Culture

My Long And Painfully Awkward Quest To Buy Legal Poppers

It did not go well.

Poppers, amyl

“Hello, I’m wondering if you can make poppers?”

“What?”

“It’s an alkyl nitrite compound.”

“What’s it for?”

“It’s a sex aid, a muscle relaxant.”

“Oh…”

I grimace. This isn’t going well


What Are Poppers?

For the uninitiated, poppers, also known as amyl, are an ‘inhalant drug’, meaning they’re a caustic liquid, sold in small bottles from which users can vigorously sniff the fumes. They’re popular in club scenes because they make you feel tingly and light headed for about 30 seconds, but people also use them in the bedroom to make anal sex a bit easier — that’s the muscle relaxant part. They’re generally sold in adult stores and saunas as leather or VHS cleaner.

Clubbing and butt-stuff, sounds like a good time, right? Enter fun police — the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), the people who regulate medical drugs in Australia. Their beef is that, like all medicinal or recreational drugs, poppers can be dangerous when misused.

The TGA kicked off with trying to ban poppers altogether, which pretty much everyone regarded as a bad move, so they agreed to revise their decision, which is due in June.

The issue is that, no matter how they classify poppers, adult stores and saunas won’t be able to sell them anymore, which will make them significantly harder to access. The best-case scenario is that you’ll need a doctor’s prescription for them, making, at the very least, make for some very awkward conversations.

The other problem is that there are no legal products on the market, and registering new ones could take years, leaving people in a tight spot (haha). This raises a few questions: can you actually get a prescription? And where can you get poppers if there aren’t any legal products available?

My Desperate Quest For Legal Poppers

When a village of queers and health professionals brought these problems up, the TGA made the dizzying claims that there was already a legal way to get poppers and that you could have them custom made.

See, poppers are technically legal if you have a prescription because, once upon a time, they were used to treat chest pain. In theory, you can get a prescription, gayly skip down to a pharmacy and get them to cook up some couture amyl.

But can you actually?

To get a prescription you need the confidence to explain that you sometimes experience discomfort or pain as the receptive partner during anal sex. This is common for many people but it still takes some guts to say, especially for LGBTIQ folks who are still in the closet.

My doctor taps away at his computer while I wait. After a few minutes, he frowns. “So, can you prescribe it?” I ask.

“No, afraid not,” comes the response.

The medical database probably lists poppers as a poison. Until recently, almost nobody outside of LGBTIQ communities and organisations acknowledged the therapeutic benefits of poppers at all. Undeterred, though, I ask if he knows a doctor that might. He gives me the name of a specialist who runs a gay health blog. Perfect, I think.

I call their clinic and am told that an appointment will cost between $180 and $250. Well, so much for that. Instead, I book an appointment at one of the city’s LGBTIQ sexual health clinics (which already puts the prospect of legal poppers out of reach for many rural queers). A week later, though, I’m talking to a gay doctor who is familiar with queer cultural norms around the safe use of poppers.

“Can you prescribe them?”

“I don’t see why not.”

Success! One small hitch: he doesn’t know what strength or quantity to order. In all
likelihood, no one has prescribed poppers in decades. I need to talk to a chemist, so I start calling compound pharmacies, which are a mixture between a pharmacy and a laboratory, where they tailor your drugs especially for you.

Most of the pharmacists have never heard of poppers before, let alone made them, and things get tetchy when we get to the ‘butt sex’ part of the conversation. The vibe on the other end of the phone alternates between confused and passive aggressive.

“Sorry, we don’t do that,” I’m told.

“That’s okay, do you have any idea where might?”

“No.”

“You have no idea?”

“No… sorry.” [Chemist hangs-up]

I get the impression that, were I to ask in person, I’d be on the receiving end of
scrunched-up noses. In any case, it turns out that most places only make creams and lotions, and that poppers require specialised equipment.

I call two dozen compound pharmacies across Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide. None of them has the tech. Eventually, I call a pharmacy attached to a medical research institute that looks like a big deal.

At this point I have a script: “Hey, I’m wondering if you have the equipment necessary to compound an alkyl nitrite inhalant?”

“Let me look that up, nitrites… ah yes, I’ve been reading up on this. Yeah, we do. Is this for recreational use?”

“Therapeutic,” I respond.

I figure that if the chemist is switched on enough to try to trick me into admitting to huffing amyl on the dance floor then they’re savvy enough to help, which turns out to be half right. They can make it, but they need to source the ingredients.

I call back over the next month and a half and they can’t find medicinal grade ingredients anywhere, not for love nor for thottery. They also don’t know about the strength, quantity etc. None of the dozens of experts I talk to knows what else to try.

Multiple doctor’s visits, dozens of calls, hours of travel time, weeks of waiting… and nothing to show for it. In the end, LGBTIQ people and folks wanting to have enjoyable sex face a gauntlet of stigma, medical jargon, time-consuming hassle and criminalisation.

Meanwhile, I could have walked 5 minutes to one of the nearby adult stores and bought a bottle for an affordable $25. No awkward discussions, no judgement and no tricks. That’s what most people do rather than cop the shame and stigma. Who can blame them?


Joshua Badge is a lecturer in philosophy at Deakin University and an LGBTIQ activist. You can catch him on Twitter @JoshuaBadge.