UK Home Secretary Priti Patel has written to the chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), suggesting that poppers be formally legalised.
Poppers – also known as alkyl nitrites – were left in a legal grey zone after the passing of the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA), which banned any drug that affects the central nervous system.
While poppers do not directly affect the central nervous system, as Patel wrote to the ACMD, a 2018 ruling “confirmed that substances which have only an indirect psychoactive effect” can still fall under the Act – meaning “the lawfulness of the supply of poppers is uncertain”.
The Home Secretary continued: “I am minded to remove this uncertainty by explicitly exempting poppers from the 2016 Act. I would seek the ACMD’s advice on an exemption.”
Steve Rolles, Senior Policy Analyst for Transform Drug Policy Foundation, told VICE News that it’s “surprising and unclear what’s made [this issue] a ‘priority’ for the Home Secretary now, given it’s been an open issue for a couple of years”.
He added that the “legal limbo” does need resolving, but isn’t as pressing a problem as various other crises currently facing the UK: “the record overdose rates, prisons crisis, drug service funding crises, racial disparities in drug policing and so on”.
Poppers give users a brief sense of euphoria and have muscle-relaxing qualities. Historically, the drug has been popular among gay men and, outside of that group, “predominantly teenagers and young adults” experimenting with drugs, according to Fiona Measham, co-Director of harm reduction charity The Loop.
Harry Sumnall, a Professor in Substance Use at the Public Health Institute, told VICE News that, in 2013, around 10 percent of the UK population reported having used poppers – a relatively high proportion.
In 2016, Crispin Blunt, the Tory MP and chair of the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group, objected to poppers being included in the Psychoactive Substances Act. “I use poppers,” he told Parliament. “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.”
Transform’s Steve Rolles suggested that Patel’s decision to seek advice from the ACMD around the legality of poppers may be down to “pressure from Crispin Blunt MP and other gay rights and heath advocates understandably concerned about the negative impacts of a ban”.
Currently, poppers are openly sold in shops and markets on the British high street; such a ban would put a stop to this.
Rolles said it is “good news” that “Patel is sensibly opting against a ban”. However, he added that the confusion around poppers’ legality – including the 2018 ruling extending “the definition of psychoactivity under the PSA to indirect effects as well as ‘direct’” – shows the UK’s drug laws to be a “ridiculous dog’s dinner”.