Poppers and Civil Rights: How the FDA Made Such a Mess of Amyl Nitrites

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Actions of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Government over the last fifty years set off a chain reaction of confusion and misidentification for alkyl nitrites, also known as poppers. First, confusion over the technical name of the compound has led to confusion and mix ups for decades.

Second, the government initially endorsed the use of poppers, then reversed its decision based on specious considerations. Third, the actions of the US government appear to be focused more on the segments of the population most known for using poppers, rather than the compound itself, hinting at discrimination based on civil rights issues. So, what are poppers and how did this mess happen?

What are Poppers?

Amyl nitrites, also known as poppers, have been confused, misidentified and regulated by the FDA in the United States since the 1960’s, resulting in products that barely represent the original. Poppers, “a slang term” that originated for amyl nitrite, are composed of nitrites which 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. They became popular when used by US Veterans, gays and youth in the disco and later dance scenes for intense sensitivity and sensual experience.

The “poppers” moniker has carried over to modern day formulas known as alkyl nitrites, including the popular isobutyl nitrite of current favorites. Since being banned by the FDA for use as an inhaled stimulant, they have been marketed and redesigned by manufacturers for various labeled uses including air fresheners and video head cleaners. Formulas have been changed to skirt the law, leading to more technical confusion. In addition, they are commonly known by their street names, not their chemical names which has led to much confusion, misnaming and misrepresentation. Particularly troublesome is the confusion of calling them “nitrates.”

Confusion Over the Technical Name

Alkyl nitrites are more often referred to as “nitrates.” In fact, internet searches will often turn up nitrates more frequently. According to Wikipedia, nitrite is important in biochemistry as a source of the potent vasodilator nitric oxide. In organic chemistry the NO2 group is present in nitrous acid esters and nitro compounds. Nitrites are also used in the food production industry for curing meat.

Nitrates, on the other hand, are mainly produced for use as fertilizers in agriculture because of their high solubility and biodegradability. The main nitrate fertilizers are ammonium, sodium, potassium, and calcium salts. The second major application of nitrates is as oxidizing agents, most notably in explosives where the rapid oxidation of carbon compounds liberates large volumes of gases. …Sodium nitrate is also used to remove air bubbles from molten glass and some ceramics. Mixtures of the molten salt are used to harden some metals. Finally, …nitrates are used in certain specialty meat curing processes where a long release of nitrite from parent nitrate stores is needed. …They are considered irreplaceable in the prevention of botulinum poisoning from consumption of cured dry sausages by preventing spore germination.1

Clearly, nitrites and nitrates are totally different compounds and have different uses.

Opponents and proponents, as well, confuse the terms by interchanging the words. One opponent of use of poppers “Watt on the Web” (Watton Pentacostal Church) an advocate against the use of amyl “nitrates” misuses the terms as well on their blog Drugs Information, what you really should know about, drugs facts on and facts about amyl nitrate & poppers in their article titled: A Guide for Worried Parents, Teenagers who are Using Drugs or Thinking About Using Drugs and Anyone Who Wants to Know More About the Subject. They identify them as poppers/amyl nitrates.

This website has been accredited by the Matthew Project in Norwich, Greater Manchester Police force and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (The White House). Rush Poppers, an internet retailer of poppers, on their website also calls them nitrates; “Poppers or alkyl nitrate are recreational drugs which have vasodilatory effect on the human body. This means that the smooth muscles tissue relaxes in the vessel walls and this result in wide blood vessels.”2 Clearly, the identification of poppers leads to much confusion with detractors and advocates!

Government Actions Cause Confusion

The US government has treated alkyl nitrites inconsistently over its history as well. Frequently, their actions have been illogical and have defied intellectual research and sound facts to the contrary. In his blog, 2gay2lift described the rollercoaster ride of regulation:

In the 60s/70s/80s amyl nitrite was the rage because it was in a legal grey zone. These are arguably the best of the family. In the late 80s/early-late 90s amyl nitrite was scheduled so that you now need a prescription to get them. Butyl nitrite popped up and replaced it. Butyl lasted until around 2001-2004ish, and while they aren’t as great as butyl, they’re still damn good. Butyl was controlled by the US gov. in early/mid 2000’s. Then, isobutyl nitrite popped up. Isobutyl nitrite was used in almost every popper up until 2010, when the largest distributor of poppers, PWD (Pac West Distributing) was raided by the DEA and distribution of isobutyl nitrites as well as the PWD popper brand era came to an end.3

The impact of the government’s actions went deeper than just controlling sales and distribution and the raid resulted in the death of the former owner of PWD Brands and advocate Joe Miller. Absolutely nothing came from this “raid” except this man’s death and the loss of quality control in the market place since the established PWD brand was no longer available. This void left the door open for counterfeiters to produce knock-offs of the popular brands that were available from PWD.

More recently, quality products refined to the high standards of the past such as Clock Cleaners © brand solvents have emerged to set the example for high quality pure products. Even though there was little evidence to prove that poppers presented a health risk, the use of amyl nitrite was once again restricted by the FDA as a Level III substance requiring a prescription. Meanwhile, numerous congressional study commissions determined that the use of poppers posed no significant health treat.

This continued attention from the government lead to significant changes in the product composition and valued uses. New concoctions were developed to circumvent the laws. The modified formulas, called butyl nitrite and isobutyl nitrite, did not require FDA approval because they were not marketed as either a drug or food product.

In 1988, the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission banned the sale of butyl nitrite. But manufacturers kept one step ahead of federal regulatory agencies. Each time a specific formula was banned, the manufacturers would adjust by altering the chemical composition slightly. As of 2002, the newest popper was cyclohexyl nitrite, commonly sold in drug paraphernalia or “head” shops and adult bookstores as a head cleaner for VCRs. Cyclohexyl is chemically similar to amyl nitrite and butyl nitrite and produces the same effect when inhaled. All of this change would certainly cause confusion for all but the most educated poppers scientist.

Poppers Regulation Focused on the Users Raises Civil Rights Issues

The decision to ban and regulate poppers was based on reports cited by the Gale Group, “During the 1960s, amyl nitrite, along with a variety of other drugs, including marijuana, heroin, opium, LSD, and amphetamines, made its way to U.S. soldiers fighting in Vietnam. When the soldiers returned to the U.S. after their tour of duty, many continued their poppers habit. The FDA reinstated its ban on amyl nitrite without a prescription in 1969, following reports from soldiers and former soldiers in the United States of serious problems caused by the use of poppers. These problems included skin burns, fainting, dizziness, breathing difficulties, and blood anomalies.”

Obviously, when one looks at the list of drugs, including poppers in that prohibition has no logic. Besides returning veterans, amyl nitrite was marketed heavily in the gay community under the general name of “poppers.” By 1974, poppers were in full swing within the gay community, and large advertising campaigns were mounted in gay publications, according to Randy Viele, outreach coordinator for Project H.O.P.E. (HIV Outreach Prevention Education) in northeast New York. Neither group of users had the economic wherewithal, nor the organizational capacity to resist such unfounded restriction on the compound. This focus on the user raises numerous cicil rights issues that could merit further study.

Conclusion

Evidence clearly demonstrates that the irrational ban on poppers, or amyl nitrites has been a rollercoaster of confusion and unfounded regulations. Confusing references are a second factor resulting from inaccurate naming and identification of the product. It also appears that US government restrictions and regulations have been placed on amyl nitrites and modern day formulations of alkyl nitrites because they were popular with the subcultures, rather than the fact that they cause any credible harm. The sub cultures most credited with using poppers were returning veterans, the young dance culture and the gay subculture. Perhaps this action from the FDA to control the once rampant amount of gay sex and the suspected rise in sexually transmitted diseases that they attributed to the use of poppers, Amyl Nitrite, was what lead to having it relisted.

Amyl nitrite has remained a controlled Schedule III substance ever since. Because these sub groups do not typically yield economic and political power, they were overpowered by those who did. This clearly has the appearance of discrimination against disenfranchised subcultures, rather than efforts to control substances that are clearly harmful to their users. Today, discussions about poppers reflect the tangled mess that has resulted from several factors converging to perpetuate the confusion over poppers and possible civil rights issues intertwined with the mess.

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1. [en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nitrate]

2. [watton.org/drugsinfo/aboutnitrates.shtml]

3. [www.reddit.com/user/NoCowLevel]

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