The Ban That Did Not Kill the Dream


Due to a recent failed attempt by English Parliament to put poppers on a blanket list of banned legal highs, some people have taken this as signs of waning use of the sought after compounds in the little bottles of perceived carnal pleasure.

Poppers are used by some for recreational and sexual purposes for their ability to relax the smooth muscles and facilitate smooth entry during sex. This trail of thought sometimes leads to a misrepresented idea that popper use is beginning to die out and be relocated to moments of nostalgia among older gay men.

If anything, the thrusting of poppers in the limelight by Conservative MP Crispin Blunt’s recent coming out should shed some light onto just how entrenched popper use is among people of all social classes and sexual backgrounds.

He admitted to being a user of poppers and argued that restricting them would unfairly impact the gay community and the relationships of gays who commonly use poppers. This admission caused his colleagues to consider the argument against banning poppers, and encouraged other prominent figures to speak out in favor of excluding poppers from the ban.

What Happened Across the Pond in England?

In March 2016 British Parliament had convened to discuss putting out legislation that puts a blanket sweep on all manufactured psychoactive designer drugs. The law includes a 7-year prison sentence placed on anyone caught selling anything listed in the legislation. For the purposes of the Psychoactive Substances Act poppers were to be listed as a psychoactive substance defined as, “a substance that produces a psychoactive effect in a person if, by stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system, it affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state; and references to a substance’s psychoactive effects are to be read accordingly.

With Mr. Blunt’s surprising testimony during the discussion of the legislation, the English Parliament, through deliberation decided that poppers may not fit under the definition of psychoactive substances, but should be included in the ban until formal proof could be provided that proved poppers were not psychoactive. They could be excluded later.

In fact, the ACMD (Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs), a British advising body on drug control, was quoted as saying it’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.” This statement prompted Minister Karen Bradley to say, “having given due consideration, the Government agrees with your advice and interpretation of the definition.” With the ability for such a moment of duty to provoke Mr. Blunt to stand up and have an effect like this on this perceived banal substance to the youth, it should be hard for anyone to think that the use of poppers has fallen to the wayside.

How Popular Was It Vs. How Popular Is It

It is no secret how poppers became so popular with a trail of history that goes all the way back to medicinal use for angina in the 1800’s. Our story comes several decades afterwards and starts in the 1950’s when Amyl Nitrite started gaining grounds as a recreational drug on the stage in Great Britain, which led to its spread here.

The lifted over-the-counter ban of 1960 helped amyl nitrite transition over smoothly to recreational use. The ban of amyl nitrite in 1969 began the synthesizing of similar but less pure atomic structures of this now harder to attain chemical compound.

When butyl and isobutyl came out onto the scene in the early 70’s, poppers were beginning to become entrenched in American gay nightlife becoming part of the mystique of the culture of the day with accounts of use in discos and other popular spots of the time.

There is no known number count, but it would seem that it was a fairly common sight to be seen if you were part of the gay culture at the time of those social endeavors. Fast forward past the ban of isobutyl and butyl nitrite for inhalation use that took place in America in 1988 and move to current times where a study done by Sigma research of London shows that up to 60% of the people they surveyed had used poppers in the past year.  Seventeen percent had never used poppers with 15% having used them in the past week.

A way to look at drug trends of the future among adults is the use of any substance among the youth as it is not uncommon for kids to carry the use of drugs into adulthood. With that being said, a survey in North-West England found that 20% of 16 year olds admitted to using poppers while a survey in 2000-2001 conducted in the United States found that 1.5% of American aged 12-17 admitted using poppers.

This figure rose to 1.8% among adolescents over 14 and in 1987 a study showed that less than 3% of the entire population of America had ever used poppers with a prevailing use in the homosexual community.

In 1995, a study had found that 21.4% of homosexual men use poppers in some manner in their life. “Poppers” can still be found in fact in the United States in head shops and other venues across the country as the compounds needed to attain the rush of the volatile substances are still very much legal to sell as commercial products, including but not limited to being marketed as leather cleaners and solvent cleaners.

So Is It Dead?

It is safe to say, for now at least, that even with the repetitive passing of legislation in the US aimed at prohibiting the use of volatile nitrites for recreational use they are, at the very least, staying steady long after the 70’s.

With users having been able to find some solstice in the 90’s rave scenes and having an entrenched standing with men and women of all standing in life, it appears poppers will continue being a pretty common sight in the gay community.

Plus, there is a possibility of getting a bigger foot hold among pleasure seekers in straight relationships if laws are passed to end the bans. The shedding of light on what could be considered a deeply shrouded subject could finally end the perceived persecution of the homosexual community by their governing bodies.

As it does seem the use of poppers will continue to be a mainstay of gay culture no matter the legal persecution; while with more medical studies and outreach to the public in coming years, the world of amyl nitrite and other variant structures could get a new lease on life. Time and current research will tell if the actions in Britain have any impact on the use of poppers for recreational purposes in that country. The Parliament has yet to act on excluding poppers from the Psychoactive Substances Act. Until that time, the status quo has not changed.