In Defense of Poppers
The UK government just banned a ton of "legal highs"—including amyl nitrate, the popular party drug that's actually less dangerous than many alternative substances.
Image via Wiki Commons
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
When I woke up one morning not too long ago, a slither of sunlight was creeping through my window. It's Friday, I thought. I can be drunk in eight hours' time. I kissed my girlfriend goodbye and got on the tube with a spring in my step, and began checking the news on my iPhone. Immediately, the sky became overcast. The sounds of the other commuters dulled to a mute. I saw there, in the palm of my hand, the news I have been quietly dreading for much of my adult life: The Government Have Banned Poppers.
It's true, I'm afraid. It was announced recently that poppers, a.k.a. amyl nitrate, would fall under Cameron's new blanket ban on legal highs along with a whopping 500 other substances. This includes nitrous oxide—more widely known as laughing gas—and cannabis substitute, Spice. Under the Psychoactive Substances Bill, most of these drugs are now illegal to produce, supply, and distribute, and anyone found doing so could land themselves with up to seven years in jail.
Over the last four years, our politicians' war on fun has been mounting. Soaring rent prices in our capital and stringent local council policies have lead to the closure of some of our favorite clubs, including gay bars like The Joiners Arms and Madame JoJos. Drug legislation over the last decade has seen cannabis move from class C to B, mushrooms outlawed and mephadrone made illegal (OK, that last one might not be such a bad thing, I ~hear~ snorting that stuff was like having an hydrochloric acid enema up your nostrils, but who's to say).
And now? Now policy makers taking away our right to huff nitrous oxide out of children's party balloons and chemically open our arseholes with a small, potent bottle of gaseous liquid. It makes you wonder, doesn't it: Is nothing sacred?
Sure, poppers are notorious for giving you a 20-second high in exchange for a two-minute residual headache. And I'm not claiming they're not harmful; they cause a surge in blood to the brain, essentially lightly asphyxiating you. It's likely the oxygen deprivation causes some kind of cell damage. Christ knows, I'll happily attribute sniffing them at the back of English lessons in Year 10 as the catalyst for a lifetime of bad decision making. And I will definitely admit that I didn't feel *great* the day after I sniffed an entire bottle at G-A-Y that time.
Yet, while I can appreciate that the legislation comes with our health risks in mind, banning substances like poppers isn't saving us from ourselves, it's policing relatively harmless behaviors and pushing simply us towards others. It's patronizing and reductive. As the Government's former chief drugs adviser, Professor David Nutt, puts it, the ban is "pointless" because "people will just go back to cocaine and heroin... It is an extraordinarily simplistic and retrograde step. It won't reduce harms, it may well increase harms."
I for one do not plan to start taking cocaine or heroin: They are much more expensive than poppers and not nearly as much fun. Why would I spend $75 on a gram of cocaine with no cocaine in it, when I could—for a steal at just $8 a bottle—give myself a dizzying poppers-induced headrush with none of the stress of having to locate a credit credit card or kitchen utensil?
My taste in drugs aside, even if the legal high ban doesn't encourage people to turn to highly classified drugs, there are plenty of other, more dangerous substances of which many remain legal to buy: tobacco, alcohol, and solvents, to name just a few. All have been found by the Lancet Medical Journal to cause much more harm to the body than poppers. Unless of course you drink the poppers. Really, don't do that.
Has anyone spared a thought for people who rely on poppers for their more practical uses in all of this? They are famously the gay party drug, their primary point of sale to loosen up one's blood vessels and relax the muscles around one's sphincter to enhance the pleasure and ease of anal sex.
Will the poppers users of the gay community take this personally? "Poppers bring all the fun to the party," says John*, 29, a gay man from Nottingham. "Who hasn't openly taken poppers induced dance coma to the sound of 'I Feel Love' at an East London gay bar? Our rights are slowly being taken away one at a time." He adds, "How will all gay virgins take anal without pain now? How are we going to encourage tops to swap to bottoms? Gay sex will become vanilla and boring."
Without poppers, I also worry that some gay men will turn to more harmful substances as club drugs or facilitators of chemsex, like GHB or meth for example, both of which have seen a resurgence in popularity recently. Unlike these drugs, poppers are extremely unlikely to cause death unless you have an existent heart condition, for example, and in terms of your altered behavior when you're on them, the high is so fleeting that you remain largely in a cogent state and aware of your actions.
Every blanket ban has a silver lining though, and the good news is that, for the time being, you can't get done for possession of poppers. So instead of getting drunk after work today, I'll be heading to Soho to bulk buy a year's supply of poppers from the area's waning number of gay sex shops, and will undoubtedly find myself fighting in the aisles. When the headache wanes, though, we'll all be left wondering: What's next to be struck forcefully off of our list of petty vices?
Follow Amelia on Twitter.
*Names have been changed