You Can Pry My Poppers From My Cold, Tingly Gay Hands

Using poppers could soon constitute a criminal offence.

Poppers, amyl

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While the NSW government continues to drop the ball on pill testing in favour of punitive and risk-inducing drug laws, it seems that we may be facing a new casualty in the war on drugs: poppers.

Last week, the Therapeutic Goods Administration — a regulatory body of the Department of Health — issued an interim report proposing that poppers (also known as amyl) should be elevated from a Schedule 4 substance to Schedule 9, the same category as heroin and cocaine.

If legislated, it’d be a criminal offence to use, sell or possess poppers. Currently, it’s illegal to recreationally use them, but it’s readily available in sex shops as a leather or VHS cleaner.

Reaction to the proposal has been mixed to say the least. The Star Observer has called it a “war on bottoms”, given popper’s sacred duty in the LGBTIQ community since the 1970s as a muscle relaxer, oft-vital for anal sex. They also give you a light, euphoric head-rush, meaning poppers are pretty common at clubs and concerts, too, so it’s not just The Gays who are upset over the news. And you better believe The Gays Who Like To Dance are very angry (hello).

As are doctors and ex-AFP chiefs alike, who are respectively calling the proposal a “backward step” and an ‘ineffective’ way to prevent any health risks. Overhead, a question looms: Why now? Why bother?

What’s The Damage, Heather?

In the interim report, the TGA state that popper use comes with several health risks and have “little to no therapeutic use”, and so want to redefine it’s use purely as “a lubricating action between machinery parts”. In short, goodbye easy-access amyl.

According to the TGA, poppers’ main risk is eye damage, citing ophthalmological studies and a 2016 UK government report that states there are 30 published cases of ophthalmological damage. That’s a slim number, but it is evidence that sniffing amyl can create a pressurised fluid build-up within the eye. It’s known as ‘poppers maculopathy‘. Yikes.

And talking to Vice earlier this year, Dr. Aifric Boylan noted that “if a person is susceptible to glaucoma — a condition involving raised pressure in the eyes — amyl can make it worse.”

The TGA cites a few other risks too — there’s the accidental nose burns if you sniff too hard, of course. Then there’s the cardiovascular harm if used with vasodilators (blood-vessel dilating medication, which you might use if you have high blood pressure, for example). There’s also a risk of children drinking the “sweet-smelling” liquid.

“It’s been a bit of a weird move from the back cupboards of the TGA.”

Speaking to Junkee, Sydney GP and gay men’s health worker Dr. Brad MacKay says that the risks simply don’t match the TGA’s recommendations. To put it another way, he’s completely confounded by them: when he spoke to triple j, he said we simply “have bigger fish to fry”.

“It just seems to have come out of the blue,” Dr. MacKay told Junkee. “There was no warning within the medical community that [the TGA] were even thinking about it.”

“It’s been a bit of a weird move from the back cupboards of the TGA.”

While MacKay doesn’t deny the risks of poppers use — especially if used daily, which could potentially result in short-term memory loss —  he feels the TGA’s recommendations are cherry-picking.

“Across the board, alcohol and cigarettes cause far more problems then poppers would do, but we’re still allowed to buy them at any corner store,” he says. “There’s an inconsistency of the law.”

He also disagrees with the TGA’s argument that there’s “no therapeutic use” for poppers. For anyone who’s experienced discomfort with anal sex or sex with vaginismus, it can be a lifesaver. In fact, MacKay argues that poppers can, theoretically, prevent anal tearing and potential colorectal surgeries in the future.

Homophobia At Its Finest?

As mentioned before, pro-poppers advocate Steve Spencer called the potential ban a “war on bottoms” in an op-ed for The Star Observer. He called it “homophobic”, stating that the move was a move away from education and harm reduction — one which would only stand to hurt and endanger the LGBTIQ community.

MacKay is reluctant to call the ban homophobic, but doesn’t deny it accidentally targets the community.

“I think the moment is [the TGA] not thinking much about it,” MacKay says. “I don’t think there’s a discriminatory intent towards the gay community on purpose, but it certainly it does have that ultimate result.”

It’s also incredibly unlikely the LGBTIQ community will stop using poppers, either, after relying on them for 50+ years. The likelihood is that we’ll turn to knock-offs, which could prove more dangerous when unregulated, as former AFP commissioner Mick Palmer predicts.

Or we’ll simply stock up while it’s still legal, and carry the risk of committing a criminal offence for sexual expression. It’s a worrying reality to tie the two together: it’s uncertain if the TGA has made the connection.

Steve Spencer has created a petition against the potential TGA ban, though you can make a formal submission to the TGA before October 11.

Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. Follow him on Twitter.