The iron fist of nanny state Australia is tightening its chokehold on party culture. The war on drugs wages on tirelessly, arrogantly. And the next casualty might be poppers.
Poppers—otherwise known as amyl, anal relaxant, or leather polish—have come under fire from the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA): a regulatory body within the Department of Health that aims to ensure medicinal and remedial substances in Australia serve some non-harmful medicinal purpose.
Now, many would argue that poppers qualify as a therapeutic good: perhaps most notably, the many LGBTIQ+ individuals who use them as a muscle relaxant in order to comfortably engage in anal sex. But the TGA disagrees, and is attempting to firmly redefine amyl as a substance that provides “a lubricating action between machinery parts” only. “Some suppliers…are claiming that these substances are used for their lubricant properties and are therefore exempt from scheduling,” the Administration declares. They want to change that, by amending the Poisons Standard and cracking down on the distribution and use of poppers.
In their submission the TGA cites a number of ophthalmologists who are “reporting an increase in the number of cases of maculopathies (retinal damage) caused by recreational use of poppers”. And while there’s currently not much hard data out there to back this up, the fear is not entirely without merit. The Alcohol and Drug Foundation states that the use of amyl poses “a risk of fluid pressure build-up within the eye." Earlier this year Dr Aifric Boylan told Vice that “If a person is susceptible to glaucoma—a condition involving raised pressure in the eyes—amyl can make it worse.”
The question, then, is whether these dangers justify the TGA’s move to have poppers banned. Sydney-based gay activist Steven Spencer doesn’t think so.
Speaking to Fairfax recently, Steve suggested that: “With all of this overwhelming evidence saying that poppers generally aren’t harmful and that they actually provide a very safe avenue particularly for gay men to explore themselves, explore their sex, explore their community, the only conclusion you can really come down to is that it’s moralising and perhaps even homophobic.
"Let us have this one little relief from that. It’s a few seconds of joy and enjoyment. It gives us an ability to open up and enjoy ourselves and each other."
Writing more recently for the Star Observer, he takes the argument further.
“This is what stinks about this whole thing, it’s not the amyl—it’s the discriminatory nature of this move; it’s homophobic, it’s misogynistic, and it’s ageist,” he declares.
“Banning substances, pushing them underground, and creating a class of ‘bad people’ out of innocent users of poppers is what creates harm. Regulation and education reduce harm.”
It is currently illegal in Australia to sell or inhale products containing amyl nitrite, unless prescribed by a doctor. TGA’s move to categorically ban poppers for any use other than industrial—prescription or no—would significantly increase stigmas around the use of the substance and likely result in the very repercussions that Steve is suggesting. Authorities crack down, the market goes underground and the quality of the product suffers.
That’s bad news for poppers.