The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has announced that it won’t ban alkyl nitrites—colloquially know as poppers—and instead will allow them to be purchased from behind the counter at pharmacies.

The decision comes almost nine months after the TGA proposed an amendment to outlaw the substance, a classification that would have seen poppers moved into the same category as heroin and made their possession, sale, or use a criminal offence.

However, following community backlash and advice from queer health advocates, the TGA postponed its decision on the prospective ban and requested further public consultations to assess approaches to access and the risks associated with alkyl nitrites.

A Change.org petition against a ban was also circulated online, garnering more than 5,500 signatures.

In their announcement this week, the TGA has confirmed that from February next year, amyl nitrites will be classified as Schedule 3, meaning they can be purchased from behind the counter at a pharmacist pending appropriate packaging.

Isoamyl nitrite, butyl nitrite, isobutyl nitrite, and octyl nitrite will remain on Schedule 4, which will restrict them to ‘prescription only’ access.

And isopropyl nitrite and n-propyl nitrite will be classified as Schedule 10, prohibiting them from sale, supply, and use, due to their links to eye damage.

Poppers are currently unregulated and the ingredients used in them differ, prompting the TGA to ban a specific chemical used in some poppers, while allowing varying levels of access to others.

Chief Executive at Thorne Harbour Health, Simon Ruth, said that while the decision showcased the power of community advocacy, he was concerned about the potential short term implications.

“The fact that we’ve seen Australia turn around from a decision to ban amyl is actually quite remarkable,” he said.

“It’s really a testament to our community’s continued legacy of mobilisation and activism. We can’t take that for granted as other parts of the world haven’t been so successful.”

He added that while the decision means amyl nitrites may eventually be available through pharmacies, there are no products currently on the market for this purpose in Australia.

“This is a reasonably good outcome, but we’re concerned about what this will mean next year,” he said.

“It may be two years before we see amyl nitrites in the marketplace.

“We’re going to potentially see affected communities fall into a grey area. We’re now calling on state governments to work with the community to ensure that we don’t see gay men and other men who have sex with men criminalised for possession and use of amyl in the meantime.”

Even once poppers are available at pharmacies, some advocates have warned that prescription or not, the process would out patients as men who have sex with men to both their GPs and pharmacists, leaving them open to discrimination and homophobia.

Over at Junkee, Jared Richards wrote that while this may be a non-issue in areas that are LGBTI-friendly and queer sexual health-literate, the situation could be vastly different for people living in regional or rural areas.

“On a practical level, pharmaceutical access to amyl also assumes that all sex is pre-planned, or that bottoms will simply carry their bottle around with them,” he wrote.

“Pragmatically, poppers are best sold as they are now, in sex shops and saunas, often late at night. But under the TGA’s regulations, only pharmacists can issue them wth a little lecture.”

For the TGA’s full announcement, visit: https://www.tga.gov.au/scheduling-decision-final/final-decisions-matters-referred-march-2019-joint-acms-accs-meeting

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