Polydrug use and polydrug markets amongst image and performance enhancing drug users: Implications for harm reduction interventions and drug policy

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Over the past two decades, the use of image and performance enhancing drugs (IPEDs) has increased significantly. Once largely confined to professional athletes, IPED use has transcended the elite sporting arena and is now predominantly found among non-elite, recreational gym users. This paper presents research findings from a qualitative study of IPED use and supply in a ‘hardcore’ bodybuilding gym in the north of England. This article makes an original contribution to the field by providing an in-depth account of the use and supply of IPEDs among this population, demonstrating the intersectionality that exists across IPEDs, diverted medication and both licit and illicit substance use and supply.

The findings are based on the research team’s privileged access to an independent, ‘hardcore’ body building gym in the north of England. Four fieldworkers undertook overt systematic observations, supplemented by 20 semi-structured interviews.

Amongst this sample of bodybuilders, substance use transcended IPEDs to encompass a much broader cocktail of substances all who used IPEDs concomitantly used diverted medication as a means of negating anticipated side-effects, and over half used illegal psychoactive drugs. Furthermore, virtually all of these substances were available to buy via the gym, through fellow gym members and, at times, staff.

This article draws three main conclusions. (1) We are witnessing a convergence of IPED use and supply with diverted medication and ‘traditional’ recreational substances. (2) The extensive poly-substance use reported by interviewees in this sample necessitates a review of existing harm reduction advice for IPED users that takes into consideration the full range of substances currently being used. (3) Punitive drug policy reform that aims to reduce IPED markets needs to consider the potential to displace social supply towards more commercially-driven dealing. Harsher drug laws may also risk criminalising and stigmatising IPED users.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
JournalInternational Journal of Drug Policy
Early online date16 Mar 2019
Publication statusPublished - May 2019