A legal loophole is allowing gym-goers to easily purchase a performance enhancing drug that's been classified "prescription-only".
Selective Androgen Receptive Modulators, commonly known as SARMs, have become the "go-to" drug for many people in the fitness community.
According to Dr Kristina Kendall, a lecturer in exercises and sports sciences at Edith Cowan University: "... they have the same effects as anabolic steroids but [are safer] because they only target skeletal muscle receptors."
However, there is limited research into their side-effects which is why the only way you can get a prescription is if you are on a clinical trial.
Users like Josh*, a 25-year-old gym club manager in Sydney's west, say the drugs are commonly sold without a prescription in supplement stores, sometimes in the guise of a dietary supplement.
“Many people are using them, definitely about 45 per cent of people just in this gym have used them before”, he said.
It’s pretty dodgy walking into a supplement store and then they pull it out from under the counter.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), is the Australian body that regulates medicine, medical devices and blood products. It classifies SARMs as a Schedule 4 drug. That means using it without a prescription, or selling it, is illegal.
Penalties can range from a $210 fine and a 12 month sentence for individual users, to five years jail and an $840,000 fine for businesses.
The penalties are to prevent the risk of users suffering major health issues, which is the message behind the TGA's online awareness campaign.
Prior to taking SARMs, Josh* had a lot of experience with other performance enhancing drugs - such as steroids.
Based on his own research and through talking to other users, he decided to start a three-month cycle of SARMs.
“My liver [enzymes] went up by three times what they're meant to be," he said. "And I did end up in hospital."
While the doctors could not narrow down the cause, he says SARMs was the only substance he was taking. His hormone levels have not returned to baseline since.
". . . it’s just not worth it, definitely not worth it."
Mitch*, 32, agrees. He purchased a bottle of SARMs directly from the manufacturer and says he also experienced issues after using all 30 capsules.
I would rather resort to steroids than ever use SARMs again..
Medical researchers have also found that what may be advertised on some labels, may not be what's in the capsule."
"The problem with buying SARMs online is that you don't know what’s in them. It could be a mixture of who knows what... it might be a mixture of real steroids”, Dr Kristina Kendall said.
Companies selling SARMs usually provide a disclaimer on their website, specifying that they are for research purposes only.
A sales representative at a Newcastle supplements store, who did not want to be named in this story, said SARMs were not available in-store, only on their online site, and that "they don't just sell them to anybody".
“We give the buyers all the information they need in terms of safety... but there is no identification process to see if they are a legal researcher, it’s just a disclaimer."
Though still easy to access, the TGA is cracking down on the sale of SARMs.
A business in Sutherland Shire was searched at the end of May, as part of an ongoing investigation into the importation and supply of unauthorised therapeutic goods. It was a joint operation with NSW Police, Australian Federal Police, the Australian Tax Office and NSW Health.
A statement on the TGA's website revealed that various items were siezed:
"These items allegedly include raw materials and finished Selective Androgen Receptor Modulators (SARMs), and Nootropic products. The products are not included in the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG) and therefore cannot be supplied in Australia."
That investigation is ongoing.
- Varun Bodhi