A Calgary MP is asking the federal health minister to study the possible benefits or harms of “poppers” — a drug primarily used by men who have sex with men — with the possible outcome of creating a safe supply.

Calgary Nose Hill MP Michelle Rempel Garner said in a letter to federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu that given the widespread use of poppers, or alkyl nitrites, their safety hasn’t received adequate study or consideration. 

“The lack of research and attention to this issue is likely, at least in part, related to the stigmatization of LGBTQ+ health care,” Rempel Garner wrote in the letter, which was sent Monday.

“Use of drugs used as sexual aids in other scenarios has been normalized (for example, Viagra, which is used for erectile dysfunction). However, discussion of pharmaceutical-based sexual aids for use in non-heteronormative situations, such as alkyl nitrites, are sometimes still subject to moralization in public discourse.”

Poppers have been essentially banned in Canada since 2013. They’re classified as a prescription drug, meaning they can’t be sold without Health Canada approval, and no products have been approved.

That move pushed the drugs into the grey market — with products being illicitly marketed as leather cleaners or nail polish remover despite actually being inhaled by users to relax muscles, reduce pain and increase sexual pleasure.

Federal crackdown put men at risk, study suggests

A study last year from the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use suggested the federal crackdown hasn’t limited consumption and instead put sexual minority men at risk by limiting access and leaving unregulated and potentially harmful products as the only option. 

“The evidence is clear that this ban on poppers is both discriminatory and ineffective and must be reversed,” said Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, in a release at the time.

Len Tooley is with the Community-Based Research Centre (CBRC), which is campaigning for Health Canada to review its position on the drug based on existing scientific evidence.

“The current sort of ban on poppers prevents people from actually accessing a safe supply that they know what they’re getting,” Tooley said.

Tooley knows this first-hand. Nearly a decade ago, he started experiencing retinal atrophy — a type of vision loss he was eventually able to trace back to the use of a specific formulation of poppers. 

The CBRC runs an annual census of men who have sex with men, which has found that one-in-three Canadian men surveyed report using poppers in the last six months.

A double standard?

Health Canada has said that since it is difficult to control how much of the drug is inhaled, it can cause accidental overdose. Health Canada said people with certain medical conditions or taking other drugs are at increased risk. 

“The line that we seem to be getting from Health Canada is that there are dangers associated with poppers and therefore poppers should not be used. But if you look at alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, we know that there are risks associated with those substances … but that isn’t used as a justification for prohibition of those substances,” Tooley said. 

“I think that there is a little bit of a double standard in terms of which substances are considered worthwhile … and which ones aren’t. And, you know, it’s not necessarily a surprise that poppers, being more associated with the queer community, are subject to a little bit of a double standard there.”

Rempel Garner asked Health Canada to undertake a comprehensive study on the drug’s harms and benefits in collaboration with LGBTQ+ community leaders. 

She said if the medical findings deem it appropriate, the study should lead to the creation of a system for safe access and supply, as well as a public education campaign on safe use. 

The MP pointed to Australia, which recently allowed alkyl nitrites to be accessible only by prescription. That decision has been controversial in the country. While it’s expected to create a safe path for access, some LGBTQ+ advocates have expressed concerns 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 the regulatory hurdles to sell the products, something that he’s concerned could happen in Canada as well.

“From my perspective, the policy situation that makes the most sense is to treat poppers similar to how we treat alcohol … which is as a consumer product, which allows for the packaging of the product to accurately describe the use. And generally that would, I think, prevent a lot of the potential harms,” he said.

CBC has reached out to Hajdu’s office for comment. 

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