It was Steve, of course, who noticed first. In early 2017, the TGA had quietly hatched a plan to ban poppers. Next minute, Steve Spencer was shirtless in the newspapers, showing off his poppers tatt and calling the proposal “a war on bottoms”.
And yet, on Saturday (February 1), it became legal to sell amyl nitrite in pharmacies. Here is the story of how we won, what happens now, and what you need to know.
How we won
In one corner, we had activists making a stink in the media, scaring the public servants, and gathering petition signatures.
In the other corner, policy advocates, getting right into the detail, giving the TGA the evidence and arguments it needed to take a different course. That’s right—we tag-teamed the TGA.
A win was always unlikely. Eye specialists and toxicologists argued that poppers are responsible for vision loss and accidental deaths.
Since poppers had no recognised legitimate use, a ban was almost inevitable. This would have made poppers the legal equivalent of crystal meth and GHB.
When I caught wind of the ban, I asked some friends to join me in writing a very nerdy submission. We formed the NAG—the Nitrite Action Group.* (Yes, we regret not calling ourselves the Alkyl Nitrite Action League.)
The term “alkyl nitrites” describes the family of chemicals that give poppers their kick. The family includes amyl, cyclohexyl, isobutyl, and pentyl nitrite among others.
By reviewing the medical literature, we were able to show that vision loss is likely to be caused by a single one of those chemicals, isopropyl nitrite. (More on that later.)
We also argued that poppers have a therapeutic benefit: they enable users to have safe and comfortable receptive anal sex.
To its credit, the TGA listened, inviting the NAG to meet with them in Canberra.
We asked for two things: banning the dangerous chemical, and making poppers available as pharmacist-only medicines.
This was a pragmatic decision. We knew that a committee of doctors would have concerns about poppers being used by people with heart and eye conditions, or in a dangerous combination with medications like Viagra.
We got what we asked for
In a policy miracle, we got what we asked for. Amyl was made a pharmacist-only medicine, isopropyl was banned, and the other alkyl nitrites were left—where they’ve always been—as prescription-only medicines.
The decision was greeted with dismay by queer commentators worrying about closeted folks feeling too embarrassed to talk to a doctor or pharmacist, describing the result as “a minefield of stigma, inconvenience, policing and criminalisation.”
But if one thing defines our community, it’s that we are proactive about pleasure. That often means dealing with some initial discomfort before we get to the good bit.
We deal with embarrassment when we ask for sexual health checks and mental health care. We organised ways of getting medication long before PrEP was available through trials and Medicare.
And we had the awkward conversations challenging misconceptions about PrEP and U=U. We educated ourselves and each other while we waited for policy and funded programs to catch up.
Nitrites are no different.
What happens now and what you need to know
On Saturday, it became legal to buy amyl nitrite in chemists. As yet, though, no products have been registered for sale, because TGA safety testing is expensive.
We don’t know if adult shops and sex venues will continue to sell “aromas” and “leather cleaners”. They have always been illegal to sell without prescription, but state and territory police have overlooked that law. We’ll need to wait and see if that changes.
However, the most important issue isn’t the legality of supply. The law not changing has important implications for individual people who buy and use poppers.
If you visit a sex-positive GP and you report difficulties with receptive anal sex, you can legally obtain an off-label prescription for alkyl nitrite products.
If you import, buy, possess, or use poppers without a prescription, you are liable for prosecution. This is a particular risk if you bring poppers into areas and events where police regularly harass queer people and people who use drugs, such as lines to enter venues, dance parties and festivals.
Likewise, using a bottle of poppers on the dance floor and sharing it with another person could be a supply offence. Not ideal.
Getting poppers legally
Even though amyl nitrite is not currently available in chemists, you can still obtain poppers legally. It’s exactly the same as buying generic PrEP.
If you have a script from your GP, you can buy poppers from overseas under the personal importation scheme.
You will need to persuade the supplier to print out your scanned prescription and include it with your shipment. I’m aware that one major supplier of generic PrEP is already looking into offering poppers. Watch this space.
Important health information about poppers
First and foremost: Do not buy or use the dangerous chemical, isopropyl nitrite. It is mainly available in Europe, and it is clearly linked with serious and permanent vision loss.
If a bottle of poppers says it contains “alkyl nitrite”, you can’t be sure what’s in it. If you import isopropyl nitrite—even by mistake—you could be in a world of pain with Customs.
Remember, if you are using poppers and you get floating bright spots or blurred vision, stop using them immediately. If visual effects persist, head straight to an Eye and Ear hospital.
For information on the legal situation and safe use visit www.rinseandrepeat.info/poppers
Daniel Reeders is a writer, researcher, educator and activist who co-founded the Nitrite Action Group. He writes the BadBlood.blog and tweets as @engagedpractx. He sends acknowledgments and thanks to NAG co-founders Paul Kidd, Dr Vincent Cornelisse, Prof Kane Race, and Julien Tran.
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