Poppers Ban & Crispin Blunt’s Alkyl Nitrite Cause
Nitrite.org recognizes Tory Member of Britain’s Parliament Crispin Blunt to be a champion for the cause of opening reasonable consideration and discussion of free use of alkyl nitrites by individuals for physical and sexual pleasure. In what was a heroic moment, he challenged Parliament to look at the facts about nitrites and their impact on the health of users, and the society at large. In order to get their attention, he took a giant gamble that appears to have a most positive outcome. No one else in Britain and the United States has taken the leap of faith that Mr. Blunt took for a cause that has few champions.
During discussions preceding the vote on an amendment to exclude “poppers” from the list of a broad range of legal recreational drugs, including Nitrous Oxide or “laughing gas”, covered by the Psychoactive Substances Bill, Blunt and others unsuccessfully argued to have nitrites excluded from the bill’s list of banned substances. When it was apparent that the support was not there to achieve the goal, Blunt said, “I use poppers,” Blunt (yes, Emily’s uncle) announced last month in Parliament, while arguing against a bill that bans drugs inducing “legal highs.” “I out myself as a poppers user. And would be directly affected by this legislation. And I was astonished to find that it’s proposed they be banned and, frankly, so were very many gay men.”1 The bill passed resulting in alkyl nitrites and other volatile substances being banned effective April 2016. Blunt’s very public position added a voice of moderation to the consideration.
Poppers Ban is “Fantastically Stupid” Crispin Blunt’s Motivation
What was Mr. Blunt’s motivation to take such actions? Mr. Blunt, chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, revealed that he is a user and argued outlawing the substance would harm the gay community. Speaking in the Commons, the former justice minister said: “There are some times when something is proposed which becomes personal to you and you realize (sic) the Government is about to do something fantastically stupid and I think in those circumstances one has a duty to speak up.”2 Since the 1960’s common belief has been that nitrite “poppers” are used more by gay men, than any other segment of society. A gay activist group Stonewall.org UK, stated, “Proportionally, gay and bi men are by far the largest users of poppers in the UK: one in three have used them, usually because sniffing poppers helps some men to have anal sex. They’ve been used since the 1970s and, when reviewed, experts have concluded that, apart from older forms of poppers which were banned for being carcinogenic, there is a limited risk of harm.”3 The concern expressed by Blunt and others reflected concerns about the well-being of gays and fear that they would become victims of illegal substance use, unsavory dealers and poor quality substances. Stonewall believed that this concern for gay men was the amendment’s undoing, saying. “Before the government agreed to closely examine the effect of poppers on the body, Blunt unsuccessfully attempted to exempt them from the list of banned “legal highs,” and some say their association with gay men did them in.”4
While there has been much written about the health dangers of using nitrites, little has been proven. Side effects and unanticipated consequences are more often presented. For example, “The only concern to health that has been established is that if you use poppers and don’t have safe sex, HIV transmission is much more likely if you are having sex with an HIV positive partner. But that risk is best minimized through effective education campaigns with men who use poppers and individuals taking responsibility for their own sexual health.”5 The plea that was apparently heard was that gay men and their relationships would be unfairly targeted by the ban. Home Office Minister Mike Penning wrote, “The Government recognizes (sic) that representations have been made to the effect that ‘poppers’ have a beneficial health and relationship effect in enabling anal sex for some men who have sex with men, amid concern about the impact of the ban on these men.” Thus, consideration for the users gained favor for Mr. Blunt’s argument.
Who is Crispin Blunt MP?
Fifty-six-year-old Crispin Blunt is a well-educated politician, retired military man and a proven leader in Parliament since earning his first seat in 1992. He earned an MBA from Cranfield University School of Management in 1991. Blunt served as an Army Officer until 1990 in the 13th/18th Royal Hussars (Queen Mary’s Own) after being educated at Wellington College and The Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, where he won the Queen’s Medal, gaining a Regular Commission. He served as a business and political consultant after his military career. In 1993 Crispin was appointed as Special Adviser to Malcolm Rifkind the Secretary of State for Defense, and worked in the same capacity when Malcolm Rifkind became Foreign Secretary between 1995 and 1997.6 While serving in the Parliament, Mr. Blunt held numerous important leadership posts.
Key among Mr. Blunt’s positions and accomplishments are:
- Crispin was elected to Parliament as Member for Reigate in Surrey. (May 1997)
- House of Commons Defense Select Committee
- House of Commons Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Select Committee. (May 2000)
- Shadow Minister for Northern Ireland. (September 2001)
- Deputy to Tim Yeo, Shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. (July 2002)
- Defense Select Committee. (December 2003 to October 2004)
- Conservative front bench as an Opposition Whip under Michael Howard.
- Chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council. (2003 to 2008)
- Officer for the Conservative Parliamentary Friends of India.
- Shadow Home Affairs Minister with particular responsibility for Security and Counter-Terrorism .
- Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice upon the formation of the Coalition Government. (2010)
- Minister responsible for Prisons, Probation, Youth and Criminal Justice. (until September 2012)
- Chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee. (2015)
Policies that were of particular personal interest to Mr. Blunt included the introduction of payment by results, restorative justice and work in prisons. Other significant criminal justice achievements included the abolition of the indeterminate sentence for public protection and the criminalization of squatting in residential property. In his spare time, Mr. Blunt is an avid Cricketer; participated as a member of the MCC and the Lords and Commons Cricket Club and still enjoys representing the Parliamentary side in his spare time. 7
Nitrite.org has reached out to Crispin Blunt for insights about his campaign to have alkyl nitrites removed from consideration of the Psychoactive Substances Bill. The editors hope to feature his comments about his personal and political views in a future article on a virtual interview with him. Readers of this post are encouraged to submit questions for Mr. Blunt to this blog for inclusion in the interview. Nitrite.org hopes to gain insights to benefits its campaign to normalize use of alkyl nitrites as inhalants in the US.
What was decided?
What was achieved was a commitment to study evidence of the health and social impact of inhaling nitrites and exclude them if warranted. “In consultation with the Department of Health and the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, the Home Office will now consider whether there is evidence to support these claims and, if so, whether it is sufficient to justify exempting the alkyl nitrites group.” A final decision taken by Home Secretary Theresa May and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt will be made before the summer, Mr. Penning said.8 The compromise was to commission Britain’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to evaluate and report on its assessment on the harms and psychoactivity of alkyl nitrites. The outcome was that the claim was not valid or sufficient to ban nitrites. Their conclusion on psychoactivity said, “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.”9 The technicality here is that the lack of psychoactivity negates the need to exempt the substances and removes them from consideration of the Act. The ACMD’s opinion given in 2011 (see para 3.6) remains valid. It reiterated 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.10 These two facts comprise the evidence needed to exclude alkyl nitrites from the Psychoactive Substances Law.
Building Support in Britain
Other ministers in Parliament have joined the campaign to exempt and exclude alkyl nitrites from the shadow of the Psychoactive Substances Bill. Out Tory MP Mike Freer, one of the leading backbench voices to speak out against the ban, is set to meet with the Minister ahead of the review. He told PinkNews that although he was disappointed it was “not possible” to block the ban in Parliament, he was pleased that a review will be conducted. He said: “Securing an evidenced based review, which includes the relationship benefits, is an important concession.”11 His support was based on the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs’ prior findings refuting the evils of alkyl use. Another Tory MP, Michael Fabricant, added that he had “tried” poppers – but not for anal sex. He made his point while lauding the use of a science based study commission to evaluate the facts of the matter. He said, “The Government intends to complete such consideration in time to enable any such draft regulations to be laid before both Houses and approved before the summer recess should the Government conclude that a case had been made to include alkyl nitrites in the list of exempted substances.”12 Finally, the former Deputy Prime Minister of the UK Nick Clegg says poppers should not be outlawed and that government has got it ‘wrong’. The former Deputy Prime Minister of the UK, Liberal Democrat MP Nick Clegg, has said that ‘legitimate businesses’ that produce poppers should be allowed to continue producing them while the Government undertakes a review on whether to exempt them from the new Psychoactive Substances Bill.13 These actions represent a level of open-mindedness not experienced in the US toward the complicated issue of regulating and normalizing the use of “popper” for personal pleasure.
Organizations have lobbied for the changes as well, resulting in growing support within Parliament. The Stonewall UK advocacy group is a prime player saying, “We have argued with other organizations (sic), like the National Aids Trust, that if the evidence shows that harm from poppers is not significant, then poppers should also be exempt. MPs in the Home Affairs Select Committee agreed.14 They continued, “And the Labour Party tabled an amendment to the bill to exclude poppers on that basis, which received support from MPs of all parties in the debate. Unfortunately, the Government did not support this move and it was defeated in a vote.” Clearly support from all directions in the Parliament led to enough caution to consider the impact of the actions to include alkyl nitrites in the bill. They are also calling for increased regulation and control by the government to insure the availability of the compound to adults only, and implementation of quality controls to insure safety for the users.
Finally, individuals and other agencies are calling for realistic and objective considerations of the issues that have clearly been emotionally charge and controlled in the past. Former government drugs adviser Professor David Nutt wrote to Prime Minister arguing against banning legal highs representing more than 40 academics, campaigners and professionals who appealed for the proposed Psychoactive Substances Bill to be reconsidered. They argued that banning all legal highs was tantamount to banning new music or the internet because they can possibly have a negative effect if used improperly. There real concerns were based on the elimination of a opportunity for science to develop new substances that can benefit individuals and society. They argued further,
If enacted, the Psychoactive Substances Bill would be unlikely to reduce the market for new psychoactive substances (NPS), which are mostly sold “not for human consumption”. The law will place the market in the hands of unregulated criminal organisations; increasing the likelihood of violence between competitors over market control as well as driving market focus on products that are higher in price and potency. Unregulated illegal markets have no incentive to comply with quality assurance protocols and accurate labelling of products, resulting in increased health risks for users and a greater strain on the already overburdened National Health Service.
Medical science will suffer from the proposed legislation, just as it continues to suffer from the over rigid regulation of other controlled psychoactive substances. Scheduling psychoactive agents in a blanket ban will impede the development of novel psychiatric medicines and prevent vulnerable members of society from potentially benefiting from new treatments.15
To top that all of, they feel that the control of these substances will further reduce the freedoms enjoyed by the citizenry.
Clearly, Crispin Blunt MP has been a champion and a voice of reason for the cause of freeing alkyl nitrites from control from the Psychoactive Substances Bill passed in February 2016. What was accomplished was a commitment to look at the facts of the matter and make a scientific determination regarding the effects of alkyl nitrites on the users. The review of facts is promised to be completed by the summer recess of Parliament. Mr. Blunt stuck his neck out for a cause that he believes to be unjust. Fortunately, many members of Parliament and community advocacy groups support the underlying issues. Time will tell if his and his co-supporter have prevailed against an unreasonable and misguided act.