A Calgary MP is asking the federal health minister to study the potential benefits or harms of “poppers” – a drug used primarily by men who have sex with men – with the possible outcome of creating a safe supply.
Because of the widespread use of poppers or alkyl nitrite, their safety has not been adequately studied or considered, Michelle Remple Garner, MP for Calgary News Hill, said in a letter to Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu.
“The lack of research and attention to this issue is likely related, at least in part, to the stigmatization of LGBTQ healthcare,” Rimble Garner wrote in the letter sent Monday.
“The use of drugs used as sexual aids has been normalized in other scenarios (for example, Viagra, which is used to treat erectile dysfunction). However, discussion of pharmaceutical sexual aids for use in heterosexual situations, such as alkyl nitrite, is sometimes still subject to the situation. Moral in public discourse.
Poppers have been primarily banned in Canada since 2013. They are classified as a prescription drug, meaning they cannot be sold without Health Canada approval, and no products have been approved.
The move pushed the drugs into the gray market — products illegally marketed as skin cleaners or nail polish removers though they are inhaled by users to relax muscles, reduce pain and increase sexual pleasure.
Study suggests federal repression puts men at risk
A study last year from the British Columbia Center on Substance Use indicated that the federal crackdown did not limit consumption and instead Endangering men of sexual minorities By restricting access and leaving unregulated and potentially harmful products as the only option.
“The evidence is clear that this ban on poppers is discriminatory and ineffective and must be reversed,” Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, said in a statement at the time.
Len Tooley with community research center (CBRC), which is campaigning for Health Canada to review its position on the drug based on existing scientific evidence.
“The current kind of ban on poppers is preventing people from actually having access to a safe supply that they know what they are getting,” Tooley said.
Tooley knows this firsthand. About a decade ago, he began to suffer from retinal atrophy – a type of vision loss that he eventually traced back to the use of a particular formulation of poppers.
The CBRC conducts an annual census of men who have sex with men, which found that one in three Canadian men surveyed reported using poppers in the past six months.
Health Canada said that because how much of the drug is inhaled is difficult to control, it can cause an accidental overdose. Health Canada said that people with certain medical conditions or taking other medications are at increased risk.
“The line we seem to get from Health Canada is that there are risks associated with poppers and therefore poppers should not be used. But if you look at alcohol, tobacco and cannabis, we know there are risks associated with these substances…but that is not used as a justification to ban those substances” .
“I think there are quite a few double standards with respect to which subjects are worthwhile…and which ones are not. And, you know, it’s not necessarily surprising that Poppers, being more closely related to the queer community, are subject to quite a few double standards there.”
Rempel Garner has asked Health Canada to conduct a comprehensive study of the drug’s harms and benefits in collaboration with LGBTQ+ community leaders.
If the medical findings are deemed appropriate, she said, the study should lead to the establishment of a system of safe access and supply, as well as a public education campaign about safe use.
The MP pointed to Australia, which recently allowed prescription-only access to alkyl nitrite. This decision was controversial in the country. While it is expected to create a safe pathway to access, some LGBTQ+ advocates have expressed concerns that it could cause stigma to an already marginalized community.
Tooley said another issue with Australia’s policy is that no domestic manufacturers of poppers have jumped through regulatory hurdles to sell the products, something he worries may happen in Canada as well.
“In my view, the most sensible policy position would be to treat poppers in a similar way to how we treat alcohol… which is a consumer product, allowing product packaging to accurately describe use. Overall, that would, I think, prevent a lot of potential harm.”
CBC has reached out to Hajdu’s office for comment.