Burroughs Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline) owned the patent and enjoyed a monopoly on sales of a nasty toxin known as amyl nitrate. This is an inhalant used by angina sufferers as a “vascular dilator.” They just took a sniff when the old ticker felt funny. Then, another, more superior angina medicine with fewer side effects came along: nitroglycerin tablets.
But amyl nitrate didn’t go away. Because of its rush effect, it became a boutique recreational drug between 1961 to 1969 and was used primarily in the sadomasochistic homosexual scene. Nitrite inhalants were also added to the chemical-drug stew used among servicemen in Vietnam. The drug was legal, easy to carry, inexpensive and was being shipped in from the states literally by the crate full.
Amyl nitrate “poppers” were sold in fragile glass ampoules that, when crushed between the fingers, “popped” and then was inhaled. The drug also had a relaxant loosening effect on involuntary smooth muscles, such as those in the throat and anus.
After observing an increase in recreational use, a prescription requirement was reinstated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1969.
However, when G.I.s returned home from Vietnam, many were eager to continue their popper habit. Under heavy pressure from manufacturers, the FDA sanctioned over-the-counter sales. Poppers became available without prescription to the American public. Marketing for this toxin initially often centered around war-time high nostalgia, using names like Rush and Bolt.
About a year later came the first reports of peacetime casualties. Terrible skin burns, blackouts, breathing difficulties and blood anomalies caused poppers to be placed under restriction again.
Then, a homosexual medical student in California, one Clifford Hassing, altered its atomic structure slightly and applied for a patent for his butyl nitrite. This was a skirt around the law. He marketed the product successfully toward the gay scene with the name Locker Room Aroma of Men.
Seeing the loophole created by Hassing, larger organized-crime labs moved in. They made further chemical changes and came up with butyl and isobutyl nitrite. But these concoctions were more toxic and faster-acting than the original amyl. Gays were seen as the target market for this new toxic aphrodisiac.
Under pressure from Crime Syndicate types, the FDA established an unwritten agreement that public distribution of poppers would be permitted as long as they were labelled “room odorizer” and marketed only to homosexual men. With this cynical unwritten agreement, poppers became a multi-million dollar self destruct for profit business for the Mob. They were typically sold in gay bars, discos, clubs, bath houses, and head shops.
By 1974, the poppers craze was in full swing. By 1977, poppers were in every corner of gay life. At gay discotheques, men could be seen shuffling around in a daze, holding little bottles under the nose. At gay gathering places – bars, baths, leather clubs – the poppers miasma was taken for granted.
Michael Rumaker, in his book A Day and a Night at the Baths, describes the tubs as “permeated with that particularly inert, greasy odor of poppers. Wherever you went, the musky chemical smell of it was constantly in your nostrils.” He found himself heading to the single, small window, in order to gasp a few breaths of “something other than the cold, kerosene smell of amyl.”
During the ’70s and early ’80s, much of the gay press, including the most influential glossy publications, came to rely on popper ads for operating revenue, and poppers became an accepted part of gay sex.
Within only a few years, hundreds of thousands of homosexual men were persuaded that poppers were an integral part of their “gay identity.” The ads conveyed the message that nothing could be butcher or sexier than to inhale noxious chemical fumes. Bulging muscles were linked to a drug that is indisputably hazardous to the health.
Gross profits were estimated to be $50 million in 1978, and were double or triple that by the early ’80s. A powerful organized crime lobby roadblocked health efforts to counter this plague. Researchers who advanced drug abuse or multifactorial hypotheses for AIDs were quickly ostracized and unfunded.
Sold under names like Rush, Ram, Thunderbolt, Locker Room and Crypt Tonight, homosexual men made up virtually the entire market for the commodity. When inhaled just before orgasm, poppers seem to enhance and prolong the sensation. With regular use, they become a sexual crutch, and many gay men were incapable of having sex without the aid of poppers. When poppers interact with other vasodilators, such as Viagra, Levitra and Cialis, it can cause a serious decrease in blood pressure, which can cause fainting, stroke and heart attack.
The Gay Activist Counter Attack Against the Popper Threat
Gay activists had been paying attention and got into the fray. They were resisted and attacked every step of the way. Hank Wilson (on the West coast) and John Lauritsen (in the East) formed the Committee to Monitor Poppers and collected scientific data on just what poppers were doing.
Apart from causing localized damage to nasal membranes, poppers have been linked to anemia, strokes, heart, lung and brain damage, arterial constriction, cardiovascular collapse and, most tellingly, the blood de-oxygenation, thymus atrophy and chronic depletion of T-cell ratio’s associated with severe immune dysfunction. Yes, indeed, surprise, surprise- heavy popper users experience diminished immune systems.
Poppers are strongly mutagenic and have the potential to cause cancer by producing deadly N-nitroso compounds.
The two men wrote a pamphlet called “Death Rush.”
“Few gay men, physicians, or AIDS researchers seem to be aware how extensive and powerful the evidence against poppers is. Anyone who has studied even a portion of the medical literature can only shake his head in amazement that this dubious commodity has not been banned — except in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and, as of June 1985, New York State. In Massachusetts, where poppers have been banned for years, only 378 cases of AIDS had been reported as of 31 March 1986. In contrast, there had been 6,265 cases in New York, where poppers had been sold legally in sex shops, baths, discos, and even neighborhood smoke shops.”
One researcher contacted Robert McQueen, the editor of the largest gay publication, to warn him that poppers “strongly suppresses” the immune system and could contribute to KS and Pneumocystis pneumonia. But McQueen said he wasn’t interested. The Advocate instead ran a series of ads targeting pajama people and promoting poppers as a “Blueprint for Health.”
In a 1983 letter to The Advocate, poppers manufacturer Joseph F. Miller, president of Great Lakes Products, Inc., boasted he was the “largest advertiser in the gay press.”
The initiative for countering the popper plague had to come from the gay community itself. West Hollywood, the gayest city in the world, took the lead in banning poppers. It was banned in New York State in 1985. At last in 1989, poppers were a “banned hazardous product” in the United States.
It is illegal to manufacture, distribute, import or sell any isobutyl nitrite substance or any consumer product “used for inhaling or otherwise introduced into the body for euphoric or physical effects.” The ban is part of the Drug Omnibus Act of 1988.
Incredibly, popper usage lingers on, and there is a flourishing homemade cottage industry that makes them under the guise of “VHS cleaners” and “VCR cleaning enthusiasts groups.”
In the U.K., poppers were excluded from the current Psychoactive Substances Act. A former conservative justice minister, Crispin Blunt, outed himself in the Commons as a popper user and denounced the proposed ban as “fantastically stupid.”