I was first introduced to poppers (the inhalant that makes anal sex a breeze and dancing a joy) by a lesbian roommate who worked at a nightclub bar, who would return home each night with an armful of confiscated drugs. (It was, suffice it to say, an incredible living arrangement.) One drunken night, when I was 20, she forced me to take my first hit. Seconds later, I found myself rolling around on the carpet, giggling uncontrollably while my face turned red with heat.
I had no idea poppers were primarily a hookup drug until I was offered them during, you know, a hookup. I became massively confused, wondering why my guy wanted to turn the tide of our passionate night toward a tickle party. But it was then that I came to understand the glory that is sex on poppers.
In their heyday, poppers were typically made from a form of alkyl nitrite called amyl nitrite or isobutyl nitrite. Nowadays, retail variations can include harsh formulas—everything from cyclohexyl nitrite to isopropyl nitrate—that often seem strong enough to strip paint; when inhaled, they can produce headaches, possibly cause permanent vision damage, and, according to some experts, even sudden death; older, legit formulas merely produce a pleasant ten-second high.
How reliably they produce that high, of course, depends on the brand you're inhaling. And there's a lot more to poppers these days than whatever Al Pacino was snorting in Cruising.
My body is now a prison and my brain is floating, waiting for my sensory system to restart, and I feel as if a friend were to shock or surprise me while I'm on them, my heart would explode.
At sex shops, you'll take your pick from seemingly dozens of brands of tiny amber bottles, with names like Amsterdam, Locker Room, Jungle Juice and Rush. I refer to the latter as the Nike of inhalants, and while Rush may be the most recognizable brand in the game, its vials aren't produced with the same care as, say, a fine Scotch. Bottles of "Rush" are sold for $5 at New York bodegas and $20 at upscale LA sex shops; there's legitimate formulations, obviously counterfeit offerings, and everything in between. And it's as important as ever to know what you're popping into. Maculopathy, after all, is never a hot look.
Enter small batch, local, artisanal poppers. Given how (relatively) easy it is to homebrew it, some gear and fetish shops now offer signature blends on the DL. A friend of a friend tipped me off to 665 Leather, a leather store in West Hollywood, which offers an unlabeled 10 ml bottle of its own unique formula for $20, one it simply calls "Leather Cleaner." (Other shops I called were cagey about divulging many details over the phone—one obliquely told me to "stop by," and left it at that—but I've heard that more than a few sex shops now carry house brands.)
While picking up a bottle, I was told it was made by "a guy," and the concoction is "similar" to amyl nitrite. I'd like to envision said man in a white lab coat with an MIT diploma nearby, but I later settle for picturing a leather pig who may or may not own a rubber fist.
I give them a rip once I get home, and the effects are intense compared to your everyday bottle of Locker Room or Nitro. My head is on fire and pulsating; my lungs feel like helium balloons inflated to their limit. The first hit is no joke, but once my eyes stop watering and I bow my head for round two, I find I'm unable to repeat the euphoria I experienced just moments before. Which is sad, because some formulas maintain their potency for hit after hit after of cheek-flushing hits. (Though as I clear my nostrils after my dive into Leather Cleaner, I catch a pleasant sweetness in my nose, and the slightest hint of vanilla bean. It's a wonderful vintage nonetheless.)
At the other end of the poppers spectrum lay varieties that offer the same high in more intense ways, and while at 665, I picked up a bottle of aerosol poppers named Jungle Juice. These contain ethyl chloride, and there's no recommended dose, because the label indicates they're "for cleaning glass and metal surfaces." They are, to say the least, decidedly sketchier than your average bottle of Rush—and I can't recommend you try them out, because the risk of harm to your body is that much greater, as I later learned.
I reach out to an experienced friend for further instructions, and he advises me that a five-second spray on a clean sock will do the trick; hold to mouth, breathe in a few times, and enjoy. I give it a whirl, and within ten seconds, my body is tingling from head to toe. (Especially my fingers, but I also think I sprayed that hand trying to angle the nozzle—this stuff is no joke.) The effect is far removed from the typical jolt I get from a normal huff of poppers; my body is now a prison and my brain is floating, waiting for my sensory system to restart, and I feel as if a friend were to shock or surprise me while I'm on them, my heart would explode. They're definitely doing... something to my body.
After giving them another try, I decide to play doctor and determine that it is in my best medical interest to discontinue use of this product. The next morning, my throat felt noticeably sore. It's possible I overdid it with these, but then again, the label reads "Cleaning Solution," and instructions suggest the formula is great for stainless steel kitchen appliances, so who knows what went wrong or why my reaction felt so harsh. The bottle could say "¯\_(ツ)_/¯" and I would have the same idea of what it is and how to use it.
With all the names, formulas, manufacturers, and counterfeiters of poppers in the world today, it's impossible to know exactly what you're ingesting and how much is too much when it comes to the drug. According to some studies, poppers are fairly innocuous—in 2007, they were ranked 19th out of 20 popular drugs in terms of addictiveness and potential for harm. Some people have gluten allergies and feel fatigued when they cave and eat that office donut; others take their first whiff of poppers and end up blowing out the center of their retinas. If you do choose to indulge in some unvetted formulation of the stuff, it's in your best interest to do some research to determine the authenticity of the product and what it's actually made of. In this day and age, there are forums and communities of users with decades of aggregated experience on the topic. It's a terrifying world out there in poppers-land—one day, hopefully, we'll see GMO-free nitrites on the shelves of Whole Foods, but until then, play safe.
Follow David Dancer on Instagram.