The Rise and Fall and Rise of 'The Gay Drug'

By Ian Young

Steam Volume 2, Issue 4

"AHAH! HEH HEH HEH HEH!  So! You won't take warning, eh? All the worse for you... And now, my beauties - some thing with poison in it I think. With poison in it! But attractive to the eye!"

The Wicked Witch of the West, in The Wizard of Oz

Poppers are back! You may have noticed. After almost dropping from sight in the mid-to-late AIDies, they've risen to the surface again in the Naughty Nineties - this time as an illegal, rather than a legal, drug. I live in Toronto, an a friend who used to work in one of the bathhouses here told me their basement was filled with crates of the stuff until just a little while ago. In the dance clubs, vendors wander around selling brown bottles out of shopping bags, or you can order them from ads in the local gay rag, imported from Quebec, where they're still legal.

They're not just in the big centers, either. When I visited Saskatoon a few years ago, everyone on the dance floor of the gay bar seemed to be snorting them. Of course, in the old days, we could buy them over the counter at the Yonge Street head shops. Now they're banned - which means the dealers will come to you.

Of all the drugs, legal and illegal, that have been funnelled into the gay ghetto over the years, the cheapest and (apart from alcohol and tobacco) most widely available was poppers. What the scientists call 'nitrite inhalants,' poppers got their name because when they were first manufactured, they came in small ampoules that were 'popped' to release fumes. That was when they were only available on prescription, for the occasional use of certain heart patients. Once they became a snort 'em-anytime-fun-drug, having to keep breaking open little ampoules tended to limit one's intake, and since, as every child of the consumer society knows, more is better, enter the familiar little brown screw-top bottle.

In the gay ghettos of the Seventies and early Eighties, poppers were always at the center of the action. On any given night at, say, the Anvil in Manhattan, a large percentage of the men on the dance floor would have poppers in hand, and many of the rest would be helping to pass the bottles around. Some disco clubs would even add to the general euphoria by occasionally spraying the dance floor with poppers fumes.

Michael Rumaker, in his classic 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."

My own most vivid memory of poppers in action goes back to Fire Island, sometime in the Seventies - that legendary time. Yes, children, I was there, I remember it. I was vistiting friends in the Pines, and was spending a couple of hours at the disco one night. Across the room, I noticed an acquaintance of mine, the writer George Whitmore, dancing up a storm and inhaling liberally from a poppers bottle which he kept in the pocket of his jeans. Somehow in the course of the evening, the bottle broke, and the contents spilled all over George's leg, giving him a terrible and very unsightly burn. It made me wonder what kind of damage inhaling the stuff must do.

The original, medicinal form of poppers was amyl nitrate, a 'vascular dilator' used by people with angina. They didn't snort it all night of course. They just took a whiff of it on odd occasions when the old ticker felt funny. Still, the product was worth quite a bit to Burroughs Wellcome, the giant pharmaceutical company that owned the patent and enjoyed a monopoly on sales.

Then, early in the Sixties, another angina medicine came along, better, more convenient, and it didn't give you a headache: nitroglycerin tablets. Suddenly, doctors had something else to prescribe instead of those little tins of amyl. (In my collection, I have an intriguing artefact from the Fifties, a little poppers tin marked Burroughs Wellcome - Amyl Nitrate. It's also marked POISON.) So it seemed amyl would go the way of snuff and smelling salts, and the sales graph at BW started to head towards the floor.

Whoever thought up the next move was certainly brilliant in their cynical inventiveness. It occurred to someone that there must surely be other lucrative markets for amyl nitrate, with its characteristic throbbing 'rush' and short-lived feeling of euphoria. Somewhere along the line, contacts with the US military were sounded out, and before long, poppers had found a new test market in the jungle battlefields of Vietnam.

At the height of the Vietnam War the average GI made his tour of duty a little more tolerable by getting strung out on a variety of mood-alternating substances including grass, opium, heroin, and the smorgasbord of amphetamines. The military in those days had a pretty casual attitude to the drug use and quite a few backline supply sergeants found they could use their Mob contacts from civilian life to transport drugs from Southeast Asia to the US.

From '66 or '67 until the end of the American involvement in the war in the mid-Seventies, drugs circulated between American cities and the war zone, and when the war was lost, overseas operations were transferred to Latin America, with cocaine and crack replacing heroin as the drug of choice on the street. The CIA had its hand in this, but that's another story. For the boys in 'Nam, nitrite inhalants were a welcome addition to the chemical stew. They were legal, they were easy to carry, and they were being shipped in from the States, literally by the cratefull - touted as an antidote to gun fumes!

When the surviving GIs returned home, many of them were eager to keep up their poppers habit, and under heavy pressure from the manufacturers, the Food and Drug Administration made a ruling sanctioning over-the-counter sales. Poppers became available without prescription to the American public. Then about a year later, the first reports of peacetime casualties began to come in. Terrible skin burns, blackout, breathing difficulties and blood anomalies caused poppers to be placed under restriction again.

But once you've let the genie out of the bottle, it's pretty difficult to put him back. The ban on amyl quickly became ineffective when an enterprising gay medical student in California, Clifford Hassing, altered its atomic structure just slightly - it isn't hard to do - and applied for a patent on butyl nitrite. The genie was changing form, as genies will.

Soon, Hassing had been muscled out of his thoughtful little home-lab operation by larger 'entrepreneurs,' nominally-independent operators controlled by organized crime syndicates. They made further chemical changes and came up with butyl and isobutyl nitrite - less pure, more toxic, and even faster-acting than the original amyl. And with the post-Stonewall rise of the urban, drug-based 'gay lifestyle,' gays were seen as the ideal market sector for a new aphrodisiac.

At this point the FDA apparently wanted nothing more than to be done with the whole business, and a modus vivendi was established. The unwritten agreement seems to have been: public distribution of poppers would be permitted - as long as they were labelled 'room odorizer and marketed only to gay men. With this cynical unwritten agreement, poppers became a multi-million dollar business for the Mob.

During the Seventies and early Eighties, much of the gay press, including the most influential glossy publications, came to rely on poppers ads for a huge chunk of its revenue, and poppers became an accepted part of gay sex. There was even a comic strip called Poppers, by Jerry Mills. The unwritten agreement was almost never breached: poppers ads appeared only in gay publications. The few exceptions were women's magazines with a large gay male readership, like Playgirl.

Meanwhile, laboratory research on poppers had been quietly proceeding, and a couple of gay activists had been paying attention. Hank Wilson (on the West Coast) and John Lauritsen (in the East) formed The Committee to Monitor Poppers, collecting scientific data on just what poppers were doing. What they found wasn't good. 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.

Before the first official reports of AIDS in 1981, relatively few voices had been raised to question what health problems poppers users might be causing themselves. A few attempts were made to curb sales, but the manufacturers always got around it by changing either the chemical formula or the product name. And the gay press, dependent on revenue from ads, did not care to blow the whistle on its own advertiser. One researcher contacted Robert McQueen, the Advocate's editor, 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 ran a series of ads promoting poppers as a 'Blueprint for Health.'

While researchers and gay advocates warned of danger, the FDA stood aside; as long as poppers were marketed as room perfume for fags, they would do nothing. And one popper manufacturer circulated a letter to all the gay papers, reminding them just who was "the largest advertiser in the Gay press." They certainly were that, and their ads were obviously very effective. By 1978, poppers industry profits topped $50 million a year. So just how were poppers promoted in the gay media? A look through back issues of gay papers and magazines reveals some interesting features.

An ad for "heavy duty" Bolt, a brand of "liquid incense," shows a couple of jock-strapped soldiers, buddies in 'Nam perhaps, sharing a smoke beside a loaded machine gun. Military nostalgia? Another as shows a bomb falling on a city, with the caustic caption "It's the Rush Hour!" There are ads for a brand of poppers known as Crypt Tonight - a deadly pun linking the crypt and the rock that can kill even Superman. Another brand was called Satan's Scent, which promised "a devilish aroma." A brand called Cum showed its bottle as a dripping cock and balls.

Going over these ads, it's striking how many of them feature bombs, bullets, weaponry, and other symbols of death and destruction. The most sinister of all is a full-page colour spread for a brand called Hardware. It shows an open bottle of the product, surrounded by and seemingly giving rise to the distinctive, death-seeding mushroom cloud of an atomic (or hydrogen) bomb. In the head of this reddish-gold phallic cloud are two human faces, their eyes closed, their noses appearing to melt or dissolve. Between the faces is another, subliminal image: the head of a snorting white bull. The text below reads: "Intensely Powerful."

Poppers ads often combined appeals to masculinity and potency with this sort of overt or covered death imagery. At the same time, the political right was sending gays messages that they deserved to die, and information on the deathly effects of poppers was being suppressed. The results for the gay community were a disaster. A number of studies of the effects of poppers have strongly suggested a link between poppers use and the appearance of Kaposi's sarcoma in young gay men.

During the first few years of the AIDS epidemic, poppers came under suspicion as a possible contributing factor. But after 1984, when the Reagan administration pronounced a single retrovirus to be the only cause of the growing list of AIDS illnesses, the health hazards of poppers were dismissed. All attention and funding was directed to HIV. Eventually, through the efforts of a few dogged activists and researchers, state legislatures began to get into the act, and finally, most jurisdiction made poppers illegal - in spite of a well-financed campaign by a leading manufacturer, W.J. Freezer, the 'Pope of Poppers.' But even then, information about poppers was still not made widely available.

Now that the official explanation of AIDS has shown itself to have holes big enough to drive a truck through, and has produced neither a vaccine nor a cure, even some in the AIDS establishment are beginning to rethink their 'HIV Does It All' position, and are taking a new look at a range of other factors, including the health risks associated with inhaling large amounts of nitrites.

An article by John Lauritsen in June 13, 1994 issue of the New York Native, 'The poppers-KS Connection,' summarizes the latest developments. The National Institute on Drug Abuse is now investigating a possible poppers-KS link, and even Dr. Robert Gallo, formerly the central pillar of HIV orthodoxy, is quoted as reassessing the role of poppers in KS: "The nitrites," he now says, "could be the primary factor."

A few years ago, I asked an old acquaintance, the Canadian AIDS activist Michael Lynch, to join with me in asking a popular gay paper to stop advertising poppers. No, he said, poppers were great, and as a matter of fact he used them all the time. This in spite of the fact that he was battling serious lung problems! Well, poppers can be highly addictive. Many gay men who use them find they're no longer able to enjoy sex without them. Some can't even jack off without them!

Outlawing liquor during the Prohibition era didn't stop people from drinking, it only caused a lot of grief and help the Mob get rich. The recent artificial raising of cigarette prices in Canada was flop, as cigarettes were smuggled over the border by the truckload. Recent history has shown that outlawing any given drug causes far more problems than it solves, and the banning of poppers is unlikely to prove an exception.

The only thing that can make a difference is AEIOU: attitude, education, information, organization, and understanding. In the meantime, poppers are back. I have a couple of catalogues here, one from New York City, the other from the West Coast, offering who knows what ersatz variety of bottled nitrite inhalants - only they're no longer 'room odorizer' or 'liquid incense' but 'video head cleaner' and 'polish remover.' "Just like the old days!" is the slogan. You bet.

George Whitmore, Jerry Mills, Robert McQueen, W.J. Freezer, and Michael Lynch are no longer with us. They all died of AIDS. Burroughs Wellcome, of course, the original manufacturers of poppers, went on to fame and fortune with its monopoly on another fine product, the highly-toxic 'anti-AIDS' drug AZT. *

Ian is the author of several books of poetry, and editor of The Male Muse and Son of the Male Muse, among others. The above article is adapted from 'The Stonewall Experiment: A Gay Psychohistory', published by Cassell.