Perls, an internist and associate professor of medicine at Boston University Medical Center, specializes in the study of aging and co-wrote the report on human growth hormone with Olshansky. Perls said industry estimates show that tens of thousands of people nationwide are injecting themselves with steroids and growth hormone, a dangerous drug that he said is routinely and illegally prescribed for anti-aging purposes.
The drug, which is normally used to treat children who suffer rare growth defects, may cause a person to age faster, Perls said. It also can trigger cancer, diabetes, arthritis and other health problems. If someone with cancerous cells takes the drug it's akin to throwing gas on a fire, Olshansky and Perls both said.
"If you look at the dollar amounts that are trading hands here there has to be thousands of people who are doing this and to call it a public health crisis is right on the money," Perls said. "The impact is lost a little bit if people think we're just dealing with a few folks who show up in People magazine."
According to records reviewed by the Times Union, Blige and the other stars received prescriptions that allegedly were signed by Dr. Gary Brandwein, a South Florida osteopath who has pleaded not guilty in Albany to a felony indictment charging him with various drug-related crimes.
Brandwein, through his attorney, Terence Kindlon, declined comment.
According to sources familiar with the investigation, Diamond was questioned recently by state Health Department investigators because he has done business with Anthony Forgione, a former New York Police Department officer arrested last November on charges of selling steroids through a Delray Beach, Fla., anti-aging clinic, Infinity Longevity.
Brandwein, free on bond since his arrest 10 months ago, drew national attention last summer when it was reported he'd previously prescribed steroids for Chris Benoit, a pro wrestler who murdered his wife and son at their Georgia home before committing suicide. Authorities said Benoit had 10 times the normal levels of testosterone in his body at the time though there's no evidence steroids played a role.