The poppers ban is a veiled attack on pleasure

A version of this post was published in The Guardian

The new psychoactive substances bill, when it comes into force in the UK in April, will ban the acquisition and sale of all psychoactive substances, whether existing now or to be discovered in the future, except for alcohol, tobacco/nicotine and caffeine. The driver for this draconian piece of legislation is supposedly to reduce the harms of so-called legal highs and to shut down the “head shops” that sell them. The fact that two exempted substances, alcohol and tobacco, each cause much more harm than all the legal psychoactive substances put together is ignored.

Most of the drugs referred to as legal highs by the proponents of the bill are in fact already illegal. The only legal drugs that will be banned by the new act are some new synthetic cannabinoids, weak amphetamine-type stimulants, nitrous oxide, and alkyl nitrite preparations colloquially called “poppers”.

These last two are some of the safest drugs we know. Nitrous oxide has been used for nearly 200 years for pain control and some alkyl nitrites have been a medicine for angina for around a century. Their safety means that the health impact of their ban will be negligible. The Home Office has said it expects the ban will save around 12 lives a year from drugs, so why are they putting so much parliamentary resource into this bill? If deaths were the concern they would ban the gas helium, which is associated with far more deaths each year than nitrous oxide.

The truth is that this bill is a veiled attack on pleasure. In fact the term “psychoactivity” has become a proxy for the term “pleasure”, and the ban of poppers gives the lie to this.

Poppers are not psychoactive – unless you take the perverse view that the headaches they produce are pleasurable. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs confirmed this, stating that poppers should be exempt from the bill. Its assessment of poppers has consistently been that although they can cause health harms, the frequency and severity of these are too low to warrant control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. This is presumably why the Home Office is pushing for them to be controlled under the new act.

The science behind poppers is that their active ingredient leads to the production of nitric oxide in the body, which dilates blood vessels and relaxes smooth muscles. Poppers are most widely used in male gay sex where the muscle-relaxing properties facilitate anal intercourse.

Why is the government so anti-pleasure, particularly for gay men? Much of the drive to ban legal highs has come from the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), a rightwing thinktank that has consistently misled the public and government about the harms of legal highs. These claims have been refuted by DrugScience.

One of CSJ’s main attacks is on what it calls the “loosening” of laws on moral values in the past decades, leading to the erosion of the family. The acceptance of homosexuality is one of its main concerns. It is hard not to conclude that the government shares this opinion and that the poppers ban is in fact an attempt to deter – or even punish – men who enjoy having sex with men.

This is the conspiracy theory explanation, but we must also consider that the government is confused. It may think nitric oxide is the same as nitrous oxide. Confidence in its reasoning is not encouraged by the fact that at the first reading of the psychoactive substances bill, government spokespeople several times referred to a ban on nitrates, which are fertilisers, not nitrites.

Whatever the reasoning behind the popper ban, it is fundamentally flawed. Poppers should be removed from the psychoactive substances bill, though it would be much more honest to scrap the whole legislation as it is so lacking in justification and logic.