Legalize Dud Drugs

According to Engber[‘s article], Human Growth Hormone (HGH or GH) has little to no performance enhancing-benefits. … I have the benefit of working down the hall from several exercise physiologists.  I forwarded [his] article to my colleague, John McLester. … “Oh yeah, I agree with [Engber]. This isn’t even controversial in exercise physiology. … There is no evidence of [benefit from bigger muscles]. It seems that the muscle that is developed is abnormal and not mature. I’ll point you to some studies (see below). …

With [Major League Baseball]’s adoption of mandatory testing for steroids, many thought that home run rates would drop dramatically. They didn’t, and many felt that the lack of a test for HGH could be part of the explanation. Well, it’s time for the scientists working on such a test to start something else more important.

That is John Bradbury.  He interprets:

The illegality of growth hormone actually promotes its use in sports. … The banning of a drug by anti-doping authorities sends a loud and incorrect signal that it works. … Therefore, I believe that legalizing growth hormone is needed to send the signal that it doesn’t work, largely to undo the widespread common belief that growth hormone does improve performance. … Think of the powerful effect it would have if MLB pulled growth hormone off its banned list. I can’t imagine a more powerful signal of a drug’s lack of potency as a performance enhancer. If we are going to be paternalists, let’s be effective paternalists.

Added 5Mar: See also here, HT Tyler.

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  • Violet

    Lots of non-performance incrementing drugs are banned in sports like e.g. finasteride. Another example would be Clomifene (which is used for recovery from anabolic steroids and block effects of estrogen).

    It is quite widely known that HGH alone or in very large doses does not help performance (and may actually decrease it).

    However it may make training with anabolic agents more effective.

    • What is the point of sport leagues banning drugs that have no effect on sport performance?

      • Nick Tarleton

        Harmful side effects.

      • Nick Tarleton

        Also the view of athletes as “role models”, in conjunction both with harmful side effects and with the overall view that drugs=bad.

      • Violet

        In case of HGH probably signaling.

        If HGH was legal and athletes took HGH to boost performance it would create a signal that there is “legalized doping” (even if it in reality didn’t boost the performance).

        Finasteride is banned because it might be used to hide the traces of the use of banned substances (anabolic steroids in this case).

      • A drug can have little or no effect when used by itself, but a synergistic effect with other drugs. That’s the contention with HGH: it reduces fat slightly, without putting on significant muscle, when used alone, but when combined with testosterone (or other anabolic-androgenic steroids), it supposedly amplifies the muscle-building effect — or so it was thought for a while.

        Finasteride, which Violet mentioned above, is better known as Propecia, the male pattern baldness drug. It blocks the transformation of testosterone, the most popular performance-enhancing steroid, into DHT, the hormone that triggers hair loss. So finasteride isn’t a performance-enhancing drug — or, at least, there isn’t good evidence that it is — but it is linked to steroid use.

        Clomifene is a women’s fertility drug that doesn’t simply stimulate the ovaries; it also “reboots” the male organs after they’ve stopped producing testosterone, which happens with long-term steroid use.

  • bruce

    Didn’t Jose Canseco say you take steroids to bulk up and growth hormone to get cut? Was he wrong?

    • vanveen

      yes, hGH reduces subcutaneous fat. it also seems to make you less susceptible to serious injury, but that could be an illusory benefit.

      it is mostly about looking fit and impressive (and that is well known). i would wager most professional athletes (and even all-american high schoolers) would bet against the proposition that hGH enhances performance when taken by itself.

      • ECM

        Actually, a substantial drop in bodyfat *is* a performance enhancer since you’re quicker with less dead weight hanging on your frame so HGH *is* a performance enhancer, especially when coming off a bulking cycle of steroids and you need to lean out.

  • Marshall

    With [Major League Baseball]’s adoption of mandatory testing for steroids, many thought that home run rates would drop dramatically. They didn’t, and many felt that the lack of a test for HGH could be part of the explanation.

    I think that this is wrong.
    Home runs in MLB peaked in 2000, and have been (mostly) declining ever since.

    1990 – 3,317 HRs hit
    1995 – 4,081
    2000 – 5,693
    2005 – 5,017
    2007 – 4,957
    2008 – 4,878
    2009 – 4,655
    Source: Baseball Almanac and Graph of the Day

    • Shek

      He was referring to home run rates, which have not dropped with any significance following the introduction of testing and are not that far off of the 2000 figure, which is the maximum.

      See the graphs at this post, which uses the Lahman Database.

      What Caused the Steroid Era?

    • tim

      Out of curiosity, why did you leave out 2006’s 5,386 home runs? It’s not like it contradicts your hypothesis or anything.

  • dzot

    While HGH doesn’t directly enhance performance, it does hasten recovery. Theoretically, faster recovery would allow more intense training which should improve performance at the margin.

    It’s a stretch to say the least.

    (BTW, I wonder what making HGH available to, say, everyone over 50 would do to reduce overall heath care costs.)

  • Brenton

    Just because testing is implemented doesn’t necessarily mean that doping stops, or even significantly lessens. I don’t know why people assume it does.

  • bruce

    I don’t plan to start taking anything for another ten or fifteen years. But, when I’m 55-65+? I want the option. My life depends on it.

    I don’t mind keeping the Gentlemen versus Players distinction for young athletes. But us old farts deserve a legal, professional ‘take what works is the whole of the law’ senior sports league out there, testing the cutting-edge exercise/drug routines for us.

  • Leiito

    why not legalize all drugs, tax them and use the money to educate people but if they still want drugs, they can get them in a supervised setting? Not that it’s a new idea, it’s been proven to work in many countries and it’s certainly better than the war on drugs that resulted in milions of non-violent people incarcerated, trillions spent on prosecuting and jailing them and still there were never more addicts, drugs were never cheaper, terrorists and organized crime are the only ones to benefit. Not to mention the government has no business telling people what they can do with their bodies.

  • I just added to this post.

  • Pingback: Is Being “Too Short” a Disability? | Science Not Fiction | Discover Magazine()

  • banning hgh and steroids certainly made them a desirable forbidden fruit.

  • brendan_r

    These pointy-heads are wrong. PEDs definitely enhance explosive power. Sprinters certainly think so, and since speed is easily measurable, it’s implausible that they’re mistaken. And since sprinting speed is a sort of athletic G-factor it’s unlikely that PEDs could aid sprinters but not other sorts of athletes. (More generally, wouldn’t it be surprising if natural hormone levels were perfectly optimized for athletic performance?)

    In baseball, fighting, sprinting and football, there have been dozens of instances of 35 year old past-prime-age guys surging in body size and performance, with PED use later fingered as the cause.

    A contemporary example is Alistair Overeem, a fighter who was marginal at 205 lbs early in his career, utterly dominant as a 280 lb roided up mutant, and is now regressing as tougher drug testing policies have shrunk him to a mere 245 lbs.—-All of Barry Bonds’ best seasons happened after he started roiding at 37 years old, an absurdly unlikely outcome if PEDs don’t work.–And of course there are the PED-enhanced women’s sprinting records from the 1990’s, which will never ever be broken cleanly.

    I bet the physiologists test people too soon after the PED based muscle gains. Anyone whose quickly gained ~10 lbs of muscle from lifting can attest that new muscle feels stiff and achy. I couldn’t tell you the underlying physiology- maybe it takes tendons and ligaments some time to catch up, or maybe fast/slow twitch composition changes over time- but it’s real. And it goes away.

    Anyway, this is definitely a field where practitioners know best!

    • All of Barry Bonds’ best seasons happened after he started roiding

      Steroids aren’t HGH. They’re both PEDs, but the essay isn’t about PEDs generally.

      Unless I’m mixing something.

      A tangent: is sprinting a good measure of general athletic ability because most sports involve running or because sprinting is correlated with all manner of athletic performance. (In other words, does sprinting predict golf ability–if you happen to know.)

      [My guess would be there are at least two broad, (mostly) independent factors in athletic ability: muscular strength and motor coordination. Sprinting loads strongly on both.]

      • brendan_r

        Stephen, agree completely. Muscle strength (explosion) and coordination are two sorta independent underlying ‘athleticism’ factors. Sprint speed is a marriage of the two; it, or vertical leap, adjusted for size, is the pithiest way to summarize athleticism.

        Golf probably correlates w/ speed the way being a comedian does with IQ; it’s helpful but not sufficient, nor is lots required.

        “I would think superstition is rife in sport.”

        Consider two questions: 1) in what situations should I punt the football, 2) does HGH make me run faster.

        Whereas the typical coach/athlete can’t even envision what an analytical answer to the first question might look like (and therefore can’t even trust the answer provided by someone like econ David Romer), the second question merely requires a needle, a stop watch and a couple months.

        That’s an experiment that’s been conducted, and results communicated, by tens of thousands of athletes, coaches, and (since there are millions of bucks on the line) well educated trainers. Dose-response time is short; outputs are easily measured in many sports, too.

        And there’s plenty of converging evidence- ALL the best home run hitters between 1995-2005 were found to be steroid users: Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, A-Rod, etc.

        Maybe the true answer is complicated, like: HGH is useful for some people but not others, in conjunction w/ other supplements, particular training, particular lag times after muscle gain, etc. etc. In other words, the stuff practitioners are advantaged at knowing.

        But I’m certain the truth is not what those physiologists are claiming.

      • What if the athlete’s receives a psychological boost? Trainers don’t run double-blind studies (or do they?)

      • brendan_r

        Yeah, sure, the primary gain Barry Bonds reaped by growing from 190 to 240 lbs was mental.

        Same with roided-up race horses- all placebo I’m sure.

        Look, I could easily envision steroids helping some struggling baseball player’s confidence and amplifying the physical gains.

        And I can point to careers ruined by steroids: NFL receiver David Boston ballooned from 210 to 260 lbs of pure muscle, ruining his speed, durability and career. The guy overdid it big time, probably due to some mental quirk similar to what motivates anorexics.

        So it’s complicated, and I think practitioners understand that more granularly than do researchers.

      • I think practitioners understand that more granularly than do researchers.

        Is your conclusion based on first-hand knowledge re trainers, or economic deduction (from the fact of a highly competitive market)?

        In bringing up steroids, I think you’re missing part of the point. If you asked an exercise physiologist about anabolic steroids, surely he or she would not then deny effect (both favorable and adverse).