Poppers or Alkyl Nitrites (or sometimes in variation they are Amyl or Butyl Nitrites) are probably among the most controversial legal (but not really legal) recreational drugs in existence. The LGBT population was primarily responsible for their rise to popularity in gay discos in the 1970s. Until the 1990s they were a staple for sale in most gay bars or clubs but in the last 20 years the legality issues have caused them to fade somewhat in popularity.
Poppers were created by French Chemist Antoine Jerome Balard in 1844 as a relief for chest pain. It isn’t really known when poppers started to be used recreationally but men in San Francisco gay clubs reported using them as early as 1963 according to a report by the Canadian Psychiatric Association in 1978.
The name “poppers” probably comes from the way they are sold; in small ampules with tops that you simply “pop off” for use. The FDA attempted to regulate use of poppers as a recreational drug in the late 1960s by requiring it to be over the counter but because there are so many slight variations of what we call poppers manufacturers could use that wiggle room to create a product that did not fall into the FDA’s over the counter guidelines for the product.
The Disco Drug
Poppers gained notoriety with the rise of disco clubs in the mid 1970s where they became known as “the disco drug.” Unlike in prior decades disco clubs were the first places with the traditional DJ, loud bass, light shows, and dance floor.
Brands like “Jungle Juice” were found on the dance floor where club patrons would pass around the inhalant for a euphoria-like experience that went well with dancing to loud booming music that was growing in popularity.
In the late 70s their usage began to surge, but not only for their use on the dance floor. The gay population found that poppers worked well to relax key muscles, like the sphincter of the anus, and increased sexual libido in addition to the sudden rush.
Advertising towards gays was an especially lucrative move. Appearing in local publications like David, Alive!, and TWN (The Weekly News), they often conveyed the message that by breathing in the chemicals you’d have bulging muscles and a butch/sexy demeanor. Their use for sexual activity greatly increased by 1980 and soon there were brands saturating the gay community with names such as “Hardware,” “Climax,” “Locker Room,” and “Bang Bang Bang!”
Some advertised themselves as being scented with a specific aroma such as mint. Their affordability made them far more attainable than other “club drugs” like heroin or cocaine. Because of that they quickly became seen as an integral part of gay identity.
HIV and Poppers
At the close of the disco era in 1980 the popper industry was reeling in upwards of $50 million a year and the drug was widely seen as a relatively harmless way to have fun. The 1980s however would not be as friendly to the popper industry. In 1981 all three counties in South Florida experienced their first cases of HIV.
It didn’t take long for health experts to catch on thinking there may be some sort of scientific connection with the use of poppers and the spread of HIV. HIV was mostly found in white gay men in urban areas…the same demographic to most likely use poppers. The flaw in the study naturally was that use of poppers often was concurrent to sexual activity so there was no proof that poppers were a link and the gay media was quick to defend that notion since popper manufacturers were a huge source of income for many of the magazines and newspapers.
In 1983, publications like the Bay Area Reporter and The Advocate at a national level as well as our own local TWN ran advertisements and editorials defending this accusation with all sorts of “alternative” government research. Much of it was vague or unfounded, therefore Congress still took action.
Poppers Are Outlawed
A further blow to the industry happened in April 1985 when a 43 year old Lake Worth woman bought a brand of poppers called “Primo” from a local adult bookstore with her boyfriend and fell into a coma after accidentally drinking the bottle…despite the evident warning labels stating they should not be consumed.
Nevertheless her case influenced the Sun Sentinel to write a large expose questioning the product's safety. Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office Toxicologist Tom Carroll told the newspaper that this was not the first time someone in the area had a bad reaction to the drug. In 1978 a West Palm Beach man died after inhaling a bottle and in 1981 another man from Lake Worth died after ingesting a bottle.
Through the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 poppers were made illegal to sell for the purpose of recreational use but they could still be sold for commercial use. Manufacturers began to rebrand their products as “video head cleaners” or “room odorizers.”
Their ads soon vanished from all LGBT media; replaced by products finding more wide use during the HIV crisis such as condoms. You’d have difficulty finding them for sale in any gay bar or club today. Their popularity has certainly plateaued but still…there must be a market for them. Nearly every adult store in South Florida has them, usually in a locked case. Just ask where the room odorizes are.