My first experience with poppers came at the tender age of 17. Having schmoozed my way into a nightclub with a pocketful of change and a huge dollop of youthful charm, I made my way to the dance floor. Before I knew it, an older guy sidled up to me and thrust a small bottle under my nose. Instinctively, I inhaled in surprise; very quickly, a head-rush had consumed me, sending a warm, fuzzy sensation through my body and enhancing the beat and bass of the music. After around 30 seconds, the 'high' subsided and the 'supplier' of the little bottle had both hands down my bright orange Topman t-shirt (it was 1996, okay?!). Two brand new experiences in one heady night.
There has been no lasting damage. In the aftermath of that hedonistic night, the only shame I felt was in convincing a taxi driver to take me and friend home for 75p. Halcyon days.
Fast forward 20 years and we find ourselves in incredibly strange times. The Psychoactive Substances Bill, currently making its way through parliament, is the Conservative government's attempt at outlawing so-called 'legal highs', following a string of high-profile deaths. Indeed, there were at least 18 confirmed fatalities directly linked to legal highs in 2014. Today, after much speculation, the House of Commons voted by 309 to 228 to include poppers in the list of proscribed substances. Suddenly, there is a very real prospect of a liquid so commonplace you can even buy it at Ann Summers being made illegal.
During the debate on a possible exemption for poppers, Tory MP, Crispin Blunt, 'outed' himself as a poppers user;
"There are some times that something is proposed which becomes personal to you and you realise the government is about to do something fantastically stupid and in those circumstances one has a duty to speak up," he said.
"I use poppers. I out myself as a user of poppers. I am astonished to find it (the government) is proposing it to be banned and frankly so would many other gay men."
Blunt, who came out as gay in 2010, was speaking in defence of a longstanding aspect of gay social life. Walk into any gay club after 2am and you are likely to be rendered breathless by a potent bouquet of sweat, alcohol and poppers. A Conservative politician admitting to being a regular user of poppers is a fairly astonishing development by anyone's standards. We should not fool ourselves; in speaking out, Blunt was countering a transparent exercise in orthodox social engineering on the part of his parliamentary colleagues.
The Conservatives have a record of ideologically-driven cluelessness on the issue of drugs, constantly favouring a counterproductive punitive strategy over a more balanced, holistic approach that would see partial decriminalisation, prevention and rehabilitation as the most productive combination for dealing with this age-old human reality. People take drugs, whether they are legal or not. This has always been the case. The outcome of excessive legal and judicial intervention is an underground trade that causes untold harm to thousands.
Undoubtedly, a ban on poppers will result in an illicit criminal industry. In addition, there is a very real danger that gay men will turn to Class A and B drugs as an alternative to what is widely accepted to be a harmless legal high with no conclusively proven long-term health implications.
There is an aspect to this debate that many are hesitant to address. Let's be honest; a great number of gay men rely on poppers for a full and healthy sex life. There, I've said it. Anal sex is not always easy. Not all men are able to simply lie back and think of England (or wherever) when being on 'the receiving end'. The wonder of human anatomical individuality means that some men are tighter than others (incidentally, so are women). For some, poppers perform a similar function to lube - they make the process of penetrative sex that little bit easier. Viagra is readily available for men who can't get it up. The sole difference with that particular chemical assistance is that it doesn't come in liquid form. Ban poppers and hundreds of thousands of gay men will literally lose legal access to what is essentially a sex aid. What's more, judging by the aforementioned supply of amyl nitrate available at your local Ann Summers store, this could also be a very serious issue for many straight couples.
This is not to say that poppers do not come with certain sexual risks, most prominent of which is the accompanying loss of inhibition. This can - and does - lead some to engage in unsafe sex. The rub is that the same can be said of alcohol, yet you'd struggle to find a Tory in favour of abolishing the Westminster champagne budget.
There is no justification for including poppers in the Psychoactive Substances Bill. This is simply another example of right-wing ideologues seeking to advance a socially conservative agenda. In doing so, contrary to their stated aims, they are endangering the lives of gay men by initiating an inevitable contraband market in unregulated products. Less palatable for many, but equally as significant, is the potential detrimental impact of this draconian measure on the sex lives of countless people. If a prominent Tory MP is able to declare himself a poppers user in the House of Commons, we 'plebs' should have no fear in being fully open and honest about the conceivable consequences of our government's attempted social conditioning on our lives.
Now, where is my Jungle Juice...?
This post was originally published on The Queerness.