Alkyl nitrites, also known as poppers, have been inappropriately targeted and regulated by the FDA in an ongoing battle in the United States since the 1960’s. The motivation appears to be more political than scientific or practical. The contrast between the profile of the proponents of the regulations and the segment of the population prone to using poppers, weighs the control in favor of the politicians since they have the political and economic edge.
Clearly, the image of poppers and their users is diminished by this political and economic imbalance. The evidence does not support the claims. Nonetheless, the popular misconception is that poppers are drugs and should be banned! This article explores the topic and addresses the misconceptions in an effort to vindicate poppers and portray them as no more harmful than other recreational stimulants sanctioned by government regulations.
Interestingly, poppers and alkyl nitrites are not classified as controlled dangerous substances like marijuana, cocaine, meth and similar substances. Nor are they controlled by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). Nitrites are regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which targets manufacturers and retailers. These regulations are enforced by the FDA under its general powers to prohibit the sale of dangerous substances for human consumption. It’s not illegal to buy, possess or use poppers. It’s just illegal to sell them to consumers for the purposes of inhaling them.
What Are Poppers, and Why Are They Popular?
Alkyl nitrites and similar variants have many brand and street names including: amyl nitrite, butyl nitrite, isobutyl nitrite, TNT, liquid gold, Amy, high-tech, kix, locker room, poppers, ram, rave, rush, snappers, and thrust.
The term alkyl nitrite covers a number of volatile solvents, most commonly: amyl, butyl, and isobutyl nitrites. They are esters of nitrous acid and are prepared by combining the corresponding alcohol, sodium nitrite, and sulphuric acid. Amyl nitrite was originally used medically to relieve angina, first described in 1859 (Brunton 1867). Today, the only medical use for amyl nitrite is as an antidote to cyanide poisoning (Baselt and Cravey 1989) and as a diagnostic means for detecting cardiac murmurs (Rosoff and Cohen 1986). Although butyl and isobutyl nitrites have similar effects as amyl nitrite, they have never been used clinically.
Nitrites are volatile liquids that are inhaled by those seeking an effect to produce a near instantaneous “rush” that can last from a few seconds to up to five minutes. In the past, nitrites were sold in glass vials that had to be popped between the fingers to release the vapor; Hence, poppers becoming the slang term for nitrites. They produce a sweet, fruity smell when fresh, but when stale develop a pungent odor.1
Recreational Use of Alkyl
Amyl nitrite evaporates at room temperature releasing a vapor causing your veins and arteries to dilate resulting in the blood flowing faster through the heart and the brain. Poppers are used to enhance sensation, awareness of the environment and sexual sensation. They are popular among gay users and others because they trigger an almost immediate jump in the heart rate and a corresponding drop in blood pressure, causing smooth muscle tissue to relax. It is this muscle relaxation that allows for smooth entry during sexual acts.
Because they cause a drop in blood pressure poppers should not be used with any drugs known to cause similar drops such as Viagra. There isn’t necessarily any significant evidence to suggest that it causes brain/cellular damage: U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, July 1983, “Briefing Package on Petition HP82-1”, ‘”Available injury data did not indicate a significant risk of personal injury or illness from room odorizer abuse.”‘
Controversy of Including Alkyl Nitrites and Poppers as Banned Substance
As noted above, restriction on the use of alkyl nitrites and other formulas of poppers appears to be based on economic and political factors, rather than on scientific evidence. It would also appear to me that this discrimination is as much against the populations known to be heavy users of the liquids. The evidence presented over the years was ignored, and does not warrant the restrictions placed on this recreational enhancer. Alkyl’s status as a drug, its requirement to have a prescription to purchase and ultimate banning appear politically motivated. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, regulations have been enacted and enforced to restrict access and use for recreational purposes. Liquid Aromas’ political history of poppers2 clearly demonstrates the conspiracy to misrepresent the dangers of poppers and the subsequent need to regulate their sale and use. Among the findings are:
- 1982 CSPC investigation concludes that no restrictive action is necessary to curb the use of poppers and there is no “demonstrable hazard”.
- 1982 Charles Sharp of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) advises Washington that there is no strong case against the use of poppers as a recreational drug. Hank Wilson also admits to the government that there is demonstrable link between the use of poppers and AIDS, which was later refuted.
- 1984 US Department of Health and Human Services, in a memorandum to NIDA, state that the abuse of nitrites is “relatively unlikely to result in a medical emergency”.
None of the evidence presented supports this governmental regulation. The control and restriction continues today as manufactures change formulas and manufacture new creations to circumvent actions of the legislators and bureaucrats.
The classification of Poppers as a drug has been exaggerated and used for political purposes to discriminate against the users. Lowery describes this phenomenon best saying, “The underlying philosophical assumption is that any chemical whose sole purpose is pleasure is a priori wrong. There is a rich, clear Puritanical vein visible here regarding any activity which is not practical and productive. America has a rich Comstockian heritage of banning activities because they might bring pleasure to some other person.”
The political bias can be seen in, “…significant exceptions are made for the psychoactive drugs used by the dominant population, including those socioeconomic groups which tend to be active in legislative matters and consumers of such products as alcohol, tobacco and coffee. A “drug of abuse” is almost always one which is not in wide use by the social class which aspires to elected office.” According to Lowry. Clearly, poppers are misrepresented and controlled because the population that enjoys them does not have the power to remove those restrictions.