Sniffing out the truth about poppers

Health Canada has cracked down on sellers since 2013, which advocates say only hurts queer users. Is it time to make poppers legal?

Poppers are having a moment.

No, not just because Erin O’Toole, the Conservative Party leader, unexpectedly talked them up at an election presser last month. Rather, O’Toole and his party’s newfound support for these little bottles of nitrate are the political ripple of a broader cultural wave—one that sees poppers, a substance most commonly associated with queer nightlife and sex, move into the limelight. 

From a memeable reference in the latest season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars to celeb user confessions (Sam Smith, Lena Dunham, Nicole Scherzinger), poppers are in the zeitgeist, but not with universal endorsements. Earlier this summer, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration tweeted about poppers for the first time ever, and their message was clear: don’t buy them, don’t use them.

Here in Canada, our FDA equivalent has taken an even harsher stance. Since 2013, Health Canada has visited sex shops, queer venues and other known poppers sellers, confiscating their supply and threatening them with fines and imprisonment, according to advocates. (To pour a bottle of poppers out for fallen retailers, Health Canada has published a full list of past raids.)

Yet new research shows that despite the almost decade-long crackdown on sales, use hasn’t actually declined—at least among the gays. Nearly a third of men who have sex with men used poppers in 2015 according to Sex Now, the largest survey of gay, bi and trans men’s health in Canada. In last year’s survey, poppers’ use was reported at about the same level.

So how did poppers become such an open secret; a political and cultural trend on one hand, but shrouded in criminal illegitimacy on the other? Are they really dangerous, as Health Canada and the FDA warn, or is this another case of homophobia distorting public policy?

It’s time to sniff out some answers.

What are poppers?

If you’ve made it this far, you’re likely aware we’re not referring to delicious jalapeño treats or mixed weed and tobacco, which is sometimes called “poppers.”

Poppers, in this context, are a chemical mix of alkyl nitrites. More specifically, there are amyl, butyl, propyl and pentyl nitrites, which are sometimes combined or have “iso” as a prefix. If your head is already spinning (and not in the fun poppers way), you might recognize them by their common brand names: Liquid Gold, Rush, Double Scorpio or Jungle Juice, among others.

 

Catchy branding aside, these chemicals begin to decompose immediately, but slowly, so no interaction with the solution is required. You simply uncap the essential oil-shaped bottle and take a whiff, resulting in dilated blood vessels moving blood and oxygen more easily through your body. 

This has a few practical applications, namely relaxed soft tissue—ergo, less tension and pain during anal, as well as vaginal, sex. But initially, the use of poppers had nothing to do with sex.

Who popularized poppers?

“We start in 1867 with a doctor in Edinburgh, Scotland,” says Adam Zmith, a U.K.-based historian whose forthcoming book, Deep Sniff: A History of Poppers and Queer Futures, has made him a bit of a poppers herald. Though nitrites had been synthesized years prior, Zmith says Thomas Lauder Brunton had the first recorded use for medical reasons: to treat angina, which causes chest pains. 

“The heart was too constricted and blood couldn’t get in. He knew the substance was dilating blood vessels when sniffed by animals, so thought this was maybe the solution to this problem.”

And it was. Companies began manufacturing the mix in small glass capsules that had to be cracked or popped open for smelling, hence the name poppers. In Canada, you could get a prescription for poppers as recently as 2001 before longer-lasting angina treatments, such as nitroglycerin, came onto the market.

How did poppers get so queer?

“Here’s where it gets a bit murky,” Zmith says. Beyond relaxing muscles, more blood and oxygen moving to your brain causes a head rush—one that many associate with euphoric feelings of pleasure and increased sensation. Because of this, he suggests that perhaps medical students began using it for recreational use, possibly making its way into the party scene from there. 

“We’ll never know for sure, but we do know that by the 1950s it was being sniffed by people partying and having sex, especially by men having sex with each other.” Around the same time, queer people flocked to big cities like San Francisco, New York and London, and poppers were passing through a growing number of hands. 

Then came the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and gay activists, desperate to find a cause, assumed poppers were to blame for early hospitalizations and deaths. Queer advocates in the U.S. pushed for poppers to be included in America’s war on drugs, and eventually it was.

“To some degree, that advocacy was a success, even though it was based on these correlations that don’t bear out. You don’t get HIV by sniffing poppers.”

But the damage was done. The drug had been associated with danger and the roots of criminalization were taking hold.

How did poppers become banned in Canada?

North of the border, the transition to illegality happened more slowly. As noted earlier, you could still get a prescription for poppers at the turn of the century, but that ended when approved suppliers pivoted to other, longer-lasting chest pain treatments. Health Canada spokesperson Anna Maddison tells Xtra that they’re open to hearing the case if another supplier came forward.

“In Canada, the decision to seek approval of a drug product is made by a drug manufacturer,” says Maddison. “Should a drug manufacturer decide to market a new drug product containing an alkyl nitrite, they will file a submission with Health Canada [but] the agency has received no other drug submission.” 

As for the 2013 crackdown on businesses selling poppers, Maddison says that came after “several complaints related to serious reactions” the same year.

In other words, poppers aren’t necessarily banned in Canada—there’s just no approved supply.

How people are still getting poppers in Canada, and why it’s hurting queer people

Mikey, from Vancouver, smuggled a bottle of poppers among his toiletries coming back from his Euro trip, hoping TSA staff wouldn’t notice.

Yusif, in Ottawa, goes home with guys who offer to give him a bottle—even if he’s not necessarily sexually interested in them.

Toronto-based Penn had his friend—a university chemistry teacher—make home batches. 

Mikey, Yusif and Penn (due to the legal grey-zone of poppers and their association with sex, we are using pseudonyms to protect their identities) are among half a dozen poppers users who spoke with Xtra. Their habits ranged widely: one used poppers mostly with their straight friends, another only to top. But their stories had one commonality: they were going to get poppers, whether it was legal to them buy or not.

Michael Fanous, a pharmacist and clinic director who runs the LGBTQ2S+-focused medsEXPERT in downtown Toronto, says that these alternatives put users at risk.

“People get it from the black market, which actually makes it less safe because then these products can’t be inspected by Health Canada to make sure they’re safe and effective, to make sure the bottle has what it says it has on the outside, to say it has an expiry date.”

Cameron Schwartz, a researcher at the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use, interviewed 50 poppers’ users over 2018 and 2019 and came to a similar conclusion. 

“If people are able to buy a guaranteed chemical, they know what they’re getting,” Schwartz says. “A regulated supply also allows for instructions and education around poppers, and that is a mechanism to have better health outcomes. The current policy actually increases harm.”

To clarify, you technically can legally buy poppers. Their sale is prohibited for consumption, including inhalation, so some vendors sell them as “nail polish remover” or “VCR cleaner,” but these alternatives are no safer, since there aren’t instructions for use. Likewise, you can order from an international vendor and receive packages in the mail, assuming they’re not seized on the way.

When asked about the potential health risks of poppers and if Health Canada is doing the right thing by restricting supply, Fanous also has doubts. 

“As a pharmacist, I dispense much more harmful substances, like opioids. Those kill a lot more Canadians than poppers ever will.”

How dangerous are poppers?

With Health Canada warning “serious risks to health” and the FDA observing “deaths and hospitalizations” associated with poppers, you’d think the substance was reeking havoc in the community, especially considering a third of queer men self-report use. But Len Tooley, a director at the Community-Based Research Centre (CBRC), questions the role poppers played in these cases.

“Compared to most other consumer drugs, like alcohol, tobacco and cannabis, poppers have a pretty harmless side effect profile,” says Tooley, who has launched a letter writing campaign with CBRC and Schwartz to push the federal government to change their position on poppers, or at least further investigate the substance. Instead, he believes these hospitalizations are due to people either taking other drugs simultaneously, using a bad black market batch or taking poppers incorrectly, such as drinking the bottle. 

“The criminalized nature of poppers prevents people from talking to their doctors or asking questions,” Tooley says. “The current context creates an atmosphere of stigma, and we’re pretty confident that a review of poppers would find that the potential harms are quite minimal and easily avoided.” 

Tooley has reason to be confident of this. In the past three years, poppers have undergone scrutiny in Australia, the U.K. and New Zealand and in all cases were ultimately not banned, preventing a less-safe black market from growing in these countries. In fact, the U.K. went as far as to declassify poppers as a “drug,” since they found it didn’t cross the blood-brain barrier (again: the effects felt are from dilating blood vessels, not a substance entering your body). There’s even a medical response to some of poppers’ more severe side effects.

To note, one formulation—isopropyl nitrite—in certain quantities is being increasingly linked to partial vision loss and retinal damage, including in Tooley himself. But he hasn’t stopped using poppers, and says what happened to him is just more evidence to regulate the supply so these more dangerous mixes don’t spread around.

“Our ultimate goal is for there to be a safe, accessible supply of poppers.”

What comes next for Canada?

Since launching in early July, CBRC’s letter writing campaign has directed more than 600 letters to Canada’s Minister of Health—including by one notable addition, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner, who handily won re-election on Sep. 20 in her Calgary riding. 

“A lot of our discussions on health care are primarly looked at through a heteronormative lens,” Rempel Garner says. “I think this is one very good example of how attention isn’t given to issues that largely relate to marginalized communities. We should be taking action on this.”

As for why Rempel Garner is pushing the government, and her party, toward this issue now? She says it began with poppers’ use in her own social circle, coupled with advocacy from organizations like CBRC. “We’ve normalized discussion in other areas, like Viagra. Why aren’t we approaching this from the same perspective?” 

In response to these renewed questions about poppers, the Liberals say they’ll also look into poppers post-election. Pending the results of that study, Canada’s poppers users still have a long way to go. 

For instance, if governments go the prescription route, drug manufacturers need to materialize and submit proposals to Health Canada for approval. If they go hands-off and allow local shops to sell, community organizations need to step in and promote safe use. If they regulate sales, like with tobacco, Canada would need to make the case to potential vendors that there’s enough of a market for manufacturers to wade through new rules.

Whatever the future holds, something needs to give.

“When you prohibit something that people do anyways, you just make it more dangerous,”  Zmith says. “When America prohibited alcohol, people made moonshine in their bathtubs and houses blew up. At the end of the day, people are going to get what they want.”

A bathtub full of poppers? What a way to go.

Kevin Hurren

Kevin Hurren is an experienced writer and political campaigner, having advised some of the nation’s most senior government leaders. He writes often on building more equitable cities and systems.

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