Should doping be a criminal offence?

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The UK Sports minister, Tracey Crouch, has told the BBC she has instructed civil servants in her department to ‘look into’ making doping a criminal offence.

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Since the athletics doping scandal erupted over the summer, engulfing Paula Radcliffe amongst others, there have been calls in the UK for doping to become a criminal offence. The calls in the UK have been led by a former sports minister, Lord Moynihan. France and Italy do have laws to criminalise doping. Last week the World Anti Doping Agency issued a statement clarifying their position.  WADA believe that sport should be the ultimate arbiter in it’s own matters. As such the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) should have the ultimate say in matter related to sport with no need for national legal systems to be involved. There have, however, recently been challenges to CAS decisions, particularly of interest is the case of Claudia Pechstein (, which has taken the CAS decision into German courts. If more cases such as this occur and CAS is weakened the argument for sport’s self regulation also weakens.  WADA do acknowledge that there are some advantages, such as the ability to prosecute support personnel who may be supplying drugs to athletes. The criminalisation can also be seen as a strong deterrent, not only would an athlete and their support staff lose race results and potentially some prise money they would get a criminal record. It is well known that drug testing only catches a small proportion of those athletes that chose to cheat, so would this move lessen the number who decide to cross that line?
Currently there are aspects around doing that are illegal: trafficking and dealing of steroids or other controlled drugs. Steroids, incidentally are legal to import and possess for personal use, whilst possession with intent to supply is illegal. these all come with criminal sanctions.  It was reported in some newspapers that a doped athlete could face two years in prison. This sounds very unlikely in practice, but may well be a deterrent to some. I would suggest it is more likely if convicted the athlete would be fined with potential to strip assets gained from the ‘doped’ results, much as a drug dealer would be treated.

Ultimate end points:

No need for filling in whereabouts forms any more – athletes will be fitted with electronic tags on the ankle, just as for people on curfew.
No more cyclists hiding behind the sofa waiting for the drugs to flush from the system – Police have a warrant to enter premises where a suspected doped athlete is.

What does this mean for UK Anti Doping?  A week or two ago UKAD suggested they will be forced to find 25% savings in the Government spending review this November. The programme run by UKAD does not only involve the tests themselves, but intelligence work and education programmes to prevent athletes starting doping in the first place. Maybe the testing should go – only 2% of tests catch anyone each year – is this a good use of their money??  (This is for another day – is testing any use in sports?) Or perhaps the education?  Would the task of policing fall to UKAD, as the Police services in the UK are also facing large cuts to numbers. The Metropolitan Police (London) chief has already warned that police are being cut to levels he feels are a threat to public safety. Would they then want to take on the task of checking what footballers or rugby players are taking in their performance enhancing shakes?

I would be very surprised if doping were criminalised in the UK. Existing legislation is there to prosecute those dealing in steroids or other drugs. I can understand some athletes, such as Jo Pavey, who have supported this. They have lost out to athletes they are fairly sure have doped. Would this help them?  I am again not so sure. There are many analogies with recreational drug use.  The possible criminalisation targets those at the bottom of the food chain (athletes or drug users), rather than prevention of the traffic and importation of illegal drugs (performance enhancing or otherwise).  I would like to see current laws applied, more intelligence led testing and cooperation between sports and policing.

Thanks for reading. Have you got any thoughts on this? Let me know in comments or via twitter!




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About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He is currently the subject lead for chemistry and forensic science at Sheffield Hallam University. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. And yes... he watches CSI.