Queer health advocates today met with the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) to discuss alternatives to the interim ban on poppers.
The TGA invited community health advocate Daniel Reeders and sexual health physician Dr Vincent Cornelisse to present on the community impact of the proposed ban.
The potential banning of poppers came to prominence in August after Star Observer published a piece by Steve Spencer, who cheekily termed the proposal a “war on bottoms”.
The TGA later moved towards an interim ban on poppers, proposing that they be rescheduled as a classified substance, which would make their possession, sale or use a criminal offence.
This decision was opened up for community consultation, leading Reeders and Cornelisse to co-author a submission with drug expert Professor Kane Race, public health researcher Julian Tran, and LGBTI health and human rights advocate Paul Kidd.
Including their submission, the TGA received 40 in total outlining the community impact of the interim ban, drawing attention to the mental health consequences of a history of criminalisation, stigmatisation and marginalisation.
One reasoning for the ban cited by the TGA is eye specialists’ concern over a spate of cases involving ‘poppers retinopathy’ – more or less permanent loss of visual acuity.
Advocates say these cases only emerged after the EU banned isobutyl nitrite, which was the most common active ingredient in poppers at the time.
The banning of isobutyl nitrite lead to the substitution of isopropyl nitrite, a substance that British research have identified as the most likely cause of loss of vision.
Reeders and Cornelisse argue that risks of vision loss could be reduced or prevented by limiting the ban on isopropyl nitrite alone, and also suggest that banning alkyl nitrites may lead to users turning to more dangerous substances like ‘huffing’ ethyl chloride, or illicit drugs like crystal methamphetamine.
They also argue that the recent history of LGBTI community health advancements strongly indicate that community education and harm minimisation remain the most effective strategies to reduce risks of use, where criminalisation may create a sense of risk in patients needing to otherwise disclose use to doctors.
The pair also say that risks of accidental exposure could be curbed by child-safe packaging, as well as warnings and instructions on product labels.
“Our goal in the submission was to quantify the risks based on evidence, and to highlight the benefits and purposes of poppers use,” Reeders said.
“We are hopeful this meeting signals the TGA are considering alternatives to prohibition that acknowledge queer and partygoer communities are capable of responsibly managing health risks.”
Cornelisse said that the ban could prevent patients from developing trust in doctor-patient relationships, making full disclosure – which is essential to that relationship – less likely.
“An effective doctor-patient relationship is built on trust and full disclosure, and the ban could make patients think twice about telling their doctor about their poppers use,” Cornelisse said.
“Men who currently use poppers for more adventurous sexual encounters might consider illicit drugs for the same purposes – with greater risks of overdose and dependence.”
Reeders acknowledged the contributions of community activists like Spencer and Nic Holas, who together began a Change.org petition to harness community anger over the interim decision.
“There was a really strong community response that was cheeky and energetic – they really demonstrated that we weren’t going to take this lying down.
“We acknowledge the TGA did not start out with any intention to criminalise queer people – and they might have been a bit surprised by the strength of the community response,” Reeders continued.
“But over 90,000 gay and bisexual men have used poppers in the last six months, and that’s a lot of people who would, almost overnight, become liable to fines or even prison.”
A former federal police commissioner, Mick Palmer, has also criticised the interim decision, saying, “I don’t think that a ban would be effective.”
“No other ban has been effective. Why would this one?”