This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
RIP to the world's most disgusting headache, RIP to idiots drinking something from a bottle clearly marked "do not drink," RIP to doing butt sex the right way. In the latest alkyl-nitrite related news, those little metallic cans of heart-pounding juice are pretty much over in the UK. British Members of Parliament voted 309 to 228 against an amendment to the upcoming Psychoactive Substances Bill that aimed to exclude alkyl nitrites from the list of banned drugs. Basically it just means that when the bill goes through (as it almost certainly will) then poppers will be 100 percent illegal here.
Of course, outlawing any drug just pushes it into the underground. Instead of going into a shop to make a legitimate legal purchase, people could be picking up Liquid Gold around the back of a co-op or brewing some of the good stuff in their mom's bath.
Basically, if they aren't above the counter, they're going under it and someone, somewhere is going to be making them. So we asked an expert—Professor Andrea Sella at UCL—what this might look like and how easy it could be. He reluctantly gave us some vague instructions, pointing out potential dangers of home brewing and why the bill could be a bad thing in terms of rogue fake poppers.
VICE: Hypothetically, how easy would it be to make poppers?
Andrea Sella: The chemistry isn't difficult—it's 19th century chemistry. Someone with good basic synthetic chemistry skills could handle it, not a problem. How safely they would do it I don't know, but then they probably don't care. I would say it's safer than someone making ecstasy. That involves several steps, but you could make these in three or so steps using materials that aren't that hard to get.
So if you have an undergrad degree that would be enough knowledge to do it?
I'd say you'd be able to do it. I mean, all the steps are pretty straightforward. The guys who are out in the home labs—the kind of Breaking Bad dudes—they aren't making anything new, they don't have the facilities to check what they have made, they are not academics or explorers, all they are doing is making chemicals that are known.
In terms of your home lab, what would you need to make poppers?
You'd have a moderately equipped chemistry lab. Standard glassware to be able to stir things and extract. You need to be able to remove solvent sufficiently, you need to be able to do vacuum insulation. But these are the standard things that an undergrad would learn. And coming out of an undergrad degree, you would probably struggle to replicate it immediately but you'd be familiar with it and if someone gave you a bit of advice you'd be able to replicate it no problem.
OK, so what are the chemicals you'd need to get your hands on?
I'm a little reluctant to speak in great detail. But the information is not hard to find. There are straightforward salts or organic compound solvents that are multi-use, you can source them reasonably easily from suppliers and the internet provides a lot more shady ways, not that I've actually tried or took a look. Let me see if I can see anything on Ebay…yeah, yeah, you can do it.
That's so strange I didn't think you could make poppers with chemicals from eBay.
Well I haven't really looked very much but it looks like there's all kinds of stuff you can get. If it came from the US or Estonia it might get picked up through the post, but if it was from the UK through Royal Mail it would be private anyway so it's just as good as TNT or Federal Express.
How expensive would it be to make it?
I imagine your profit margins would be pretty high. And as you'd be doing it on the sly you wouldn't have to follow fully certified practice, like you'd dump all the waste down the sink, so you wouldn't have all the overheads associated with a normal practice.
Of course the flip side is you would be unlikely to have much information on purity. And that's the whole point of buying stuff from persons unknown is that you don't really ever know about the purity or dosage of what you're taking. Or whether they're mixed in with things you don't want. And these are just small basic compounds that have very potent cardiovascular effects on the body. So we know that the physiological effects on the body are big time. So getting the dose right is probably wise.
What do you think about the psychoactive substances bill that blanket bans pretty much everything, even something as minor as poppers?
If you ban things compound by compound you'll have to update your list every five minutes. But then you also can't predict what new starter chemicals will be brought in from people within and outside the country that really know their pharmacology. How do you frame legislation in terms of being able to protect people for real—like making the drugs actually safe given how people behave. The demand is there and we know the pharmacology. We know the pharmacology of the class A drugs, cocaine, heroin, and so on but we haven't really begun to understand that what we're doing is opening up a market for other things that are totally unknown.
So should we be worried?
My concern is that as you start making certain classes of molecules illegal and difficult to source is that you open the gates to a huge industry simply because it is much more profitable to sell something that is illegal than something you can get from the corner shop. What we are doing is creating extraordinary untapped business opportunities at a time of austerity.