Just as Arnold suspected, norbolethone was so obscure that professional doping programs had no reference sample and thus could not detect it. It was a brash entrepreneur named Victor Conte who pushed the limits of that obscurity. He ran a sports-nutrition center in Burlingame, California, called the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO). Through BALCO, Conte sold legal zinc-magnesium supplements of questionable efficacy and enlisted topflight athletes to promote them. Among them were true superstars: Marion Jones, who would become the fastest woman in the world, and Barry Bonds, who would go on to break the record for most home runs in a single season. In addition to providing these athletes with supplements, Conte offered up secret supplies of illegal steroids on the side.
Arnold, who met Conte in an Internet chat group, sent him the new compound. Conte rechristened it “the clear” and began distributing it to top athletes. Arnold himself gave the clear to Olympic cyclist Tammy Thomas, whose heavy use would eventually alert authorities to the drug. Thomas ignored Arnold’s dosing advice, he claims, and by 2002 was using so much norbolethone that she had grown facial hair. When her natural testosterone dropped to levels far below normal, testers began to scrutinize her urine. It was only a matter of time before they identified metabolites that led them to norbolethone.
Conte got wind that the authorities were closing in and told Arnold to find a replacement compound. In response, Arnold gambled with a move both rare and bold in underground chemistry: He created an entirely new steroid. To do so, he sat down with The Merck Index, a standard reference manual for chemicals, drugs, and other compounds, and turned to the section on the class of hormones to which norbolethone’s precursor belonged. He hoped to find a different precursor that could be transformed into a steroid using the same molecular processes used to render norbolethone.
Arnold dismissed some because he knew they were associated with steroids on watch lists. Others he knew from experience had molecular properties that would make them weak. Then he spotted tetrahydrogestrinone, a compound never before used to create a steroid. It had three alternating carbon double bonds, called conjugations, that he had seen in some potent steroids, as well as an additional carbon atom that he recognized would give it extra strength.
“I knew I was looking at an exciting structure,” Arnold recalls. “It’s very complex compared with other ones. It was more potent. People would not have to take as much. The stuff would have been invisible forever. It was perfect, perfect stuff.” He put clients on 10 milligrams a day, then reduced it to 5 milligrams when he was sure it worked.
But Conte had a lot of enemies, among them Marion Jones’s former coach Trevor Graham. In June 2003 Graham sent a syringe that contained the new substance to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Once the group had a sample, it was only a matter of time. The authorities closed in and exposed one of the biggest scandals in the history of sports.
In 2005 the Feds raided Arnold’s home and lab. He was convicted and sentenced to three months in prison in 2006. The investigation touched off litigation that lasted through last year, when Barry Bonds was finally sentenced to 30 days of house arrest for obstructing justice during the inquiry.
Today, Arnold insists he is out of the steroid game. Andro and many other prohormones like it have been outlawed by Congress, and Arnold says he is focused solely on legal supplements. To pay fines, he and his partner were forced to auction off their new warehouse with all its top-of-the-line equipment. Today they are back in the old warehouse in the cornfields outside of Champaign, looking for compounds that are distinct from any banned substances to keep them out of trouble.
Don Catlin, the founder of the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory in Los Angeles and the man who finally identified Arnold’s “clear,” says there are several hundred known steroids, and one could “spend a lifetime finding them, manipulating them, and getting them into a form where you could give them to a human being.”
Arnold says that in manufacturing their own supplements, he and Boodram are now an exception in the industry. Almost nobody makes steroids or supplements themselves nowadays; most outsource the job to China. As a respected underground chemist, Arnold is sometimes called upon by others in the industry to test products they have had made in Chinese factories. He says these factories “often substitute cheaper steroids for more expensive ones, or sometimes they just sell crap, which I can’t even characterize on my instruments.”
The same problem shows up in the new wave of psychoactive chemicals mass-produced overseas. At least five deaths and dozens of hospitalizations, for instance, are believed to have been caused by a compound called Bromo-Dragonfly that was first developed in Nichols’s Purdue lab and is now produced for Westerners in China.
In one fatal 2009 batch, a San Jose man died after consuming Chinese-made Bromo that contained “unspecified synthesis impurities,” which may have contributed to the product’s toxicity, according to the underground drug user website Erowid. His distributor sent more of that batch to other users in Denmark and Spain, leading to at least one other death and numerous hospitalizations. And just last May, a Chinese manufacturer sent a college student in Oklahoma a mislabeled batch of Bromo when he had ordered a far less potent product. As a result, two more people died and six others were hospitalized after overdosing.
The shifting realities of a world where legitimate chemical research can be hijacked by anyone with a hot plate and an Internet connection has forced Nichols to reconsider his craft. He works more closely with the Drug Enforcement Agency to monitor new compounds and is more aware of the consequences of making his research public. “Now when we publish, I think, ‘Is this going to be a problem?’ If we published an LSD analogue with 10 times the potency of LSD, I guarantee that six months later it would be all over the Internet.”
Nichols believes his work could help explain memory, depression, even the nature of consciousness. Science must continue, he says, and he can’t stop publishing. But now he knows who might be reading.
Adam Piore is a DISCOVER contributing editor. He last wrote for the magazine on regenerative medicine in the July/August 2011 Issue.
Russia’s Home-Brewed Drug Crisis
Crystal meth, synthesized in small-scale labs across the United States, exacts a harsh physical toll, rotting users’ gums and eating away at their teeth. But meth’s ill effects pale in comparison to those of an intravenous home-brewed opiate now sweeping through Russia. The drug’s nickname, krokodil, comes from a grisly sign of use: Tissue around the injection site dies and results in patches of skin that turn greenish gray and scaly, like the hide of a crocodile.
Desomorphine, as krokodil is formally known, can be cooked up at home according to online recipes that require only readily available ingredients. Codeine, the active component, is sold over the counter in Russia in cough medicines and painkillers. Other components are household items, including paint thinner, iodine, and red phosphorus shaved from matchbooks.
“Krokodil is a last resort for people who can’t get heroin or other injected drugs,” says Russian public-health researcher Kirill Danishevskiy. It costs only a tenth as much as heroin, though its high is shorter; addicts often have to inject the drug 7 to 10 times a day to stave off withdrawal.
Although statistics are scarce, Russia—a nation of about 140 million people—may have nearly a million krokodil users, estimates Anya Sarang, a public-health advocate who works with drug users in Moscow.
The drug’s toxicity has effects much grimmer than crocodile-like skin. Large areas of tissue can rot away, often down to the bone; in severe cases, the bone rots away, too. Addicts are often forced to have their limbs amputated and are prone to secondary infections such as tuberculosis. But many users are so caught up in the cycle of making and taking the drug, Sarang says, that they cannot be bothered to go to a doctor—and for the few who do, Russian hospitals are ill equipped to help them. Life expectancy for krokodil addicts after they begin using is about two years.