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The secret history of poppers

MPs think the government should give up plans to ban the legal high so we look back over its evolution and unusual relationship with the law

Ignoring the advice of drug experts while Britain’s nightlife dies a slow death, the government have insisted on carrying on their crackdown on legal highs. If the past fifty years could’ve taught them anything, it’s that once one substance is banned, two more new ones emerge in its place. Authorities have never been able to keep up with an ever-evolving drug scene.

The plan to outlaw poppers – or amyl nitrates – was part of the legislation to counter the rise of designer drugs blamed for 60 deaths in 2013 in England and Wales. However, for whatever reason, (probably because they’ve realised it was a waste of energy), MPs have announced that they’re not happy with the recent ban. The war on legal highs is still on, sure, but they’re no longer too fussed about poppers.  

Why the change of heart now? Because, the MPs say, there is little chance of them becoming a societal problem. What’s the point? Some might find it strange or frustrating that the government would choose to get scared about them now. But perhaps more so than any reasonably "safe drug", poppers have been a topic of controversy since their conception.


They weren’t always used for playtime. Back in the 1800s a Scottish physician pioneered the use of amyl nitrate to treat angina. One whiff of that when your heart felt funny and the arteries dilate, improving blood flow to the muscle.

However, in the early Sixties, another heart medicine came along which was far better and basically didn’t give you a fucking awful headache. Suddenly there was no need for little bottles of amyl and panic struck the massive pharmaceutical company, Burroughs Wellcome, who owned the patent.


The question was: Who would buy them now? Well, it was the height of the Vietnam War and most GIs were already throwing back every drug they could – opium, heroin, amphetamines, weed – to kill the feeling of being out there. The military weren’t too bothered and in fact, some profited from this by helping supply lines. And somehow, the newest drug of choice became amyl. Sniffing it was legal, the bottles were light, and the fumes were labelled an antidote to gun fumes. In came poppers by the crate.

When the GIs went back to the US, there was no way they were giving up the poppers. Under some pressure from manufacturers, they became available over the counter to the public. Poppers quickly became used for sexual pleasure during the 60s and eventually the FDA made them prescription only by 1969.


If they’re not called poppers, then they’re not poppers, right? By now flogging them as room odorisers, they seemed totally innocent and flew off the shelves unchallenged. The Mob cottoned on and decided to make poppers their multi-million dollar business. Meanwhile, a huge ad campaign was launched in the gay press, suggesting that sniffing the stuff was intrinsically connected to a reader’s sexuality. Poppers + sex = the experience.


By 1974, poppers were everywhere on the gay scene, from bars and clubs to baths and the bedroom. They were cheap, widely available and they were fun. Bottles would be passed around the dance floor and some clubs would even spray poppers fumes through the air – hey, they’re room odorisers. For some, they became a key part of sex itself, such was the appreciation of their relaxing effects.


With every high, comes a low. The actual effects of poppers on a person’s health had been suppressed over the years, mostly because the business was profitable. But it all started to come out. Inhaling the fumes can lead to a drop in blood pressure and less blood going to the brain. Dizziness and nausea could become a problem. And freak accidents, like one report of a 15-year-old boy going blind after heavy use, began a scare. Studies started to arise showing the link between poppers and Kaposi’s sarcoma in young men. And once the AIDS epidemic began, the little bottle was suspected to be a contributing factor. The dream appeared to be dying.


Although they never really went away, the rave scene of the 90s made them a dancefloor staple once more. Since then, they’ve been used to make orgasms better, sex easier, music more fun as well as prolonging and enhancing other drug trips. Until that all-condemning day for legal highs earlier this year. You were late to the game, Theresa.