The UK Parliament has moved to approve a bill banning poppers, a mild recreational drug favoured by some in the gay community who argue that it presents little risk.
Poppers – technically called alkyl nitrates – are used by gay men around the world to make sex more pleasurable by heightening the senses, reducing inhibitions and relaxing muscles in the anus.
Their use first became widespread in gay clubs in the 1970s and they remain popular today. They are often sold under the label of room deodorisers.
On Thursday, the Psychoactive Substances Bill passed its third reading in parliament with the intention of banning “the new generation of psychoactive drugs.”
Its final approval is expected to be a formality and the law is set to come into effect in April. While it won’t criminalise possession of poppers for personal use it will outlaw their production and sale to the public, as well as their use at venues.
The bill’s reading was marked by gay Conservative MP Crispin Blunt coming out as a user of poppers in parliament.
“I use poppers. I out myself as a poppers user. And would be directly affected by this legislation. And I was astonished to find that it’s proposed they be banned and, frankly, so were very many gay men,” he said.
Some experts argue that the ban will lead to a rise in the use of other more serious drugs and could increase the risk of receptive men (bottoms) becoming infected with HIV and STIs (sexually transmitted infections).
Gay Men’s Health Collective (GMHC) told TalkingDrugs that the combination of lubricant and poppers, “significantly reduces potential tearing or damage to the anal canal,” adding, “if poppers are banned then the likelihood of serious harm increases and transmission of HIV, Hepatitis C and other STIs”.
Their use has generally been seen as relatively benign, except when combined with some medication, other recreational drugs or erectile dysfunction products such as Viagra, or when used by people with heart conditions.
Warnings about the ban have led to the possibility of the government reversing it. In a letter, Home Office minister, Mike Penning, said that his department and the Department of Health could consider exempting poppers from the banned substances listed in the bill.
“The government recognises that representations have been made to the effect that ‘poppers’ have a beneficial health and relationship effect in enabling anal sex for some men who have sex with men, amid concern about the impact of the ban on these men,” he wrote.
Penning said that the government “will now consider whether there is evidence to support these claims and, if so, whether it is sufficient to justify exempting the alkyl nitrites group (or individual substances in the group).”
Poppers are commonly available at adult stores in South Africa.