Amyl nitrite users across the UK can breathe a sigh of relief today, as it's been announced that the substance – "poppers" to the majority of us; "room odourisers" to the people who sell them – will not be banned under the government's plans to crack down on the sale and use of legal highs.
The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs – the government's body of drug advisors – said that poppers have such limited effects on the body that they couldn't be included in the Psychoactive Substances Act. They are, in fact, almost completely harmless and don't fit within the government definition of what a "psychoactive substance" actually is.
"The ACMD's consensus view is that a psychoactive substance has a direct action on the brain, and that substances having peripheral effects, such as those caused by alkyl nitrites [poppers], do not directly stimulate or depress the central nervous system," the council said in a report.
This may come as a shock to some ministers, who believed that poppers had been banned under the new Act.
Members of the LGBT community and gay health charities have been campaigning against the ban since the government announced it, as poppers are commonly used to relax the sphincter before anal sex. Poppers manufactures were also up in arms, as obviously the ban would leave them jobless. And let's not forget longtime poppers user and Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, who argued in a Commons debate that banning them would be "fantastically stupid".
Away from the whole poppers debate, the Psychoactive Substances Act has been contentious from the get-go. Drug policy campaigners have argued that it's not going to stop the availability of these substances; that it doesn't deal with reducing harm among users; and that it's only going to further criminalise casual drug users. In fact, a VICE report found that the ban is already directly harming users and aiding street level drug dealers.
The bill was also heavily criticised on a scientific level. Clare Wilson pointed out in New Scientist that the lack of technical understanding shown by government ministers when debating the bill was laughable.
"Watching MPs debate the Psychoactive Substances Bill yesterday, it was clear most of them hadn't a clue," she wrote. "They misunderstood medical evidence and mispronounced drug names."
Even transhumanists weighed in on the debate, arguing that nootropics – or "smart drugs", like modafinil – shouldn't be included in the ban as they are thought to have brain-boosting properties. Cheryl Gillan, MP for Amersham, echoed this view when trying to put forward an amendment that would exclude nootropics from the bill.
This isn't to say that the government has the wrong intentions: drugs like synthetic cannabis and widely untested cocaine, MDMA and LSD substitutes shouldn't be sold on the high street. You need only look at the issues caused by Spice – a brand of synthetic cannabis – in the UK's prisons and streets to see that it clearly shouldn't be readily available.
However, there are surely better ways to handle a problem than just outright banning everything to do with it and hoping it goes away. Governments tried that with the War on Drugs decades ago, and judging by what a global catastrophe that's been, it doesn't really seem that no tolerance blanket-bans are the way to go.
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