Regulation of poppers has discriminatory effect on gay community

28 June 2019

Poppers, also known as amyl nitrite, are inhalants. According to the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, they cause a high for about 2-3 minutes. They are also used to “enhance sexual experience”. Specifically, they are muscle relaxants, commonly used by gay men to facilitate anal sex. One study found that poppers were used among gay and bisexual men at a rate of 32 per cent in the last six months. Another study found that two thirds of gay and bisexual men had used it in their lifetimes.

In September last year, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), responsible for regulating drugs and medicine, released an interim report. The report proposed criminalising poppers, classifying alkyl nitrites as Schedule 9 under the Poisons Standard. This would make them the same sort of drug as heroin and cannabis.  Possession of poppers could mean 12 months in jail, or a fine of $2200 under this proposal.

Among the gay community and policy experts there was a backlash. A petition opposing the ban garnered some 4500 signatures. Jarryd Bartle, a drug policy expert at RMIT, said that this was perceived as a “targeted criminalisation of a certain type of gay sex”. Former head of the Australian Federal Police Mick Palmer also came out against the proposed ban.

The TGA eventually decided against its proposal, opting to ban some types of nitrite products, and regulate the others. Some, including the “main ingredient in most Australian poppers”, according to Melbourne philosophy lecturer Joshua Badge, will become prescription-only medications. Others can only be sold in pharmacies, where previously they could be purchased in adult stores.

As Badge has chronicled, this can produce practical difficulties. Requiring people to explain intimate reasons to a doctor as to why they are seeking a prescription for a medical drug is an unreasonable imposition. For many people it may prove embarrassing or awkward at the very least. Some doctors, through homophobia, ignorance or intolerance may even refuse the request. At a pharmacy the purchase of a drug associated with gay sex is also likely to cause difficulties, particularly for people who have not disclosed to others their sexual orientation.

Pharmacies do not currently sell poppers as medication. Badge explains that poppers “might be pharmacy medicine from 2020 but that doesn’t mean there will be anything on the shelves. Registering new products is prohibitively expensive for businesses and could take years.” In an article for Junkee, he explained the complex and ultimately futile attempt of trying to obtain poppers, and then failing to explain to pharmacists how to make poppers.

It is welcome that the TGA has decided against outright criminalising possession of poppers. Yet those who do not have prescriptions face criminal penalties. As Badge observes, “LGBTI folks and people wanting to engage in pleasurable sex… face a minefield of stigma, inconvenience, policing and criminalisation”. The fact that such regulations particularly target LGBTI people is particularly concerning.


Michael Brull

Policy Lawyer