Poppers have been inappropriately called psychoactive drugs. It is common in the hazy world of illicit drugs and compounds for information on said substances to be outdated or just completely wrong and or based off biased views with little scientific evidence. This is especially prevalent when it comes to internet babble on the topics of amyl nitrite, or the more popular, encompassing lingo, poppers.
Terminology when describing poppers can get confusing as all amyl nitrite are poppers but not all poppers are amyl nitrite, and no poppers are psychoactive drugs. Verywell.com in their article “What is This Drug Called Poppers?” would have you think otherwise along with other unsubstantiated claims that should be dispelled before they catch on¹.
Are Poppers a Psychoactive Drug?
Poppers are volatile nitrites in small bottles which are crushed between the fingers or simply unscrewed and held up to the nose in order to inhale them. The contents evaporate into a breathable vapor at room temperature and produce a myriad of feelings that can range from euphoria to headaches depending on the mood of the recipient.
Poppers are often sold and marketed as commercial products in several countries as there are current laws that forbid the sale of poppers for recreational use. The chemicals in poppers work by relaxing smooth muscles in the body, even around blood vessels, which can result in a sudden drop of blood pressure in the person who inhaled it. The effect on blood pressure and blood vessels in the brain is commonly believed to be what causes some of the effects of poppers which again can vary from light-headedness or dizziness to increased pleasure in sexual activity.
The way poppers work is very important when discussing the matter of whether or not they are psychoactive. Psychoactive drugs are considered such for the way they interact with your central nervous system. A psychoactive drug or psychotropic substance is a chemical substance that acts primarily upon the central nervous system altering brain function which results in momentary changes in perception, mood, consciousness and behavior.
The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) in Britain was charged with determining if poppers were physically harmful or psychoactive while Britain’s Parliament was considering the Psychoactive Substances Act in 2016.Their research determined that inhaling poppers presented no significant health risk and were not psychoactive. The ACMD said that the brain perceives a temporary “high” as an indirect effect caused by increased blood flow due to dilation of blood vessels. The effects of “poppers” on blood vessels in the brain should be considered to be “peripheral” as these lie outside the “blood-brain barrier”. Since poppers only have peripheral effects and do not directly stimulate or depress the central nervous system, the panel judged that Poppers did not fall under the scope of the current definition for psychoactive drugs².
What About the Myth that All Poppers Consist of Amyl Nitrite?
This is where it can get a little tricky when keeping up with the evolution of poppers. “Poppers” is more or less a blanket term for products containing highly volatile nitrites which do not necessarily have to be of the amyl nitrite atomic structure. It is true that poppers do have their beginnings in the medical field when amyl nitrite was first used to help treat angina patients and was considered a pharmaceutical drug. It became legal for over the counter sale in the US in 1960, but was re-scheduled in 1969, where it still is today: a drug available only by prescription.
That could be considered the year poppers began a long and evolving history. From that year on, producers of poppers went on to create newly formed atomic structures based on amyl nitrites. These new formulations are considered by some to be less pure but seem to have nearly the same effects as the original amyl compound. Two of the most popular nitrites in use today in poppers are isobutyl nitrite and butyl nitrite. So nine times out of ten if you have had poppers in recent years (the past 3 decades) they were not created using amyl nitrite.
Recreational Use of Poppers Has Been Well-documented
Poppers also come with a beginning and social history almost as mired in misinformation as the stated confusion in chemical makeup. As previously stated poppers began as amyl nitrite which was used to help treat angina sufferers since the 1880’s. At some point in the 1950’s, inhaling poppers for recreational, sexual, and social purpose began to circulate through the British show business industry as an enhancer to sexual orgasms.
From there this repurposing slowly made its way to the United States. Poppers is said to have truly began its rise to fame in the US within the homosexual communities of the 1970’s and was considered to be a prominent feature in the night life of discos and other dance floors. This trend continued into the 80’s with reports of them being used in cliché scenes of the times including bathhouses. They reportedly eventually bled into the rave scenes of the 90’s.
Due to a 1988 ban on the inhalation of all poppers in the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, entrepreneurs have been marketing these products as intended for commercial use as room odorizers, cleansing solvents and leather polishes. The only thing these bans seem to accomplish is preventing regulation of what appears to be a beloved substance in certain circles. Poppers still have a strong grip on communities around the world but the legislation involving the ignorance of the substance forces those with the most experience and knowledge underground.
Classifying poppers as psychoactive, addictive and harmful perpetuates myths that have been prevalent for years. There is no scientific evidence that these conditions exist when volatile alkyl nitrites are used for inhalants for recreational, social, sexual or personal purposes. It is recognized, of course, that these uses are contrary to the approved commercial uses for which volatile solvents can be used. Websites based on inaccurate information continue to misrepresent the impacts of these substances in society.