In Australia, people have used poppers (slang for ‘alkyl nitrites’) for decades to make anal sex more comfortable. Poppers are a vital sex aid for many, but they’re especially important for queer people.

However, recent regulatory changes have made poppers difficult to access, and you should probably give a damn.

Most poppers in Australia are a compound known as ‘isobutyl nitrite’, which is a Schedule 4 substance. This means people must have a prescription to use them while buying and owning isobutyl poppers without one is a criminal offence. Even sharing poppers could land you in a tight spot.

However, many (straight) doctors are unfamiliar with the therapeutic benefits and might hesitate to prescribe poppers. I found it next-to-impossible to obtain a prescription just last year due to confusion among medical professionals.

In February, amyl nitrite – the original popper – was officially downgraded from a Schedule 4 drug under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme to a Schedule 3.

In theory, you can purchase it over-the-counter at a pharmacy like flu tablets or Vitamin D. This would be great news, except that pharmacies have nothing to sell.

Therapeutic medicines must go through a complicated and expensive approval process with the Therapeutic Goods Administration (the people who regulate drugs). So far the TGA hasn’t approved a single one.

“We’re aware of an overseas supplier working on getting a product to the Australian market,” Simon Ruth, CEO of Thorne Harbour Health, told PEDESTRIAN.TV.

“But this will take many months, potentially years, due to the regulatory
processes and requirements.”

Even if there was something to put on the shelves, poppers would still be out of reach for some.

If you’re ‘discreet’ you probably don’t want to gab about gay sex in the public venue of a pharmacy. Or maybe you don’t feel like talking about anal sex with the 65+ straight pharmacist in your small country town. Further, migrants and people from diverse backgrounds need to navigate additional cultural norms and language barriers.

Until recently, people purchased poppers from sex-positive or queer retailers, such as sex shops, saunas and sex-on premises venues. Jarryd Bartle from the Eros Association (the national body representing the adult industry) said such venues were the “ideal environment” to sell and purchase poppers.

“Staff who work in adult stores are sex-positive, often LGBTI themselves and can provide non-judgemental advice. You don’t get that in your average pharmacy,” Bartle told PTV.

However, the recent regulation changes around poppers have attracted a greater level of scrutiny from law enforcement, with Eros warning adult venues to pull the product from their shelves.

Technically, it has never been legal in Australia to sell or use poppers so, on the surface, not much has changed. The difference now is that health regulators and police have caught a whiff of what’s happening.

Barriers to access aside, the biggest problem facing queers is criminalisation. In 2018, the TGA proposed to classify poppers as a Section 9 Prohibited Substance, putting it in the same class as heroin. This would’ve criminalised a large number of gay people: around half of gay and bisexual men have recently used poppers.

In a small victory for the health organisations, LGBTI groups and queer activists involved, the TGA relaxed its position and we got the current scheme.

While it was the best-case scenario, the queer community now faces issues of distribution and supply. The technicalities of scheduling mean that people need prescriptions which are hard to come by, leaving queers vulnerable to over-policing and criminal charges.

Poppers have a history of safe use in queer communities going back decades. They aren’t addictive and they have no links to poor mental health. In fact, gay and bi men who use poppers tend to be well educated and socially connected.

One solution here is for state governments to provide exemptions for adult retailers to sell poppers, giving queers greater choice and promoting access. However, we still need to wait for the TGA to approve a product.

We should also be asking: what’s the good of a system that forces people to acquire therapeutic medicines illegally? LGBTI people and businesses mustn’t be exposed to harassment and prosecution as a result of the new scheme.

Authorities must exercise discretion until there are flexible ways for people to buy and use poppers. In the longer term, exemptions for adult stores would help facilitate accessibility for a broader range of people.

In the meantime, we might all have to be a bit more gentle with each other… 😉

Joshua Badge is a queer writer and a philosopher at Deakin University. You can catch him on Twitter @JoshuaBadge.

Image: TiendaPoppers