03/10/2015 01:53 EDT | Updated 05/10/2015 05:59 EDT

Don't Be Surprised that the Police Use Steroids

Edmonton Police Services (EPS) announced on Friday that two officers were charged with selling anabolic steroids to six of their colleagues. The accused (and their customers) seem to be otherwise upstanding members of the police force.

No one should be surprised by steroid use among police officers. Police work is dangerous and physically demanding. And since steroids improve physical performance, using them could make police officers more effective and the public safer.

In response, EPS created an internal policy to preserve community confidence by prohibiting officers from using or possessing of steroids without a prescription. Such employment policies are likely a good thing.

Health issues aside, it's difficult to think about this issue dispassionately. After all, from athletes cheating to enhance performance, to politicians addressing the supposed epidemic of steroid use among youth, talk of steroids is frequent and emotionally charged.

Not all of it is negative. You might find yourself saying that a car is "on steroids" when you admire its performance. You might say the same thing about your new computer, lawnmower, or smart phone. Steroids can be seen as good. They mean faster, stronger, and more powerful.

Yet "on steroids" is also synonymous with cheating. And it's not just Ben Johnson. You only need ask a sports fan about Lance Armstrong, Mark McGwire, Marion Jones, or even former Calgary Stampeder, Brandon Browner. Steroid users are seen as devious cheaters trying to gain an unfair advantage over their competitors. They are sneaky, dishonourable, and not to be admired.

In 2005, the American Congress spent 8 of 151 days in session debating the use of steroids in sports. There was more time devoted to steroids than to national healthcare. Joe Biden said, "This is about values. It's about our culture. It's about who we define ourselves to be." The great concern is that young athletes will emulate the behaviour of their heroes. This will cause an epidemic among youth that will wreck their health, their relationships, and ultimately, their character. These young athletes will never learn the value of hard work, honesty, and integrity. Steroids could destroy an entire generation of young people.

Even more dire, "on steroids" can evoke images of illicit drug use, dingy locker rooms, and clandestine meetings. Rightly or wrongly, it is widely assumed that steroids are addictive, produce "roid-rage", and grotesquely distort users' bodies and minds while destroying health, relationships, and family. Ultimately, steroid users are seen as treacherous, anti-social meat-heads, who are the intellectual companions of Neanderthals.

These connotations are a strange mix of the desirable, dishonourable, and the dangerous. Yet for all the opinions held by the public, very little is known regarding who actually uses steroids. The facts might surprise you.

Nearly 3 million Americans have used anabolic steroids for non-medical purposes. For the most part, these Americans are not naïve youth enamoured with steroid-using role models. They are not athletes secretly using steroids in contravention of sporting rules. And they are certainly not addicts making drug deals in dark alleys. The average steroid user is a much less likely candidate.

A study published in 2007 in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that the typical steroid user in America is a highly-educated, gainfully employed professional of approximately 30 years of age. This typical steroid user earns a higher-than-average income, is not involved in organized sport, and is motivated by the desire to improve health through physical activity supplemented with steroids.

This goes a long way towards undermining the popular ideas regarding steroid use. Generally speaking, steroid users are not impressionable youth--they are young adults fully capable of making informed decisions about their own health. Steroid users are not devious cheaters--they are not involved with organized sport and are not bound by the rules of any sporting body. Steroid users are not less intelligent--they are professionals with more than average education. And steroid users bear little resemblance to addicts--they are seeking to improve their health, not feeding an addiction.

I have little doubt that the Canadian experience is similar. Maybe I see steroid users at the gym. Maybe I see them at my kids' rec soccer games. Maybe they are protecting the public from actual criminals. In any event, it seems that many of them are among the best and brightest of our peers and the stereotypes are wrong.