Drug war, or moral crusade? Either one is repugnant

Well, this story was quite informative. Today I learned all about “poppers”, or alkyl nitrites, and it tells you everything you need to know about me that I’m so straight that I had no idea that they were popular in the gay community. I never saw ads like this, or they made no impression on me at all.

I have heard of Tom of Finland, however, I’m not totally clueless.

Strangely, the leading manufacturer of poppers in the US is another straight guy, like me.

Everett Farr, 65, is not the person you might expect when you think of nitrites and queer history. For one thing, he says he’s never tried poppers. For another, he’s straight, married, and has two adult children. He lives in a big home in a ritzy Pennsylvania county and owns a few cars, including a Corvette the same yellow as a bottle of Rush. But he’s not exactly flashy. When he met me at the train station near Philadelphia to drive me over to his plant in the last week of June, he was wearing shorts and sneakers and driving a modest, cluttered blue passenger van. The Corvette was parked inside the factory, covered in a layer of dust.

Except I don’t own a yellow Corvette or live in a ritzy place in the country. But like him, I’m not going to try alkyl nitrites — people with heart disease probably should avoid potent vasodilators. I see no problem in making them available to healthy people who want to experiment, though. I agree with this fellow:

Canada has required prescriptions for alkyl nitrites since 2013, and both the UK and Australia have come close to doing the same in recent years — moves that prompted backlash in those countries’ gay communities. One conservative British MP, Crispin Blunt (uncle to actor Emily Blunt), gave a speech in Westminster “outing” himself as a poppers user and calling a potential ban a “fantastically stupid” idea that would only fuel the black market. In Australia, the LGBTQ media dubbed it “an attack on gay and bisexual men” and a “war on bottoms.”

Zmith, the British writer, doesn’t believe the regulations governing poppers are motivated by anti-gay sentiment, but instead by “the complete madness” with which Western governments approach drugs — tolerating some dangerous substances, such as alcohol and tobacco, but cracking down on others.

Complete madness is right. You know that bans on these drugs are motivated solely by the fact that gay folk use them, not about health or safety — it’s all about Puritan hypocrisy.


  1. says

    Before the identification of HIV as the cause of AIDS, there was a lot of panic and confusion over what was causing the epidemic. With one of the epidemic’s epicenters in the gay community in San Francisco, the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle were full of reports and speculation in the 1980s that inhalants were to blame. As were the victims for using them. But I thought the references were to amyl nitrite instead of alkyl nitrite. I don’t know enough chemistry to get the distinction.

  2. cartomancer says

    Well I did warn you three weeks ago when you mentioned the low blood pressure…

    I got a whiff of the stuff once, when I was at a gay sex place trying (and failing) to get sex. I passed clean out for a minute or two and they called an ambulance.

    That was embarassing.

  3. Artor says

    Alkyl nitrate also has a completely non-illicit use as a leather cleaner/conditioner. I can buy it by the pint bottle, instead of those little poppers if I want, but I think I have half a 30-year-old bottle left over in the stuff I inherited from my grandfather.

  4. robro says

    Following on #1, in the 70s and early 80s when I was going to dance clubs in San Francisco, poppers were everywhere. Sometimes the places would reek of amyl, so I got plenty of whiffs. I probably even got a good snort of it a time or two but I didn’t care for it. I never knew if they were legal or not, but then there were lots of things that I and everyone else was doing that were not legal.

    As has been well proven in the US in whole and in many counties, prohibitions don’t work except to create a market for organized crime and corruption for police and politicians. As my dad would say, “You can count on the moonshiners, politicians, sheriffs, and preachers to agree when a county is voting to go wet or dry.”

  5. says

    I first heard of poppers in the ’80s via Celia Farber’s AIDS column in Spin magazine. Even after it started to become obvious that AIDS was caused by HIV some people though poppers played a role in the disease, and Farber covered that. Unfortunately Farber continued to give HIV denial ideas coverage long after HIV denialism became silly.

  6. raven says

    Alkyl Nitrites Wikipedia

    Addiction experts in psychiatry, chemistry, pharmacology, forensic science, epidemiology, and the police and legal services engaged in delphic analysis regarding 20 popular recreational drugs. Alkyl nitrites were ranked 20th social and physical harm, and 18th in dependence.[1]


    Poppers Wikipedia

    Inhaling nitrites relaxes smooth muscles throughout the body, as well as sphincter muscles of the anus and the vagina.[17] Smooth muscle surrounds the body’s blood vessels and when relaxed causes these vessels to dilate resulting in an immediate increase in heart rate and blood flow throughout the body, producing a sensation of heat and excitement that usually lasts for a couple of minutes.[18][19] When these vessels dilate, a further result is an immediate decrease in blood pressure.[20]

    Side effects of popper abuse include tachycardia, headaches, migraines, dizziness and fainting.[22]

    These drugs aren’t completely safe by any means. OTOH, they aren’t all that dangerous either.

    The government might as well just leave them alone.
    It diverts a lot of police and legal resources to deal with a minor problem when they have a lot better things to do with their time and money.

  7. raven says

    DXM also depresses brain function, particularly the parts of the brain that control breathing and heart function. Taking a lot of DXM causes hallucinations and out-of-body sensations similar to the ones caused by drugs like ketamine and PCP. These effects can last as long as 6 hours.

    Cough & Cold Medicine Abuse (for Teens) – Kids Health

    The drug dextromethorphan is an NMDA receptor antagonist that can cause hallucinations and other CNS effects.
    It’s commonly found in most OTC cough syrups.

    There have been a lot of discussions about making it illegal.
    Which haven’t gone anywhere.
    It’s a hallucinogen but so what?
    The whole experience isn’t very pleasant and few people try it more than once or twice.

    Making it illegal just creates a problem rather than solving one.

  8. leerudolph says

    Artor@4: “I think I have half a 30-year-old bottle left over in the stuff I inherited from my grandfather.”
    I assume you mean alkyl nitrite(s), the subject of the present discussion, rather than alkyl nitrate(s). In either case, do you know how stable the stuff in that bottle is? (I have no idea and can find nothing on the web.)

  9. robro says

    It diverts a lot of police and legal resources to deal with a minor problem when they have a lot better things to do with their time and money.

    Of course, having these prohibitions laws gives cops a tool to harass profiled populations: blacks, browns, gays, indigenous people, etc. Many of the past “crimes” dredged up when a black person gets killed by the cops are of this type. Such laws were at the very root of Jim Crow and began to be enacted in the South almost as soon as the 13th amendment was passed to use the legal system to put blacks back in chains, literally.

  10. garnetstar says

    Strangely, PZ, I’m as straight and boring as you are, but I heard of poppers (amyl nitrite) and their popularity among gay men back in the 70’s, but had never so much as read the words “Tom of Findland” until just now. Seems he’s a good artist! Thanks for bringing him to my attention, I’ll enjoy his art.

    As a chemist, I read the word “alkyl” (amyl is just one specific one) and those are bad, very reactive and not good for you, and “nitrite”, again, reactive, bad, and not good for you, and so assume that joined together they are reactive, bad, and not good for you. I’d keep my exposure to small doses at a time, and not inhale too much inadvertently from cleaning products and nail-polish remover and the like. As Paracelsus pointed out in the 16th century, everything, even things are are good for you or at least OK, becomes bad for you at a higher dose. (Also, skin absorption isn’t a good way to be exposed to organic chemicals, either.)

    Artor @4, as leerudloph @9 says, you can try your older bottle, but I doubt that any chemical, let alone such a reactive one, won’t have degraded a lot after 30 years’ exposure to air and water vapor and sunlight (if in a clear bottle). My chemicals don’t last more than three years or so, in those conditions.

  11. davidc1 says

    In the film about the late Peter Sellars staring Geoffrey Rush ,there is a scene where he and Britt Ekland are do the beast with two backs ,PS sniffs and gets B E to sniff a popper .Result ,PS has an Heart attack and gets rushed to hospital.

  12. lotharloo says

    Okay forgive my ignorance but why they are a gay thing? I am pretty sure straight men are also into sex.

  13. cartomancer says

    lotharloo, #13

    The general thrust of the issue is that, as a vascular dilator, they are thought to help users relax and loosen certain sphincter muscles at the end of the alimentary canal that one generally doesn’t want in a less loose state. Straight men are, it would seem, less interested in relaxing those particular muscles when doing the sex.

    (I think that’s how it works. I was never very good at the procedure and they’ve probably changed it significantly since I last got to have a go).

  14. hackerguitar says

    @13, cartomancer is correct. They act as muscle relaxants which allow easier penetration. They were popular in gay culture in the 1970s and 80s, but were not by any means limited to that culture – I remember people using them while I was in school who were very much what we would now call cis.

    It’s not clear to me why they’re so closely identified with gay culture, other than being written about by authors like Armistead Maupin who chronicled some of the SF scene in his Tales of the City books.

  15. rrhain says

    That’s not Tom of Finland. That’s Rex. You can see the signature by the rear tire of the motorcycle. Rex’s work is more like Domino than ToF.

  16. Nomad says

    I just wanted to say that while poppers are apparently deeply associated with gay culture, they’re not ubiquitous within it.

    I’m a bi guy, I’ve had women partners before, but I’m on my starter boyfriend. And he had never heard of this. He’s a bottom, too. I’ve had a smallish peer group with mostly gay men in it, and I’ve never heard one word about this from any of them.

    I first heard of this from another news story about amyl nitrate and the way it’s kind of flying under the radar in terms of regulation. I’d heard of “amyl’ before, but only as an old school party drug (there’s a reference to it in Absolutely Fabulous, but being used by a woman) and I’d always assumed it was banned.