What are poppers?
They are drugs sold in small bottles which you sniff for a quick high. Other chemicals have been used before but now the poppers you are likely to buy are alkyl nitrites.
Alkyl nitrites are also a medicine, to relieve angina, for example. Poppers previously used but no longer widely available include amyl nitrite, an antidote to cyanide poisoning.
Why are they so popular with gay and bi men?
When you sniff poppers from the bottle, you’ll get a head-rush and a high, lasting a couple of minutes.
They change your blood flow, relaxing your soft-tissue muscles – that’s why they make anal sex easier. They may also enhance sex in other ways, including making an orgasm feel like it is lasting longer or an erection feel stronger
They were popular as a club drug from the disco days of the 70s through to the rave scene of the 90s.
It is believed up to a third of gay and bi men use them regularly, mostly during sex.
What are the dangers?
They drop your blood pressure. That can be dangerous, particularly if you have blood pressure problems or are taking Viagra or something similar.
Death from sniffing poppers is unlikely. However, they can make heart conditions worse and stop blood cells distributing oxygen around the body. If you pass out and throw up, you could die.
They used to burn skin if you spilled them but the formula commonly sold now is now safer, unless you are allergic. Temporary or permanent loss of vision is another danger – if you notice your vision has changed after using poppers, you should get medical advice.
They can kill you if swallowed. Anecdotal evidence suggests many people who have had life-threatening problems from poppers are new users and thought they should be drunk, not sniffed.
Poppers may also make you more likely to take risks during sex, so you get an infection. For the most part though, the serious health risks of poppers appear to be far lower than those of alcohol or tobacco and they seem to be less addictive. In the UK, it appears about one death a year can be associated with poppers, though not always directly caused by the drug.
Are poppers illegal already?
In the US and UK, they are banned for public consumption – in other words it’s illegal to sell them as something sniff them recreationally. However, they are allowed to be sold openly as ‘video head cleaners’ or ‘room odorizers’ and are then used as drugs.
This is really a loophole in legislation in the US and because of a court decision in the UK. They don’t make your room smell nice.
France tried making them illegal in 2007 but reversed the ban. In Canada, poppers are technically banned. Other countries’ laws vary but poppers are widely available.
What is the new law in the UK?
The Psychoactive Substances Bill is likely to pass on 20 January and be enforced from 1 April across the UK. It is a blanket-ban on all psychoactive substances, unless they are in a list of things that are exempt.
This has to be a long list, as things like nutmeg are psychoactive. Alcohol, tobacco and caffeine have been added to the exemptions, despite their health risks.
Will it be illegal to own poppers?
Possession will not be illegal under the UK’s law. But passing them to someone else will be. So if you are having sex and offer your boyfriend a sniff of your bottle of poppers, you will have become a criminal at that point. Obviously enforcing that bit of the law will be tough.
It will be illegal to sell poppers. This will hit the pockets of gay sex shops in the UK hard as they are big sellers, particularly now people stream porn online rather than buy DVDs. Some could even go under.
It will be illegal to import poppers, so you can’t buy them online. And if you bring some back to Britain in your washbag after a holiday, you’ll be a drug trafficker.
What are the punishments?
The proposed UK law would allow you to be tried and punished in two different ways for any crime related to any ‘psychoactive substance’, including poppers.
For more trivial breaches, you would be taken to Magistrates Court, a lower court and the maximum penalty would be a fine and a year’s jail. More serious crimes would be taken to a higher Crown Court, given a full jury trial, and get you up to seven years in prison.
Problem is, the Psychoactive Substances Bill doesn’t specify what is a serious crime and what is a minor one. Chances are, bringing a bottle home from holiday in your luggage would get you a telling off or small fine and retailers who sell lots of poppers would be punished more harshly, but this is not guaranteed.
Are poppers actually ‘psychoactive’?
In the UK the proposed new law would make them illegal as they are considered to be psychoactive – just like alcohol, nicotine and caffeine.
They are widely assumed to be psychoactive but no one has conclusively proved they are and this was questioned by several experts GSN spoke with.
They give you a head-rush but that may just be through changing blood flow, they argue. And lots of things change your brain chemistry – exercise, for example.
If the new UK law comes in and someone is prosecuted for importing or supplying poppers, it is likely this defense will be tested in court.
Will the law work?
Famously, when the US banned alcohol in the 1920s, alcohol-related deaths increased and Prohibition gave rise to the most notorious gangsters in history.
The UK law has been modeled on Ireland’s Psychoactive Substances Act. Since that came into force in 2010, the use of these substances among young people seems to have gone up. Poppers are still sold openly in Irish sex shops.
Will it definitely become law?
Most likely yes. The UK government has the votes to pass the Psychoactive Substances Bill.
But Conservative and Labour Members of Parliament are arguing that poppers are excluded from it. They may be able to vote through that amendment, taking poppers out of the law but leaving in laughing gas, vanilla sky and other ‘legal highs’.
Alternatively, they may persuade Home Office Minister Mike Penning, who is leading on the law, to refer it to his own Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs before deciding whether poppers should be banned. Or to review the ban later. If that happens, it is likely poppers will be banned from 1 April for at least a few months.
Is banning poppers homophobic?
Some critics have said that if a substance was as widely used to enhance straight sex as poppers is used to enhance gay male sex, it wouldn’t be banned.
Matthew Hodson of gay health charity GMFA told GSN: ‘The harms caused by poppers are not of the same type of the harms caused by other psychoactive drugs. And because poppers use is much higher in our community the banning of them is going to effect our community more.
‘The bill could be construed as at least insensitive to the needs of men who have sex with men and, at worst, homophobic.’
Will a ban make poppers more dangerous?
Currently poppers in the UK are sold in hazard-labeled bottles with child-safe caps. After a ban, criminal gangs make take over the trade using dodgy chemicals.
Yusef Azad, director of policy at National AIDS Trust, said: ‘Enough gay men use poppers for us to think it very unlikely everyone will just stop of 1 April. They will able to enforce it where the poppers are relatively safe but not through routes where there is a higher risk.’
The old formula for poppers was more popular because it was stronger. Criminals would be well motivated to return to this, even though it causes skin burns when spilt and is more dangerous.