Today the House of Commons voted in favour of a law that will ban the legal sale of poppers from April. We think the ban could put the health of gay and bi men who use them at risk and have been calling on the Government to exclude poppers if the evidence shows that the harm caused by poppers is not significant.
So we’re pleased that the Government has agreed there should be an immediate review by experts about the levels of harm. If the evidence does not show that poppers cause significant harm they will be excluded from the ban. But the Home Office say the review will take at least six months, so before it is concluded the ban will be in place. That means gay and bi men who use poppers regularly will be forced to turn to illegal suppliers; that could risk people’s health and is unacceptable.
Proportionally, gay and bi men are by far the largest users of poppers in the UK: one in three have used them, usually because sniffing poppers helps some men to have anal sex. They’ve been used since the 1970s and, when reviewed, experts have concluded that, apart from older forms of poppers which were banned for being carcinogenic, there is a limited risk of harm.
The Government agency responsible for examining the harm from different drugs, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), said during the debate in Parliament that they had not seen sufficient scientific evidence for harm from poppers to justify banning them under the Misuse of Drugs Act, and that they were “not seen to be capable of having harmful effects sufficient to constitute a societal problem.”
The only concern to health that has been established is that if you use poppers and don’t have safe sex, HIV transmission is much more likely if you are having sex with an HIV positive partner. But that risk is best minimised through effective education campaigns with men who use poppers and individuals taking responsibility for their own sexual health.
So why has the Government decided to ban poppers now?
They are trying to crack down on synthetic drugs which have effects similar to banned drugs like speed and cocaine. Some of these drugs have been linked to deaths and other harm, and have consequently been banned under current drugs legislation – but because it can take 6-12 months for a drug to be reviewed and banned, manufacturers are able to make a small chemical change to create a new potentially dangerous substance and the process has to start all over again.
So the Government brought forward the Psychoactive Substances Bill to establish a blanket ban on any substance that has a psychoactive effect, which means whatever tweaks manufacturers make to harmful drugs, they will still be banned. But while this solves that problem, the blanket ban brings in a whole range of substances under the definition of being psychoactive. The government has excluded alcohol and tobacco from the ban because they are widely in use, despite being harmful themselves.
We have argued with other organisations, like the National Aids Trust, that if the evidence shows that harm from poppers is not significant, then poppers should also be exempt. MPs in the Home Affairs Select Committee agreed.
And the Labour Party tabled an amendment to the bill to exclude poppers on that basis, which received support from MPs of all parties in the debate. Unfortunately, the Government did not support this move and it was defeated in a vote.
However, the Government has listened. The review of the evidence on harm from poppers is the right move. And depending on the evidence, the review will be an opportunity to recommend how the sale of poppers is best regulated in future; for example ensuring that they are only available to adults through licenced sex shops and similar retailers, and are clearly labelled on how they should be used safely.
But it is clear to us that allowing a full ban to go ahead in April will cause confusion, and more importantly, could put gay and bi men’s health at serious risk: people who use poppers will be forced to turn to illegal suppliers who could supply poppers containing unknown harmful substances or indeed more harmful illegal drugs. This is not acceptable and puts gay and bi men at risk.
So we’re calling on the Government to act more quickly. Why will the review take six months? And if there is a genuine barrier to concluding it sooner, poppers should be excluded from the ban temporarily until the review has been concluded. That is the right and sensible thing to do.