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UK Home Secretary may officially make poppers legal

UK Home Secretary may officially make poppers legal

  • Priti Patel wants to clear up confusion about the drug which is popular with gay and bi men for sex.
Priti Patel

UK Home Secretary Priti Patel has said she wants to remove any legal ban on poppers – a drug gay and bi men use during sex.

The exact legal status of poppers is unclear after a 2018 court case indicated they may be illegal under the Psychoactive Substances Act.

Meanwhile their uncertain legal status means retailers sell them as ‘room aromas’, ‘deodorisers’ or ‘leather cleaners’. However they are not used that way.

Instead they are sniffed from small glass bottles to give an instant but short high. The chemicals, alkyl nitrites, work as a muscle relaxant, making them particularly popular for people having anal sex.

The UK Government’s own Frank drug advise website notes they are available ‘in sex shops, clubs, market stalls and online’.

It adds: ‘Because poppers increases blood flow and can relax the walls of the anus and vagina, some people take it while they’re having sex.’

The UK’s strange debate on banning poppers

Poppers have been around since the 1970s but have long had an uncertain legal status in the UK.

The UK’s Conservative government previously tried to ban them in 2016 as part of a crackdown on legal highs. The law would have punished supply by up to seven years jail.

However the debate led to unusual scenes in the House of Commons.

One Conservative MP, Mike Freer, argued poppers should remain legal. He said they can be ‘a first line of treatment if one is bitten by an adder’, Britain’s only venomous snake.

Meanwhile another Conservative MP, Crispin Blunt, declared he was a popper user. He said banning them would be ‘fantastically stupid’.

Despite their appeals, the bill passed through parliament and was about to become law.

UK poppers u-turn

But then the government’s own Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) intervened. It said they the new Psychoactive Substances Act would not include alkyl nitrites because they are not psychoactive.

As a result, with just days to go before the new law was due to take effect, the government u-turned and decided not to ban them after all.

However there was a further twist in 2018. A Court of Appeal judgement confirmed that substances, like poppers, which have an ‘indirect’ psychoactive effect, could still be illegal under the act.

If that’s true, possessing poppers will remain legal but supplying them would be an offense.

Now Patel wants to clear up this confusion.

In a letter to the ACMD she says: ‘I am minded to remove this uncertainty by explicitly exempting poppers from the 2016 Act. I would seek the ACMD’s advice on an exemption.’

This is the exemption gay MPs argued for at the time which the Conservative-dominated Commons refused to grant. Indeed the act already excludes other substances including alcohol, tobacco and even nutmeg.

Are poppers safe?

Britain is not alone in attempting to ban poppers only to change its mind.

In 2018 Australia tried to make them as illegal as heroin. However the moved caused uproar in the LGBT+ community. Research showed up to 40% of gay and bi men in the country used poppers in the previous six months.

In the end, Australia also u-turned, although it did put some restrictions on the sale of certain types of poppers.

Meanwhile the arguments have sparked much debate about whether poppers are dangerous.

Sniffing poppers has been associated with very few deaths in 40 years. Indeed, in those cases other factors or substances were usually involved.

However, sniffing them can be dangerous in some cases, particularly for people with heart problems, anaemia or glaucoma

Despite this, researchers have concluded poppers are low risk. Moreover, they pose very little chance of addiction, risky consumption habits or other psychosocial problems.

Nevertheless, it can be deadly to drink them. And some kinds of poppers can burn skin if you spill them. However this risk can be reduced by using reputable suppliers. 

Because of their uncertain legal status, they are sold without advice on how to use them. And that has led to some people drinking them, rather than sniffing them.

It is unclear if Patel’s attempts to decriminalize them may allow producers and retailers to provide that advice in future.