By Ugur Nedim and Sonia Hickey
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is supporting a move that could see amyl nitrite, commonly known as ‘poppers’, to be placed in to same legal category as cocaine and heroin.
The TGA is a regulatory body within the Department of Health. It is responsible for regulating prescription medicines, vaccines, sunscreens, vitamins and minerals, medical devices, blood and blood products.
It recently produced a report on ‘poppers’ recommending that anyone caught possessing or selling the substance should face criminal charges like other prohibited drugs such as cocaine, MDMA, amphetamines and heroin.
What are ‘poppers’?
Poppers are also known as liquid gold, butyl nitrite, heart medicine, and room deodorizer.
The term ‘poppers’ first started being used in the 1960s, when amyl nitrite, which was then used as a heart medicine, was sold in capsules that were cracked, or “popped”, to release the chemical.
The drug made its way onto the disco scene in the 1970s, and has been considered a recreational or ‘party drug’ ever since.
Poppers had a resurgence in popularity on the rave scene in the 1990s. Users inhale the substance for a brief rush, lasting only a few minutes, and to relax muscles, which has made it a popular drug to take during sex.
Significantly, it does not create a dependency, but users can suffer from a headache after the drug has worn off.
A legal ‘grey area’
Amyl nitrite is currently in a legal ‘grey area’ in Australia.
While the marketing or sale of products containing the drugs or its related counterparts for recreational use is illegal, amyl nitrite available for purchase behind the counter at many adult shops and online for less than $50 as ‘leather cleaner’ or ‘room deodoriser’.
Are poppers harmful?
Medical experts are divided over whether amyl nitrite causes long-term harm, although it is believed to exacerbate some medical conditions such as glaucoma, poor circulation or heart problems.
The TGA’s report found there are indeed risks and, “no therapeutic benefits associated with the use of alkyl nitrites”. It said the drugs are “toxic via inhalation” and “misused … as sex aids due to their muscle relaxant properties”.
The Australian Alcohol and Drug Foundation (ADF) says the effects of using poppers with other drugs – including over-the-counter or prescribed medications – are unpredictable as not enough research has been undertaken.
If the TGA’s recommendation to prohibit amyl nitrite is adopted, the drug will be in the same legal category as drugs like crystal methamphetamine (or ice), heroin and cocaine.
The National Drug Strategy Household Survey found 0.8 per cent of the population, or 184,000 people, in Australia had used in inhalant in 2013.
The figure, however, was not limited to poppers, and may include the substance in industrial chemicals such as paint thinners.
Futility of the war on drugs
For many, the idea that a non-addictive party drug may be placed in the toughest legal category without sufficient proof of harm is another example of the government’s illogical, inconsistent, piecemeal and ultimately harmful approach to drugs in society.
While many countries are recognising that drug use is a health issue rather than a crime and changing their laws accordingly, our regulatory bodies and governments seem to be doing all they can to resist evidence-based approaches to drugs.
In Australia, we currently have a court system clogged with drug cases, which really only benefits those with a financial interest in people being charged and punished – whether they be prison management companies like Serco, police associations who enjoy greater funding, politicians who use the war on drugs to appear tough on crime and get votes, or criminal lawyers who are able to obtain more clients.
But perhaps it’s ‘high time’ to step back and take a good hard look at the futility of the multi-billion dollar war, and change our policies and laws accordingly. Doing so may well see Australia enjoy the benefits of jurisdictions like Portugal whose politicians have been brave enough to change tack.