By: Amil Delic
Poppers (alkyl-nitrites) are inhaled. They were used to relieve angina attacks during heavy chest pain. They relax the blood vessels and in-turn increase the blood and oxygen supply to the heart. It were used in old-school medicine but no longer serve a purpose with drugs like Lipitor and Crestor. With no use for the drug in the medical world, another community found a way to use it.
The gay male community have be using poppers for quite sometime to relax the muscles around the sphincter which intensifies the sexual experience and makes it less painful and also more pleasurable.
I’ve tried poppers before. Not for the high, but for this piece. I’m not sure if the sexual experience is better as I didn’t go that far, but with a few sniffs the drugs widens the mind and the anus. I felt like it wouldn’t be right if I wrote a piece about a drug that the government considers illegal but has never deemed a narcotic without trying it.
“I don’t believe poppers are considered a narcotic in Canada.,” says Rob Salerno, a gay rights activist, an actor, and a well published journalist in Toronto. Rob knows quite a bit about poppers, not because he used them, but because he covered the story in late 2013. During this period, the government asked stores carrying all products containing the chemical to remove them from store shelves immediately after Health Canada determined that they “pose serious risk” under the Food and Drugs Act. This risk was mainly connected to the marketing and licensing of the products, and not so much the health concerns.
“Health Canada said they were concerned that the drugs were being used in a way they were not being marketed for,” says Salerno. “They were being marketed as VCR cleaner, leather cleaners or room deodorizers. They were officially not being marketed as inhalants.”
Fully understanding Health Canada’s stance on the removal of VCR cleaners since almost every video has been digitized in the last decade. But popper products like Man Scent, Rush and Iron Horse, to name a few, don’t sound like items I’d want my room to smell like or something I’d want to lather on my shoes.
In the summer of 2013, 153 specialty sex shops across Canada were given notices asking for the removal of any miniature bottles that resembled a five-hour energy drink containing alkyl nitrite. These items were not to be sold for human consumption without a proper licensing. If they did not adhere to the order, stores were to pay a fine of $500 or face a three month imprisonment for a first offence. The removal of poppers caused major outrage throughout the gay community across Canada.
“Removing poppers from the gay community is like removing Viagra from the seniors community,” says Gerald, a personal trainer at a local Toronto gym.
A spokesperson at Health Canada’s media relations office doesn’t feel outrage is needed as an “overdose of the product can lead to death.” For health authorities to take action, “a number of complaints must be filed through your provincial health ministry and then an investigation is to follow,” says Health Canada.
Only one complaint was filled in 2013 and no deaths or injuries were reported leading up to the removal of all popper products.
“Poppers have been around for ages, and they have never been a problem before. Then suddenly Health Canada swoops in and takes them away from the community,” says Salerno.
Poppers pose less risk than most dangerous substances such as alcohol and tobacco, which are still legal in Canada, according to a study done by the Lancet Medical Journal in 2007 in the UK. Poppers aren’t specifically taxed item in Canada apart from the general harmonized sales taxes whereas alcohol and tobacco have their own tax bracket which generate the country billions of dollars in annual revenue. Ontario alone generated $1.1 billion in tax revenue from tobacco sales in 2012-13.
“It might end up being a controlled substance if they (the manufacturer) applied for it. It might be something where you need a prescription and that might not be easy to get,” says Solerno. “Legalizing the drug would probably require a whole separate sales tax if we’re to follow the alcohol and tobacco model.”
This is obviously easier said than done as the drug would need to be issued a certification that complies with the Food and Drug Act and Regulations. This is issued to all food and drugs in Canada where “the benefits of the drug outweigh the risks, and it confers the ability to market a drug,” says Health Canada.
A number of stores that provided poppers were hit hard financially by the ban in 2013. A few local Toronto stores in The Gay Village, including the Pre-Op, went out of business.
“Poppers were a huge part of our income. We sold a ton of it in our vending machines for $20 per pop,” says Jon, the general manager at Steamworks Toronto.
Stores that catered to the gay male community “suddenly found a threat to their revenue base,” says Salerno.
It might have only been one item, but that item created thread of negative outcomes. From store owners to lovers, the ban by the government never had a strong enough base for the removal of poppers.