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Poppers: you might know these little amber bottles of inhalant as ‘rush’, ‘amyl’ or ‘leather cleaner.’ Whatever you call them, this substance has a curious history. We're delving into the role of poppers in the gay community, their odd legal status and what to expect if you're using.

The name ‘poppers’ covers a whole bunch of different chemicals, including amyl nitrite, butyl nitrite and isopropyl nitrite. First synthesised in 1844, amyl nitrite was used to treat heart conditions: it expands your blood vessels, among other effects.

You use poppers by opening the bottle and inhaling the fumes (don't drink poppers! More on that below). Many people experience a very short rush of warmth and euphoria, typically lasting between 30 seconds and a minute. Poppers also relax certain muscles in the body, including sphincters in the anus.

Because of this, poppers have become a popular drug for people who have anal sex, and it's well-known in communities of gay and bisexual men. Dr. Torrance Merkle, an Auckland doctor who works with LGBTQ+ patients, says it's very common for his patients to use poppers to make receptive anal sex more comfortable. But there's a catch.

In March 2020, New Zealand moved to make all poppers prescription-only, largely to bring our popper laws in-line with Australia. Previously, poppers existed in a grey area. They weren’t legal per se, but you could buy them at places like sex stores, often sold under-the-counter as ‘leather cleaner’ or ‘room odoriser’.

Now, people need to have a prescription to access poppers. But it’s not as simple as getting your doctor to write a prescription then heading down to the pharmacy to pick them up – that’s if you’re even comfortable talking to your doctor about the intimate details of your sex life.

The supposed main reason poppers were made available by prescription-only was to make sure people were getting an approved product from an approved supplier. But Medsafe hasn't authorised any suppliers, meaning people have to buy poppers online and ship them to New Zealand from overseas, without any guarantee of what they're actually getting.

When Customs halts the incoming little brown bottles, people must show their prescription for Customs to release the drugs to them.

It’s convoluted, and Mark Fisher of Body Positive, an organisation that supports and advocates for people living with HIV in Aotearoa, describes the law change as a ‘nightmare’.

“We get a lot of people calling who are distressed because they can’t have sex comfortably. We can offer them tips on how to do so, but some would benefit from access to poppers. The law change was supposed to make it easier for people to access poppers on prescription – but it hasn't," says Fisher.

"One of the main issues is that people don't feel comfortable talking to their doctor or pharmacist about their sex life – they need to be able to access poppers where they do feel comfortable, like sex-on-site venues."
Mark Fisher, Body Positive

Dr. Merkle shared some advice for those using poppers:

  1. Be aware that if you're buying poppers online, it’s a black market – which means your poppers may not be what you think they are, and there are no guarantees your product will arrive.
  2. There's not a lot of published safety data on poppers, unlike other prescription medicines. That said, it's a drug with a relatively low harm profile – but don’t drink it.
  3. Don't mix poppers with erectile medication, like Viagra or Cialis. Both poppers and erectile drugs expand your blood vessels, which can cause a serious decrease in blood pressure, strokes and fainting.

Important: poppers are an inhalant only. Do not drink poppers.

If you are offering poppers to someone, make sure they know what they’re taking and know that they shouldn’t drink it. We spoke to one person who was offered a drink in a shot glass at a party, but it turned out to be amyl nitrite.

“Before I could even respond, my vision became blurred, and I felt like everyone was spinning around me. I felt my heart racing. There was a nurse there who advised me to make myself throw up. I went to the hospital to get checked out after, and they ran some tests and said it was out of my system. I was fine afterwards, but it was scary. Ask people what’s in that drink!”

Informed consent is important. On that note: poppers can lower your inhibitions and make you hornier. But Dr. Merkle points out that the short-lived high you get from poppers (about 30 seconds to one minute) means they don’t carry the same prolonged inhibition-lowering effects as something like GHB or alcohol. As with any sexual activity, having an open conversation beforehand is an excellent idea, especially when bringing drugs into the mix.

If you're buying poppers and you're a bit sus on what they actually are, drug checking can help. There are some challenges to testing poppers with a spectrometer machine, as the substance evaporates quickly, but it can be done – so head along to drug checking and find out what's really in that little brown bottle. Drug checking organisations are partnering with LGBTQ+ organisations, so you can get your poppers – and any other drugs – checked in a comfy and judgement-free environment.

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