Day 6

'Poppers' have emerged as an election issue. But what are they?

Poppers, a common name for the drug alkyl nitrite, have been essentially banned in Canada since 2013. According to Health Canada guidelines, the drug can only be used when prescribed by a doctor, but there are currently no approved products in Canada. The approach has opened a grey market, which advocates say opens the door to harm.

Conservative and Liberal parties say they will ask Health Canada to review the ban on alkyl nitrite

A street salesman advertises poppers at Brighton Pride on Aug. 3, 2019 in Brighton, England. Poppers are often sold under different names, such as leather cleaner or 'room odorizer.' (Andrew Hasson/Getty Images)

If you're only hearing about "poppers" for the first time in recent weeks, you're not alone.

Alkyl nitrite, as the drug is officially known, is more commonly known among members of the LGBTQ community and became popular in the 1970s. 

But in recent weeks, the drug has also emerged as an election issue.

Poppers have been essentially banned in Canada since 2013. According to Health Canada guidelines, alkyl nitrite can only be used when prescribed by a doctor, but there are currently no approved products in Canada.

The approach has opened a grey market for the sale of poppers in this country, which advocates say opens the door to harm.

Day 6 spoke with historian Adam Zmith and researcher Len Tooley for a brief history of poppers — and to discuss why we're talking about them now.

What are poppers?

Alkyl nitrite is commonly used among gay and bisexual men, as well as men who have sex with men, through inhalation during sex.

The drug is typically found at sex shops where it's sold in glass bottles that are often wrapped in brightly-coloured packaging. It's common for the drug to be marketed as leather or boot cleaner.

"When you sniff the vapour, you get basically a combination of a bit of a head rush and you feel that your blood is going faster," said Zmith, author of the forthcoming book Deep Sniff: A History of Poppers and Queer Futures.

"It relaxes your muscles and it's dilating your blood vessels so that your blood pressure is lower and that's taking more oxygen to your brain."

That rush can last anywhere from 30 to 90 seconds and helps to relax muscles, which Zmith says can make sex — including anal sex — more comfortable and pleasurable.

Poppers, or alkyl nitrites, are essentially banned in Canada but a grey market for the drug exists. Politicians have called on Health Canada to study its legalization. (Health Canada)

Because of their regulatory status, poppers have often flown under the radar. Even those who use them regularly don't necessarily know a lot about them, Zmith says.

"That obviously leads to quite a lot of misunderstandings and ignorance around a drug, which always happens when you prohibit something," he told Day 6 guest host Faith Fundal.

Why are we talking about them now?

Michelle Rempel Garner, Conservative Party candidate for Calgary Nose Hill, signalled support for reviewing Health Canada's policy on alkyl nitrite in a letter earlier this month.

"The lack of research and attention to this issue is likely, at least in part, related to the stigmatization of LGBTQ+ health care," she wrote, adding that drugs like Viagra, which is used to treat erectile dysfunction, have been normalized in health care.

Tooley, who has researched the regulation of poppers in Canada in his role at the Community-Based Research Centre (CBRC) in Vancouver, says that the organization recently launched a letter-writing campaign that asks politicians to eliminate the ban on poppers and ensure a safe supply. 

With poppers sold and bought quietly through the grey market, users are at risk of harm, the organization argues. It further stigmatizes sexual minorities and drug users.

O'Toole promised to ask Health Canada for a study on the legalization of poppers

In a statement provided to Day 6, a spokesperson for the Liberal Party says they also support "a thorough study by Health Canada about the use of 'poppers', in close collaboration with affected communities." 

Conservative Party candidate Michelle Rempel Garner penned a letter earlier this month arguing that Health Canada's ban on poppers stems from the stigmatization of LGBTQ people in health care. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

A spokesperson for the NDP confirmed that the party would also support a Health Canada study of the issue. Day 6 requested a comment from the Green Party and Bloc Québécois for their stance on the issue, but did not receive a response.

Tooley welcomes the conversation, but says governments need to move faster in order to prevent users' further harm.

"This ties into sort of broader issues around drug decriminalization and legalization," he said.

"Prohibitions don't really help drug users or anybody. They add stigma and shame and fear to substance use, and that makes it harder for people to access services, not easier."

Why are they so controversial?

Using poppers is not without risk, especially when combined with other substances that can lower blood pressure.

According to Health Canada, it is difficult to control the amount of alkyl nitrite that is inhaled which could lead to accidental overdose. Swallowing poppers can also be fatal. The agency says people with certain medical conditions, or who use other substances or medications, are at increased risk.

The best-case scenario would be basically to treat poppers very similar to alcohol, or cannabis or tobacco.- Len Tooley

Tooley says that while alkyl nitrite has never been approved for human consumption in this country, it was only in the last eight years that regulation was enforced.

"All of a sudden the government decided that this is an issue they wanted to address and respond to by basically going into the shops that sold poppers and taking them away and threatening them with fines or imprisonment," he said.

While Tooley acknowledges that risks exist with the use of poppers, he argues they are "overstated."

Zmith says that he believes part of the controversy comes down to societal views on sexuality.

"On the one hand, we want to pursue the potential of our bodies. We want to enjoy our bodies, we want to have sex, and we want to enjoy sex…. And at the same time, we'll be quiet about it," said Zmith.

What do advocates want?

Tooley says that he wants to see the Canadian government regulate the supply to ensure products are safe and reputable.

"The best-case scenario would be basically to treat poppers very similar to alcohol, or cannabis or tobacco, which is that it's a regulated product with clear marking and health information about safe and proper use," he said.

In 2013, Health Canada began cracking down on the illegal sale of alkyl nitrite. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

That would help mitigate many of the risks associated with using poppers, he told Day 6.

"There are already multiple different kinds of distribution networks where people can only buy certain products if they're over 18 years old or 19 years old," Tooley said.

"That's sort of my ultimate goal, is to have poppers treated as a consumer product like those other three."


Written by Jason Vermes with files from CBC News. Interview with Adam Zmith produced by Annie Bender.

Hear full episodes of Day 6 on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

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