The UK government may have failed to ban poppers despite being determined to do so and thinking they have succeeded – because of their own scientific advisors.
The Home Office asked its own internal UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to investigate poppers further after the ban provoked controversy.
Those advisors have today issued an unequivocal statement saying that they do not consider poppers – alkyl nitrites – to be psychoactive.
Because of this, it does not believe poppers need exemption status with regard to the UK’s Psychoactive Substances Act.
The new law, which doesn’t even come into affect until 6 April, bans anything ‘psychoactive’ unless it is ‘exempted’, like alcohol and caffeine. Poppers were considered to be psychoactive so swept up in the law but now the scientists have said they don’t consider that to be true.
Even if the government insists they are banned under the law, the legislation could now be challenged in court with poppers supporters using the government’s own advisors as expert witnesses against the law.
The government’s top advisory body on drugs was responding to a request from MP Karen Bradley, Minister for Preventing Abuse, Exploitation and Crime, who is to oversee a review of poppers inclusion in the Psychoactive Substances Act.
The ban on the use of poppers, and whether they should be granted exemption status, has prompted contentious debate – including among MPs themselves.
When the bill reached its final reading in Parliament in January, Conservative MP Crispin Blunt admitted that he was a user of poppers and argued against them being criminalized. He called any ban ‘manifestly stupid’.
Poppers are used by many gay men because they have a muscle-relaxant effect and can make it easier to have anal sex.
Parliament voted against granting poppers exemption status but ruled that their inclusion in the act was to be reviewed once the legislation comes in effect.
In their report to Bradley, the ACMD say, ‘The ACMD’s consensus view is that a psychoactive substance has a direct action on the brain and that substances having peripheral effects, such as those caused by alkyl nitrites, do not directly stimulate or depress the central nervous system.
‘In the ACMD’s view, alkyl nitrites (“poppers”) do not fall within the scope of the current definition of a “psychoactive substance” in the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016.
‘Consequently, the ACMD does not see a need for an exemption under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016.’
The ACMD also took the opportunity to reiterate advice it gave in 2011 on poppers use in the UK with respect to the Misuse of Drugs Act: ‘Misuse [of poppers], within the terms of section 1 of the Act, is not seen to be capable of having ‘harmful effects sufficient to constitute a social problem.’
Last week, former Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg joined the chorus of public figures who have questioned the impending ban on poppers, telling the Guardian: ‘Frankly they could have been made exempt from the new act without the need for a review, but the Government didn’t want to admit they had got it wrong.’
It is now unclear what the legal status of poppers will be after 6 April, when the Psychoactive Substances Act takes effect.
If the ACMD’s advice is taken, there may not be any need for a review of poppers exemption status as they will not fall under the parameters of the substances targeted by the bill.
Mike Freer, a Conservative gay MP who fought the poppers law, told GSN: ‘I am seeking confirmation from the Home Office but if true this is welcome news. I raised the issue at the outset that the ACMD said poppers did not represent a risk significant of harm.
‘The ACMD now saying they are not psychoactive means poppers will fall outside the bill and will not be banned. Result.’
Gay Star News has asked the Home Office to clarify what the status of poppers will be after 6 April and is awaiting response.
UPDATE: GSN has now received an update from the Home Office but no answer yet on the status of alkyl nitrites.
Minister for Preventing Abuse, Exploitation and Crime Karen Bradley said: ‘We have noted the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and we intend to respond shortly.”