New State Steroid Laws Target Teen Athletes
By Hayley Wynn, Special to Stateline
Baltimore Orioles slugger Rafael Palmeiro has been playing professional baseball since today's high school athletes were infants. Now his suspension for steroid use is a lesson for teenagers, who increasingly are the focus of state lawmakers worried about the spread of performance-enhancing substances.
While Congress is threatening to police Major League Baseball to rid it of steroids, state legislatures have reacted to drug scandals in the sports world and in their hometowns by taking unprecedented first steps to weed out steroids from high school sports.
This year, six state legislatures - Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Texas and Virginia - passed measures to discourage steroid use by high school athletes. All but New Jersey's have been signed by the governor. Ten states now have laws on the books aimed at teen steroid use.
Among the 10 states with the highest rates of student participation in high school athletics, all either have a steroid statute on the books or considered one this session.
Earlier statutes were relatively weak, addressing student steroid abuse by such tactics as calling for health classes to cover the topic of steroids or requiring warning signs in locker rooms.
Among the new laws, Virginia's carries the toughest penalties for young athletes: Students found to have used steroids become ineligible to participate in sports for two school years, and teachers and coaches can lose their teaching certificates if they fail to report student steroid use.
Minnesota is cracking down on suppliers rather than users, creating sharper penalties for distributors by re-classifying steroids. Starting July 1, individuals who provide the drugs to minors could face up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The measure boosts the state's anti-steroid rules from among the weakest to one of the toughest in the country.
"Minnesota's steroid law needed bulking up," state Rep. Joe Atkins (D), author of the bill, said in a press release. "This is like a steroid law on steroids."
In a sports year studded by Palmeiro and other baseball stars testifying before Congress, this year's legislative efforts mark an inroad into "new territory for states," said Sara Vitaska, a research analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Estimates of the prevalence of steroid abuse in high school sports vary. "Monitoring the Future," an annual survey by the University of Michigan, reported in April that 2.5 percent of 12 th -graders used steroids in the previous year. A survey by the Centers for Disease Control in 2003 reported that 6.2 percent of high school students had taken steroids illegally at least once.
According to results of a Harvard study released Aug. 1 in the journal Pediatrics, approximately 5 percent of teenage boys and 2 percent of teenage girls use a nutritional supplement or steroid at least weekly to improve appearance or strength.
In some states, it was local news rather than the national spotlight that led to legislation. In Texas, nine students were discovered using steroids purchased by a teammate. Six Connecticut youths on football, track or baseball teams were arrested after getting caught with steroids acquired on a vacation to Mexico. Tragedy led the parents of two athletes - one in Texas and another in California - to lobby for stricter regulations after their sons committed suicide after taking steroids.
States generally are staying away from policing steroid abuse at the college level. The National Collegiate Athletic Association has its own drug-testing standards and permanently bans any student who tests positive twice, for any of a variety of banned substances, including steroids.
Rather than adopting the rigorous testing of college athletics, state legislatures are steering toward early intervention through better education, such as an Illinois law that requires school districts to develop steroid-abuse prevention instruction specifically for athletes.
A bill before the California Assmebly would require education for coaches and a pledge from athletes to stay drug-free and would prohibit schools from endorsing performance-enhancing substances. An earlier version, which included drug testing, was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) in 2004.
In Texas - with more high school athletes than any other state - the governor signed a bill that requires a student pledge and an educational program, but casts an eye toward future testing. If education is deemed insufficient after a year-long investigation, testing would begin.
One of the reasons states are slow to embrace drug tests is cost. An individual drug test can cost $100. A Florida bill for a pilot testing program passed the House unanimously, but floundered in the Senate because of a lack of funds.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) has pledged $330,000 for random drug testing and is pushing the Legislature for action next session, with the support of the New Mexico Activities Association, which regulates state high school sports.
"Generally speaking, education is cheaper and you get more bang for your buck, … but there is no glamour in education. [Testing] makes the news," said Jerry Diehl, assistant director of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS).
"What it comes down to is do you want to buy a football helmet or do you want to buy a drug test?" Diehl said.
Even so, about 4 percent of high schools already test for steroids, according to a nationwide 2003 survey of athletic directors. Of schools not testing for drugs, 54% cited prohibitive costs.
Besides financial obstacles, some schools are wary of drug testing because of privacy issues even though the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 upheld drug testing, including when testing specifically targets a group of high school students, such as those in extracurricular activities.
States with teen steroid statutes before this year include California, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania. States that considered but haven't passed steroid legislation this year were California, Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon and Tennessee.
Congress is currently considering two bills to curtail steroid use in professional sports.