Ten years before poppers became the iconic drug of 70s queer culture, they were primarily used as medicine for the heart. Patients suffering from a condition known as angina pectoris were administered a dose of amyl nitrite in order to dilate their arteries, stimulate blood flow to the heart muscle, and alleviate pain and discomfort.
These days the chemicals are sniffed for more recreational reasons: to induce a brief, face-melting high, or for the purposes of anal sex. But their function is much the same. For the better part of half a century, poppers have been reliably used to send blood to certain parts of the body and remedy certain kinds of discomfort for millions of people.
It’s for this reason that the Australian government’s proposed amyl ban has struck such a nerve with members of the public. Earlier this year, the Department of Health’s Therapeutic Goods Administration put forward a proposal to have amyl nitrites rescheduled to a Schedule 9 substance: ranked alongside the likes of heroin, LSD, and MDMA in the eyes of the law. The suggested changes would amount to nothing short of a nationwide ban on amyl—and they went down like a lead balloon with a large swathe of the Australian public. Health advocates and spokespeople from the LGBTQI+ community condemned the proposal as heedless, uneducated, and potentially homophobic.
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It’s not clear whether the suggested amyl ban will ultimately go ahead. As it stands, the government has postponed its decision while it opens the matter up for public consultation. But if it were to pass, the effects of the new legislation would be felt throughout a wide and diverse community of people who use amyl on a regular basis—not just as a drug, but as a genuine therapeutic good.
We spoke to some of these people about why they use poppers. Here, in their own words, they describe what the substance means to them and whether they think the use and supply of amyl needs to be more heavily regulated.
Glenn is a 51-year-old gay male who’s been using amyl for about four years
I use poppers to relax and get in touch with my sensual side. Specifically, I use them when I masturbate or have sex with a partner, which usually amounts to several times a week. I'm a scientist, so I live mostly in my head, and poppers help me to release the beast. I get out of my head and just deal with my body and my desires. It's a revelation in the way it makes me feel. I turn off my higher brain and just enjoy the here-and-now. And believe me, that’s far more preferable to whatever discordant thoughts might pop into my brain while I have a guy’s cock in my mouth or he's fucking me.
Poppers are a tool in my sexual repertoire. Some people like a fine bottle of wine, some people like beautiful clothes and sexy underwear. I use poppers. Plus, they're practical. They help with anal sex. If you're having a quick fuck with your partner you both might not be putting time into foreplay, so penetration goes easier with a quick hit of poppers.
I started using them when I first came out at the age of 47. The first man I had sex with told me to sniff this bottle because it would help relax my ass and anal wouldn’t hurt so much. They definitely helped—but I also lost the anxiety that usually came with sex, or at least hetero sex that I’d had. Since then I’ve grown more comfortable with who I am and what I want sexually, and poppers have assisted me in that process.
I don't think they need to be regulated any further than your average volatile chemical. The volumes are small, and unless you ingest them or use them near a fire you can't get into much trouble with careful use. What I do wish for is a PSA campaign, even if just for the LGBT community. Something along the lines of what to expect and what not do with them. When you start using poppers you have to take it slow; you don't know what works for you yet. Different formulations will have different effects. Also, you have to consider what other substances you’re using. If you drink a bit and sniff a lot, you can pass out.
If poppers were illegal, though, I’d just find a way to import them. I usually buy them from vendors in France anyway, so I can't imagine it being that difficult to find them anymore than it is now.
Joel is a 32-year-old bisexual male who’s been using amyl nitrites for about two years
I use poppers fairly often, about two times a week. They first came into my life through a partner about two years ago, and have allowed me to progress towards a greater understanding of my sexuality. I don’t make it a habit to use poppers, but there are times where inhibition can get in the way of intimacy due to my anxiety disorder. I rarely smoke weed, and I don’t drink at all, so poppers are a great way to give in for a very short period of time without feeling like I can’t regain control quickly.
My sex life would be fine without poppers—but on days where I’m having an anxiety attack or I can feel one looming, there’s no way I’m able to have sex without them. A lot of people stigmatize them as being for gay men, when in fact they’ve really helped me with my girlfriend as well (I’m bisexual). We’ve used them together and love how much more open and vital we feel when we do. Poppers can have an amazing effect on foreplay.
I think there just needs to be age restrictions around them, and they should be regulated for the type of nitrites they’re made with. Some hit really hard but have an unpleasant headache after.
If poppers were made illegal I suppose I’d start smoking more marijuana. It helps with my anxiety, but honestly I highly prefer the effects of poppers for sex.
Daria is a 23-year-old trans woman who’s been using poppers for about five years
I used poppers daily for many years, but I currently only use them once a week: mainly with dildos, or when my girlfriend has sex with me. I’d say that I prefer using them for hardcore activities like fisting with my girlfriend. It just makes it so much more fun and I can absolutely relax and forget the daily stuff. All this stress just flies away. It’s much better than alcohol.
They’re not essential to my sex life, but they do increase the fun a lot. Poppers remove any fears that I have—like being perverted—and let my feelings and desires breathe. There’s no place for shame anymore. I’m just relaxed and enjoy sex how my inner voice loves it.
Poppers can be useful for heterosexual sex, too. My current girlfriend was a boy before (now she’s a transgender woman) and anal sex with them using poppers was very nice. I think poppers are not only great for gay and lesbian couples, but also generally widespread among many bisexual and heterosexual people too. I have a male friend who uses them during sex with his girlfriend. Many straight men just use it as an aphrodisiac.
I do think it should be controlled to prevent abuse, but there has to be producers, too. If it’s just a medicine and you can’t buy it anywhere, it’s the same as being illegal. There are many garbage poppers online and in stores at the moment: they’re not stabilized or pure, and a lot of them smell bad or give me annoying side-effects like headaches. If you could buy them from a chemical lab or a pharmacy, that would be so much better.
If poppers did become illegal I’d maybe make them on my own. Or buy them from the black market, which would exist if they were banned. I don’t see a reason for banning it though. If you ban poppers, the biggest community that will be harmed is the LGBTQI+ community. If that’s what the government wants, then they should go ahead: make poppers illegal and wait for another black market to rise on the streets.
Words have been edited for length and clarity.
This article originally appeared on VICE AU.