Saturday, May 26, 2007
Poppers- From Incense To Poison
Three very different articles on Poppers, their use, and their relation to AIDS, including a detailed history of Poppers and how it was marketed exclusively for the gay market through the gay media.
Did you know that the manufactures of Poppers ware the pharmaceutical company named Burroughs Wellcome (now known as Glaxo Smith Kline), and that the same company also produced and sold AZT?
QUEER ADVERTISING by John Lauritsen.
BUY THIS GIAGNOSIS by Ian Young
THE POPPERS STORY
The Rise and Fall and Rise of 'the Gay Drug'
By Ian Young
Steam Volume 2, Issue 4
"AHAH! HEH HEH HEH HEH! So! You won't take warning, eh? All the worse for you... And now, my beauties - some thing with poison in it I think. With poison in it! But attractive to the eye!"
- The Wicked Witch of the West, in The Wizard of Oz
Poppers are back! You may have noticed. After almost dropping from sight in the mid-to-late AIDies, they've risen to the surface again in the Naughty Nineties - this time as an illegal, rather than a legal, drug. I live in Toronto, an a friend who used to work in one of the bathhouses here told me their basement was filled with crates of the stuff until just a little while ago. In the dance clubs, vendors wander around selling brown bottles out of shopping bags, or you can order them from ads in the local gay rag, imported from Quebec, where they're still legal.
They're not just in the big centers, either. When I visited Saskatoon a few years ago, everyone on the dance floor of the gay bar seemed to be snorting them. Of course, in the old days, we could buy them over the counter at the Yonge Street head shops. Now they're banned - which means the dealers will come to you.
Of all the drugs, legal and illegal, that have been funnelled into the gay ghetto over the years, the cheapest and (apart from alcohol and tobacco) most widely available was poppers. What the scientists call 'nitrite inhalants,' poppers got their name because when they were first manufactured, they came in small ampoules that were 'popped' to release fumes. That was when they were only available on prescription, for the occasional use of certain heart patients. Once they became a snort 'em-anytime-fun-drug, having to keep breaking open little ampoules tended to limit one's intake, and since, as every child of the consumer society knows, more is better, enter the familiar little brown screw-top bottle.
In the gay ghettos of the Seventies and early Eighties, poppers were always at the center of the action. On any given night at, say, the Anvil in Manhattan, a large percentage of the men on the dance floor would have poppers in hand, and many of the rest would be helping to pass the bottles around. Some disco clubs would even add to the general euphoria by occasionally spraying the dance floor with poppers fumes.
Michael Rumaker, in his classic book A day and a Night at the Baths, describes the tubs as "permeated with that particularly inert, greasy odor of poppers. Wherever you went, the musky chemical smell of it was constantly in your nostrils." He found himself heading to the single, small window, in order to gasp a few breaths of "something other than the cold, kerosene smell of amyl."
My own most vivid memory of poppers in action goes back to Fire Island, sometime in the Seventies - that legendary time. Yes, children, I was there, I remember it. I was vistiting friends in the Pines, and was spending a couple of hours at the disco one night. Across the room, I noticed an acquaintance of mine, the writer George Whitmore, dancing up a storm and inhaling liberally from a poppers bottle which he kept in the pocket of his jeans. Somehow in the course of the evening, the bottle broke, and the contents spilled all over George's leg, giving him a terrible and very unsightly burn. It made me wonder what kind of damage inhaling the stuff must do.
The original, medicinal form of poppers was amyl nitrate, a 'vascular dilator' used by people with angina. They didn't snort it all night of course. They just took a whiff of it on odd occasions when the old ticker felt funny. Still, the product was worth quite a bit to Burroughs Wellcome, the giant pharmaceutical company that owned the patent and enjoyed a monopoly on sales.
Then, early in the Sixties, another angina medicine came along, better, more convenient, and it didn't give you a headache: nitroglycerin tablets. Suddenly, doctors had something else to prescribe instead of those little tins of amyl. (In my collection, I have an intriguing artefact from the Fifties, a little poppers tin marked Burroughs Wellcome - Amyl Nitrate. It's also marked POISON.) So it seemed amyl would go the way of snuff and smelling salts, and the sales graph at BW started to head towards the floor.
Whoever thought up the next move was certainly brilliant in their cynical inventiveness. It occurred to someone that there must surely be other lucrative markets for amyl nitrate, with its characteristic throbbing 'rush' and short-lived feeling of euphoria. Somewhere along the line, contacts with the US military were sounded out, and before long, poppers had found a new test market in the jungle battlefields of Vietnam.
At the height of the Vietnam War the average GI made his tour of duty a little more tolerable by getting strung out on a variety of mood-alternating substances including grass, opium, heroin, and the smorgasbord of amphetamines. The military in those days had a pretty casual attitude to the drug use and quite a few backline supply sergeants found they could use their Mob contacts from civilian life to transport drugs from Southeast Asia to the US.
From '66 or '67 until the end of the American involvement in the war in the mid-Seventies, drugs circulated between American cities and the war zone, and when the war was lost, overseas operations were transferred to Latin America, with cocaine and crack replacing heroin as the drug of choice on the street. The CIA had its hand in this, but that's another story. For the boys in 'Nam, nitrite inhalants were a welcome addition to the chemical stew. They were legal, they were easy to carry, and they were being shipped in from the States, literally by the cratefull - touted as an antidote to gun fumes!
When the surviving GIs returned home, many of them were eager to keep up their poppers habit, and under heavy pressure from the manufacturers, the Food and Drug Administration made a ruling sanctioning over-the-counter sales. Poppers became available without prescription to the American public. Then about a year later, the first reports of peacetime casualties began to come in. Terrible skin burns, blackout, breathing difficulties and blood anomalies caused poppers to be placed under restriction again.
But once you've let the genie out of the bottle, it's pretty difficult to put him back. The ban on amyl quickly became ineffective when an enterprising gay medical student in California, Clifford Hassing, altered its atomic structure just slightly - it isn't hard to do - and applied for a patent on butyl nitrite. The genie was changing form, as genies will.
Soon, Hassing had been muscled out of his thoughtful little home-lab operation by larger 'entrepreneurs,' nominally-independent operators controlled by organized crime syndicates. They made further chemical changes and came up with butyl and isobutyl nitrite - less pure, more toxic, and even faster-acting than the original amyl. And with the post-Stonewall rise of the urban, drug-based 'gay lifestyle,' gays were seen as the ideal market sector for a new aphrodisiac.
At this point the FDA apparently wanted nothing more than to be done with the whole business, and a modus vivendi was established. The unwritten agreement seems to have been: public distribution of poppers would be permitted - as long as they were labelled 'room odorizer and marketed only to gay men. With this cynical unwritten agreement, poppers became a multi-million dollar business for the Mob.
During the Seventies and early Eighties, much of the gay press, including the most influential glossy publications, came to rely on poppers ads for a huge chunk of its revenue, and poppers became an accepted part of gay sex. There was even a comic strip called Poppers, by Jerry Mills. The unwritten agreement was almost never breached: poppers ads appeared only in gay publications. The few exceptions were women's magazines with a large gay male readership, like Playgirl.
Meanwhile, laboratory research on poppers had been quietly proceeding, and a couple of gay activists had been paying attention. Hank Wilson (on the West Coast) and John Lauritsen (in the East) formed The Committee to Monitor Poppers, collecting scientific data on just what poppers were doing. What they found wasn't good. Apart from causing localized damage to nasal membranes, poppers have been linked to anemia, strokes, heart, lung, and brain damage, arterial constriction, cardiovascular collapse, and, most tellingly, the blood de-oxygenation, thymus atrophy, and chronic depletion of T-cell ratio's associated with severe immune dysfunction.
Before the first official reports of AIDS in 1981, relatively few voices had been raised to question what health problems poppers users might be causing themselves. A few attempts were made to curb sales, but the manufacturers always got around it by changing either the chemical formula or the product name. And the gay press, dependent on revenue from ads, did not care to blow the whistle on its own advertiser. One researcher contacted Robert McQueen, the Advocate's editor, to warn him that poppers "strongly suppresses" the immune system and could contribute to KS and Pneumocystis pneumonia. But McQueen said he wasn't interested. The Advocate ran a series of ads promoting poppers as a 'Blueprint for Health.'
While researchers and gay advocates warned of danger, the FDA stood aside; as long as poppers were marketed as room perfume for fags, they would do nothing. And one popper manufacturer circulated a letter to all the gay papers, reminding them just who was "the largest advertiser in the Gay press." They certainly were that, and their ads were obviously very effective. By 1978, poppers industry profits topped $50 million a year. So just how were poppers promoted in the gay media? A look through back issues of gay papers and magazines reveals some interesting features.
An ad for "heavy duty" Bolt, a brand of "liquid incense," shows a couple of jock-strapped soldiers, buddies in 'Nam perhaps, sharing a smoke beside a loaded machine gun. Military nostalgia? Another as shows a bomb falling on a city, with the caustic caption "It's the Rush Hour!" There are ads for a brand of poppers known as Crypt Tonight - a deadly pun linking the crypt and the rock that can kill even Superman. Another brand was called Satan's Scent, which promised "a devilish aroma." A brand called Cum showed its bottle as a dripping cock and balls.
Going over these ads, it's striking how many of them feature bombs, bullets, weaponry, and other symbols of death and destruction. The most sinister of all is a full-page colour spread for a brand called Hardware. It shows an open bottle of the product, surrounded by and seemingly giving rise to the distinctive, death-seeding mushroom cloud of an atomic (or hydrogen) bomb. In the head of this reddish-gold phallic cloud are two human faces, their eyes closed, their noses appearing to melt or dissolve. Between the faces is another, subliminal image: the head of a snorting white bull. The text below reads: "Intensely Powerful."
Poppers ads often combined appeals to masculinity and potency with this sort of overt or covered death imagery. At the same time, the political right was sending gays messages that they deserved to die, and information on the deathly effects of poppers was being suppressed. The results for the gay community were a disaster. A number of studies of the effects of poppers have strongly suggested a link between poppers use and the appearance of Kaposi's sarcoma in young gay men.
During the first few years of the AIDS epidemic, poppers came under suspicion as a possible contributing factor. But after 1984, when the Reagan administration pronounced a single retrovirus to be the only cause of the growing list of AIDS illnesses, the health hazards of poppers were dismissed. All attention and funding was directed to HIV. Eventually, through the efforts of a few dogged activists and researchers, state legislatures began to get into the act, and finally, most jurisdiction made poppers illegal - in spite of a well-financed campaign by a leading manufacturer, W.J. Freezer, the 'Pope of Poppers.' But even then, information about poppers was still not made widely available.
Now that the official explanation of AIDS has shown itself to have holes big enough to drive a truck through, and has produced neither a vaccine nor a cure, even some in the AIDS establishment are beginning to rethink their 'HIV Does It All' position, and are taking a new look at a range of other factors, including the health risks associated with inhaling large amounts of nitrites.
An article by John Lauritsen in June 13, 1994 issue of the New York Native, 'The poppers-KS Connection,' summarizes the latest developments. The National Institute on Drug Abuse is now investigating a possible poppers-KS link, and even Dr. Robert Gallo, formerly the central pillar of HIV orthodoxy, is quoted as reassessing the role of poppers in KS: "The nitrites," he now says, "could be the primary factor."
A few years ago, I asked an old acquaintance, the Canadian AIDS activist Michael Lynch, to join with me in asking a popular gay paper to stop advertising poppers. No, he said, poppers were great, and as a matter of fact he used them all the time. This in spite of the fact that he was battling serious lung problems! Well, poppers can be highly addictive. Many gay men who use them find they're no longer able to enjoy sex without them. Some can't even jack off without them!
Outlawing liquor during the Prohibition era didn't stop people from drinking, it only caused a lot of grief and help the Mob get rich. The recent artificial raising of cigarette prices in Canada was flop, as cigarettes were smuggled over the border by the truckload. Recent history has shown that outlawing any given drug causes far more problems than it solves, and the banning of poppers is unlikely to prove an exception.
The only thing that can make a difference is AEIOU: attitude, education, information, organization, and understanding. In the meantime, poppers are back. I have a couple of catalogues here, one from New York City, the other from the West Coast, offering who knows what ersatz variety of bottled nitrite inhalants - only they're no longer 'room odorizer' or 'liquid incense' but 'video head cleaner' and 'polish remover.' "Just like the old days!" is the slogan. You bet.
George Whitmore, Jerry Mills, Robert McQueen, W.J. Freezer, and Michael Lynch are no longer with us. They all died of AIDS. Burroughs Wellcome, of course, the original manufacturers of poppers, went on to fame and fortune with its monopoly on another fine product, the highly-toxic 'anti-AIDS' drug AZT. *
Ian is the author of several books of poetry, and editor of The Male Muse and Son of the Male Muse, among others. The above article is adapted from The Stonewall Experiment: A Gay Psychohistory, published by Cassell.
Views / An AIDS activist wonders how a flammable drug become so popular among gay men
story by John Lauritsen
Xtra! Mar 23 2000
It is queer — odd and deplorable in the negative sense — that in the past 30 years much of the advertising in ostensibly gay publications has been for poppers.
Poppers have been and continue to cause health problems for tens or hundreds of thousands of gay men. But there is something about gay culture that will not let them go.
It is curious that almost all gay men, but very few others, even know what poppers are. Poppers in their present form are little bottles containing a liquid mixture of volatile nitrites. When inhaled just before orgasm, poppers seem to prolong the sensation. Poppers facilitate anal intercourse by relaxing the muscles in the rectum and deadening the sense of pain.
From a biochemical standpoint, the volatile or alkyl nitrites (amyl-, butyl-, isobutyl-, propyl- and other nitrites) are powerful oxidizing agents. If spilled on the skin, they cause severe burns.
Since 1989 poppers have been a banned hazardous product in the US, (see elsewhere on this page for their history in Canada) but have remained integrally tied to urban gay male culture in both countries. Gay men have learned to read highly coded advertising in order to buy the drug on the black market — a sign of a marvelous marketing campaign, by any standard.
The original poppers were little glass capsules enclosed in mesh, which were “popped” under the nose and inhaled. Manufactured by Burroughs-Wellcome, they contained pharmaceutical amyl nitrite, and were intended for emergency relief of angina pectoris (heart pain). Amyl nitrite was a controlled substance until 1960, when the prescription requirement was eliminated by the Food And Drug Administration (FDA) in the US. From 1961 to 1969, a few gay men, primarily those with sadomasochistic proclivities, began using amyl nitrite as a recreational drug. The prescription requirement was reinstated by the FDA in 1969.
By 1970, a new industry had stepped into the breach, marketing brands of butyl and isobutyl nitrite. A most brilliant advertising campaign commenced. Within only a few years, hundreds of thousands of men were persuaded that poppers were an integral part of their gay identity. The ads conveyed the message that nothing could be butcher or sexier than to inhale these fumes. The ads linked the image of bulging muscles to a drug that had no connection whatsoever to bulging muscles.
At its peak, the poppers industry was the biggest money-maker in the gay business world, grossing upwards of $50 million per year, according to Leonard T Sigell in a 1978 article. Gay publications were delighted with the revenues they received from running full-page, four-colour ads for the various brands of poppers. In a 1983 letter to The Advocate, poppers manufacturer Joseph F Miller, president of Great Lakes Products Inc, boasted he was the “largest advertiser in the gay press.”
For gay men who came out in the ‘70s, poppers appeared to be as much a part of the gay clone lifestyle as mustaches or flannel shirts. Accessories were marketed: for leather queens, there were little metal inhalers on leather thongs. One publication had a comic strip entitled Poppers; its hero, Billy, was a child-like but sexy blond, whose two main loves in life were sex and poppers.
By 1974 the poppers craze was in full swing, and by 1977 poppers were in every corner of gay life. At gay gathering places — bars, baths, leather clubs — the popper miasma was taken for granted. For some gay men, poppers became a sexual crutch, without which they were incapable of having sex, even solitary masturbation.
A number of factors help explain why poppers became a mass phenomenon among gay men:
• Poppers have been either legal or tolerated by the authorities. So long as they were labelled “room odorizers” and marketed only to gay men, the FDA looked the other way
• Poppers were affordable. A bottle could sell for as little as $2.99, a lot less than heroin, cocaine, or alcohol
• Poppers were assumed to be harmless. The name “poppers” sounds amusing, innocuous. There had been little word in the gay press about harmful effects.
But poppers do have harmful effects. They damage the immune system. They can cause severe or fatal anemia. They injure the lungs. Poppers have the potential to cause cancer. Poppers can cause death or brain damage from cardiovascular collapse or stroke.
Some scientists have drawn epidemiological links between the use of poppers and the development of AIDS, especially Kaposi’s sarcoma (or KS), an affliction of the blood vessels. At present, the nitrites-KS hypothesis is as strong as any.
Beginning in 1981, San Francisco activist Hank Wilson, founder of the Committee To Monitor Poppers, regularly sent out packets of medical reports to the gay press. These were ignored. In 1982 a scientist sent a letter to The Advocate, describing research which demonstrated that amyl nitrite strongly suppresses the immune systems of mice. The Advocate’s editor said the magazine weren’t interested.
Still in 1982, the Bay Area Reporter in San Francisco ran the longest editorial in its entire history, attacking Wilson for criticizing poppers. In 1983, at the request of a poppers manufacturer, The Advocate ran a series of advertisements (“Blueprint For Health”) which claimed that government studies had exonerated poppers from any connection to AIDS. For most of the gay press, advertising dollars were more important than looking critically at a dubious product.
I began collaborating with Wilson in 1983. We published a series of pamphlets and, in 1986, a little book, Death Rush: Poppers And AIDS. In 1983 I spoke out publicly against poppers for the first time at a meeting of the New York Safer Sex Committee.
I was savagely attacked on the spot by a gay physician, the late Stephen Caiazza, who waved his arms and screamed at me like a maniac.
Now it’s 2000, more than 10 years after poppers were outlawed in the US, and not much has changed. Poppers are no longer advertised in the mainstream gay press. But a new market has sprung up on the Internet; many gay porn sites also sell bottles of nitrite mixes often advertised as leather cleaner. The largest circuit party of all, the Black And Blue, held annually in Montreal, has “Z-Best Leather Cleaner” as a major sponsor. I would not recommend using this product on your leather jacket.
I find this deceitful advertising sleazy. We know perfectly well that poppers are not room odorizers, aromas, video head cleaners or leather cleaners. They are chemicals that provide a quick buzz and have harmful side effects.
Banning poppers isn’t the answer. But their use can be harmful and needs to be separated from the gay cultural identity.
They 'open you up'-- from blood vessels to asshole-- and give you an orgasm 'like a herd of hippopotami.' But are poppers worth the headache and the risks?
As if having some big muscle stud's cock up my ass wasn't pleasurable enough, there's something that can make it even better. They're called poppers, and one good snort I'm begging to have the living shit pounded out of me.
There's only problem: poppers (depending on the formulation) are an illicit street drug in the US and Canada-- though not many other countries (accounting for a lively black-market and internet trade). As with all drugs, poppers have side-effects. For many years I delighted in using them without hesitation or question, but as I've matured and started getting a little more health-conscious, I wanted to know more about exactly what they were doing to my body.
Along with other substances at the borders of legality, research on poppers is scant, and often incomplete and contradictory. I was able to find answers to some of my questions, and I'm sorry to say that I didn't always like what I heard.
But let's back up for a moment and do a little history. Poppers-- or amyl nitrite, butyl nitrite, and isobutyl nitrite by their various chemical formulations-- were invented in the mid-1800s and used as a treatment for angina, or chest pain. These nitrites are a yellowish, highly flammable, pungent-smelling liquid. You inhale their vapors as the method of delivery to your system.
By mid-20th century, nitroglycerin tablets mostly supplanted use of nitrite inhalants for angina, and they stopped being a prescription drug in the US in 1960-- though a small medical market remains even today, including for the treatment of cyanide poisoning. Falling into disuse, the US Food and Drug Administration in 1960 abolished the prescription requirement for amyl nitrite. Within a few years, Burroughs Wellcome, then the main manufacturer, reported increasing non-medical use, and in 1964 a New York pharmacist was said to be "deluged" with requests for the drug by "healthy-appearing young persons"-- not your average heart patient.
But using nitrite inhalants for sexual stimulation was already probably decades-old, going back at least to the 1930s. "The earliest use was probably by medical students... who had ready access to the drug and a penchant for experimentation," according to a 1978 report, "Isobutyl Nitrites and Related Compounds," that was privately published and written-- evidently with the cooperation of an inhalant manufacturer-- by professors of medicine at McGill University, Queen's University, and the University of California. (The report, along with much breathless effusing about poppers, is available at www.allaboutpoppers.com.)
Piggybacking on a craze for incense in the 1960s, manufacturers introduced liquid nitrite "room odorizers." It sounds like a strange use for chemicals that, in high concentrations, most people describe as having the odor of old, damp, ripe socks. But in fact, these aromatic nitrites had long been used by the perfume industry. In the 1970s, "odorizers" became hugely popular, especially among gay men, though they were used mostly as inhalants, not air fresheners-- for which use they have almost no physiological effect. Journalist Leonard Sigell estimated in 1978-- just after their peak-- that some four million bottles of poppers were sold in the US, grossing around $50 million. Couching nitrite inhalants as room odorizers became necessary, because in 1969-- reacting against their widespread use for sexual pleasure-- the FDA returned amyl nitrite to prescription status.
Certainly gay men have been using poppers for a very long time. My 76-year-old friend George Hislop says he was introduced to them for the first time in New York City in 1958 at a party. Someone handed him some and told him to try it. "I inhaled deeply, and then a minute later fell back against the wall," he says. "I was like, 'Holy shit, what the hell are these.'" When he regained his composure, his next question was: "And where can I get them?"
Forty-five years later, he's still a "user." He says they help relax him just as some guy's about to penetrate him. Then he can't get enough. "They make me feel like I have 12 assholes," he says. They also help him relax so he can deep throat big cocks.
He says in the old days you could buy them at the corner drug store. They were legal and available without a prescription. Back then they came in packs of 12 little glass capsules that you broke open and then quickly inhaled the vapors before the liquid evaporated. They made a popping sound when you crushed them, and that how they got the name poppers.
But soon after poppers became a consumer product, the small, colorful glass bottles with twist-off caps became endemic. You could find gay men doing them at every party, in coffee shops, and on the dance floors of the club scene. Teenaged kids got into the act and they were popular in high schools. "For me, an orgasm is like a hippopotamus," a woman friend of Consumer Union drugs researcher E.M Brecher said. "But with amyl nitrite, it's like a whole herd of hippopotami." Yet despite such accolades, poppers never seemed to catch on so much among straight men or women.
Just the facts
I wanted to know more about the scientific research on poppers and thought it would be easy to find out what was known on the subject. Wrong. Almost every expert I contacted on the subject knew next to nothing about them.
First I called the Food and Drug Administration in Washington. They were very nice and politely told me they had never heard of poppers or amyl nitrite and would have to get back to me. A few days later they called to simply say that these nitrites "were not approved drugs" and they had no information on the subject. They recommended I talk to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Again, nice people, but they didn't know anything about poppers.
Next I tried Health Canada in Ottawa. The PR flak tried very hard to help me, but there just wasn't information to be found. She said that poppers were not an approved drug in Canada and they did not have any information on it. She did ask around the office, and someone had heard that you could buy them on the internet and she gave me an internet address where I could order them.
I went to the web address and checked it out. A large picture of a semi-cute leather man popped up along with information on their product. The word "poppers" was never used; they claimed their product was a cleaning product for leather sex toys. "Because of the nature of the leather products the cleaner is intended for, constituents of the cleaner also act as a larvicide capable of eradicating insects and insect eggs attached to leather after intimate use of such leather products," the ad said.
They specifically said the product was not for human consumption and should not be inhaled. They claimed to have been evaluated by Health Canada and had their stamp of approval for the product. I called Health Canada back and asked them about what I saw. "If the product does not make a health claim, and is not promoted for human consumption, we do not regulate it," she told me. But she was quick to add that they had not approved the site and the line about their approval would have to be removed from the site. She could not tell me if poppers were legal as supposed leather cleaner.
Next I made a call to a friend of mine. Dr. Jon-Paul Voroney is a young physician I occasionally work-out with at the gym and sometimes we spend time together in Northern Ontario at a friend's cottage in the summers. Turns out he was the right guy to call. He was able to tell me quite a bit about poppers.
Jon-Paul explained to me that poppers are "a rapid acting, short duration nitrite vasodilator." What that means in English is that it causes blood vessels to expand and increase blood flow, giving you a "rush." They also cause smooth muscle tissue throughout the body to relax. The chemical is rapidly absorbed on inhalation within 30 seconds, and lasts a few minutes. He explained the immediate side-effects can be "headache, tachycardia (or rapid heart beat), and dizziness."
There are few major dangers associated with using poppers. The first is that there have been a few reported cases of acute psychosis among people using poppers. That is, a sudden break from reality with delusions and hallucinations. "We don't know how or why it happens, but it can occur without warning," he says, but does not last.
The second danger is severe hypotension, or a major drop in blood pressure. "In some cases the drop is severe enough to result in coma or sudden death," he says. He says the supply of oxygen is reduced causing diffuse brain injury and possibly death. "It's rare, but it does happen," he says. Sometimes the reduction in oxygen is lower and simply results in the patient turning blue.
Dr. Voroney says that transient dizziness is common, but that actual fainting is rare. He also says that poppers may cause mild transient nausea. Poppers also cause intraocular pressure-increases and he says there was one report of a 15-year-old boy who went blind after heavy use of poppers for four consecutive days.
He says amyl nitrite has been implicated in the development of opportunistic infections with people with AIDS as well as Kaposi's sarcoma. There's evidence in rats that poppers suppress some immune function. But, he says, "Some authorities believe it is the lifestyle of the poppers user that is responsible for the higher risk of immunosuppresion rather than the drug itself." Certainly, the claim that poppers cause AIDS-- touted loudly in the 1980s and 90s by some of those skeptical about HIV-- has proven to be without substantiation.
"But the big thing for gay men to watch out for is not to combine poppers with Viagra," he says. "The results can be fatal." He explained that the mixture of the two drugs causes a major drop in blood pressure which can cause stroke or instant cardiac arrest and death. He also warns not to combine poppers and alcohol. "That also causes a drop in blood pressure which can be dangerous," he says.
He says one of the reasons gay men enjoy using poppers for sex is that they cause a relaxation of smooth muscle tissue, including the muscles in the ass, lending credibility to people who report it makes it easier for anal sex. But with anal sex a risk-factor for HIV transmission, increasing anal blood flow and decreasing pain sensitivity can be mixed blessings. Another undesirable effect of poppers is skin irritation, and irritation of the lining of the lungs.
Pleasure to burn
I've certainly seen and experienced that skin irritation business. I've run into George on occasion and seen him with "popper burns" on the end of his nose. The liquid spills a bit as people put it to their nostrils and it can cause redness and chafing, and feels like a real burn. But I've done worse than popper burns on my nose.
One night I staggered home drunk from the bar, having failed to pick up a trick, and fell into bed. I was jerking off with a bottle of poppers when I fell asleep before I finished with the bottle in my hand. It leaked and I woke up in the middle of the night in horrible pain. I had this large burn on my finger where the poppers had leaked out and soaked into my hand.
I went to the doctor the next day and the news wasn't good. "You've got a third-degree chemical burn," he said to me soberly. He made an urgent referral to a plastic surgeon and told me that if feeling in the area didn't return by the time I saw the surgeon, he would have to remove the affected tissue and do a skin graft. Lucky for me, feeling did return and I didn't need the operation. I can tell you I'm a hell of a lot more careful with poppers since that experience.
The other thing I wanted to know about poppers was were they addictive. I got a hold of a counselor at the Center For Addiction and Mental Health here in Toronto. He counsels gay men who are addicted to drugs or alcohol and says "that about 60 percent of the men I see report using poppers." He says that in his experience, poppers are not physically addictive and are different from other drugs in that his clients don't consider them to be a problem and feel they have control over their use of them.
I have one friend who would disagree. Hal is an old pal of mine. We hang out; we drink, talk politics, and exchange stories of memorable tricks. Hal is 50 now, and started using poppers in 1979, when he moved into a house full of gay men who used them all the time.
He didn't like poppers the first time he tried them-- they gave him a headache. Then one day he was home alone listening to music and he tried them again. He loved them, and soon he using all the time for sex and masturbation. There was a period in the 80s when he was drinking, smoking pot, and doing poppers almost on a daily basis.
It got to the point where he didn't know if he was making out with a man or a bottle of poppers. As he got older, his reasons changed. "It's about the addiction, not the sex," he told me in an interview. He says as he's gotten older he can't always get the guys he wants and poppers ease the pain. "They help me forget I'm not getting my fantasy guy," he says. He says it's also about his insecurities. "Generally speaking, I've always felt inadequate and had self-esteem issues. Poppers help me forget and feel better."
He's tried to get his popper use under control, but it's been tough. "I've talked to therapists and doctors, but they don't seem to think it's a serious problem." He says he's always figured they couldn't be good for him and he's tried scare tactics to try to get him to quit, but even that doesn't work. "I've even had sex with guys who were totally not my type just because they have poppers," he says. I've used that trick myself to get the occasional hot guy. Some men are desperate for them and I'm not proud, I can handle being used.
I also wondered if there was a relationship between poppers and unsafe sex, whether poppers relaxed people's defenses like it relaxed their assholes. My expert on the subject was James Murray of the AIDS Committee of Toronto.
He says whether the use of poppers, like most other drugs, leads to unsafe sex depends on a person's relationship with drugs and unsafe sex. He says some people use drugs as an excuse to let themselves go, but that it's not an automatic thing. "There's a correlation for some people and not others," he says, "it depends on the person."
But he does warn that poppers can increase the risk of AIDS in another way. "They dilate the blood vessels in the rectum and that can increase the blood flow and the risk of HIV transmission," he says. "It's a strictly short-term risk, however." He says there's no conclusive evidence about poppers and complications with AIDS, but one thing is very clear: "HIV causes AIDS, not poppers," he says.
Not a Drug War battlefield
The last thing I wanted to know is whether or not poppers are legal. Once again, not an easy question to get an answer to. I telephoned the Drug Enforcement Agency in the US and put the question to them. They had never heard of poppers and took a while to get back to me to say that, to the best of their knowledge, it was not on their schedule of enforced substances and they did not investigate it. They could not say if that meant they were legal.
I called them back a week later and asked them to look into it again; I just had to have an answer to the question. They called me back a week later and told me that someone at the National Institute for Drug Abuse thought that they were possibly on the banned hazardous substances list and illegal to manufacture, distribute and sell. Maybe wasn't good enough.
I figured if anyone would know it was the cops in the heart of queer America in San Francisco. I was right. A narcotics cop I reached told me they were in fact illegal to sell, but legal to possess in California. He said they should be illegal to sell everywhere in the States, but the legality of possession varies from state to state. He also said that this particular drug was just not on the radar screen for them and that he could only remember one person being charged with selling them in the last five years in the State of California.
It also took a number of calls to the police to get an answer to the same question about the laws in Canada. Turns out, though, that poppers are on the list of Controlled Drugs and Substances and are both illegal to sell and possess.
But poppers aren't a priority here either, unless you piss the cops off.
My friend Peter Bochove is a political activist and the owner of a popular Toronto bathhouse. A few years ago he was the general manager and part owner of another bathhouse in town. When the cops raided one of our bars and made arrests, he was there speaking out.
He gave a speech at a community forum denouncing the cops and making pointed remarks at particular senior police officers. A week later the cops showed up at his spa asking if they sold poppers. They searched behind the counter and in the office and seized about $350 worth of the inhalants.
The manager and clerk were charged with selling a restricted substance. But Peter was not charged. He made a fuss and said he was responsible for what happened at his bathhouse and insisted he be charged as well. He got his wish and they all found themselves in court, accused drug dealers. "Those charges were the direct result of speaking out," he says.
Peter is nobody's fool, and before selling the poppers he wrote to Health Canada and asked if the substance on the label of the bottle, hexylbutyl nitrite, was illegal. They wrote back and said it was not a controlled substance and legal to sell. The police had the poppers analyzed and found they were isobutyl nitrite and illegal. But that letter from Health Canada formed the basis of his defense
In the end, he won his case. He says, "The judge ruled you had to be careful, not perfect. In Canada we believe that what it says on the bottle is actually what it is and acquitted us." But, he says, it cost him $35,000 and 18 months in court. "It just proves that there are political consequences for speaking your mind in this country." No one else has been charged in this town for selling them, and he's never sold poppers at his bathhouse again; but he still speaks his mind when he has reason to.
Like Peter, I won't mess with poppers again. I love them and wish I could use them every day as some hot guy pounded my ass. But they're dangerous, and I love life more than big dicks and a moment's pleasure. Make your own decision.