I got an introduction to the fringes of the supplement industry a few years ago when I went to Shanghai posing as the owner of an American supplement company with business cards for a site called progymgear.com and a list of powerful PEDs to get made. Ready to deal, I caught a cab to the Shanghai New Exposition Centre, where the Convention on Pharmaceutical Ingredients was being held.
As I flashed my shopping list to vendors there, I explained that I needed the PEDs shipped to the U.S. in violation of American laws dealing with controlled substances. Big pharma companies turned me away; they didn't need that kind of trouble. But plenty of smaller Chinese drug companies were eager to take my bait. One helpful woman even offered to send me the drugs via FedEx with a label that read "watermelon extract."
This is how things work in the underground. Designers who spend time researching unapproved drugs send their recipes to black marketeers in China — or increasingly places like Thailand and Vietnam — where chemists fill the orders and send back raw powder that is turned into capsules.
These days, the buzz is about a supplement called Craze, which promises "endless energy." And thanks to a recent USA Today report, the talk isn't just going on in secretive chat rooms.
Craze is the work of Matt Cahill, the owner of a company called Driven Sports. As USA Today's Alison Young reported, Cahill spent the past dozen years getting rich with little apparent regard for his customers' health. One of his biggest hits was a powerful steroid called Superdrol, which he admitted paying a Chinese lab $20,000 to produce.
Superdrol took off in 2004, at about the same time Cahill was going to jail for selling a weight-loss supplement that contained a molecular cousin of TNT. A company that licensed the wildly popular steroid from him eventually had to take it off the market after customers started complaining of liver problems and the Food & Drug Administration leveled charges that it was an unapproved new drug.
Cahill's latest gift to the sports world is Craze, which was named "New Supplement of the Year" in 2012 by the website Bodybuilding.com. Last June, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency found traces of an amphetamine in a batch it tested.
The USADA's scientists aren't the only ones troubled by that finding. Tiger Fitness, a large online supplement retailer, pulled Craze from its shelves after an analog called "eth-amphetamine" turned up in a batch it tested with an expiration date of November 2015. (The company made its report available to me.)
"Craze was our best selling pre-workout product," said Marc Lobliner, the business director for Tiger Fitness. "But until someone can prove it's 100 percent clean, we won't keep it on our site. It's just not worth it."
Some athletes are already blaming Craze for failed drug tests, including a bodybuilder who was bounced from a competition in Britain this spring and a rugby player who was suspended last year, leading the Australian Anti-Doping Agency to discover high levels of "eth" in the Craze he took.
The word may just be getting out among anti-dopers, but Craze has been widely discussed in chat rooms since it debuted in late 2011. "I have never had anything effect me like this before," one poster wrote on Bodybuilding.com. "My energy and just plain desire to be up and moving was not controllable. Honestly I was moving at such a fast pace I almost found it hard to talk because my words were smashing together, I literally had to force my self to talk slowly."
That jibes with the findings of Mahmoud ElSohly, a research professor at the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy who performed the tests at the lab hired by Tiger Fitness. "The problem with this compound is that it hasn't been studied, and it's not mentioned on the label, so there's no way for an athlete to know how much to take," says "At some levels, you could see blood pressure go up. At larger levels, you could be talking about serious side effects, maybe heart attacks."
As insane as that sounds, at least one other company appears to be following Cahill's lead. Tiger Fitness provided a report showing it also found high levels of "eth" in a product called Detonate by Gaspari Nutrition. The finding led it to yank that supplement from its lineup as well.
The company's CEO Richard Gaspari, didn't reply to a message left at his Lakewood, N.J., headquarters.
What's intriguing about all this is how some of the most unlikely figures in the supplement underground are banding together to blow the whistle on this latest challenge to federal drug laws, which list amphetamines as a controlled substance.
Patrick Arnold, who developed "the cream" and "the clear" for BALCO, said "I can't compete with this because I can't put speed in my products."
Ron Kramer, another BALCO figure who runs a company called Thermolife, and facilitated the tests for Tiger Fitness, terms the presence of amphetamines in supposedly all-natural products "sinister."
The main reason they're up in arms -- besides whatever benevolent motives they may harbor -- is that the $30 billion supplement industry is almost entirely unregulated, and they'd like to keep it that way. Craze and Detonate threaten to awaken the sleeping giant by causing Congress to take another look at its industry-friendly stance.
Cahill insists this is all a big mistake. On the website for his Driven Sports, he writes: "Extensive testing of Craze … [shows] the product does not contain any illegal stimulants."
But given the other evidence, and Cahill's regulatory history, it's not surprising that his rivals are calling for federal intervention.
"There are a lot of people on the sidelines who know what's in Craze," a key player in the business told me. "And if nothing happens in six months -- if it looks like the feds don't care -- everyone is going to be loading their weight-loss supplements with speed. And then, watch out."
When I called the FDA's Office of Criminal Investigation, the initial response I got wasn't encouraging. A spokesman said she didn't know anything about the USA Today article, even though Daniel Fabricant, head of the FDA's dietary supplement division, was quoted in the paper saying, "We are concerned about the rise of products that [are] … similar to amphetamine on the market."
I worry that while we're tying ourselves up in knots about A-Rod and the relatively small Florida anti-aging clinic where he got his steroids, a far bigger public health problem is brewing.
Remember the ephedra scandals of a decade ago? Players showed up to ERs in cardiac arrest. In one of the most publicized cases, Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Belcher collapsed during spring training in 2003 with a body temperature of 108, and subsequently died of heatstroke.
Like Craze, ephedra was billed as a way to get instant energy and lose weight. It was also linked to more than a hundred deaths, among them high school and college athletes who collapsed on the field, before it was banned in 2004.
So far we've been lucky. That hasn't happened. But with football training camps just getting into gear, the summer is a long way from over.
The word has to get out. Please, let's end the craziness now.