Rise and Fall and Rise of 'the Gay Drug'
Volume 2, Issue 4
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!"
Wicked Witch of the West, in The Wizard of Oz
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.'
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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.