Priti Patel, who unsuccessfully tried to block equal marriage in 2013, has said she is “minded” to decriminalise the sale of poppers – a muscle-relaxing drug often used by gay men during sex.
Under current laws, it’s not illegal to possess poppers, but it can be an offence to supply them for human consumption.
As a result, they’re often sold as “room aromas” or “leather cleaner”.
In a letter to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), the home secretary said she was keen to remove the uncertainty around the legality of supplying poppers, which are also known as alkyl nitrates.
The ACMD four years ago advised that poppers don’t count as “psychoactive substances” because they don’t directly affect the central nervous system, and thus remained permissible under a 2016 law that tried to ban so-called legal highs.
But a Court of Appeal judgment appeared to contradict this in 2018, saying substances that even indirectly affected the central nervous system should also be banned.
Patel has now asked the ACMD for advice on exempting poppers from the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act, masterminded by then home secretary Theresa May.
She noted: “Alkyl nitrites, known as poppers, have been widely used recreationally since the 1970s and are used for their muscle-relaxing effects, especially by homosexual men as an aid to sex.”
In 2016, former Tory minister Crispin Blunt – who is chair of the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group’s policy council – led the campaign against banning poppers.
Reacting to Patel’s move, he told the Guardian: “Many gay men will be grateful to the home secretary for this clear direction of policy, as indeed am I.”
Many have pointed out that the home secretary twice voted against allowing same-sex couples to marry in 2013. She was in the minority and the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill became law in 2014.
The cabinet minister’s letter about poppers comes as she faces pressures on a number of rather more urgent fronts – especially the treatment of migrants attempting to cross the Channel to reach the UK.
Patel has faced warnings from both Labour and human rights groups over the legality of her decision to ask the military for assistance tackling migrant crossings.
On Monday, the Ministry of Defence said it had sent RAF aircraft to help Border Force spot small boats trying to reach the UK from France.
More than 4,000 people have crossed the Channel in small boats so far this year.
On Tuesday, Patel found herself in a war of words with ice-cream company Ben and Jerry’s over her policy on migrants.