Short summary of the legality of poppers/nitrites

Some readers are confused regarding the legality of poppers. Having them available at many online retailers and local adult bookstores for so many years it would confuse me too. If they’re available for sale – how can they be illegal?

Without boring you too much with the history of their legality in the US, I’ll try to summarize what I have found in my research. Much of what I have found to be the most accurate has come from (1) and the 1977 study “Isobutyl Nitrites and Related Compounds” (2) found here or in PDF format here (3.1MB) and the .

Amyl nitrite – among the safest medications listed in the U.S. Pharmacopeia (2) – was originally used and marketed only by prescription beginning in 1937 and remained so until 1960 when the FDA deemed it safe and removed the prescription requirement. However, around 1964 a New York City health official reported an ever increasing “non-medical” use for amyl nitrite – i.e. it was being “abused” as a recreational drug to achieve a “sexual high.” Little was done about it at that time. But again in 1967 the FDA was  inundated with reports of it’s abuse. The FDA then banned amyl nitrite.

In the 1970’s butyl and isobutyl nitrite – chemical cousins to amyl nitrite – were already being used in the perfume industry (2). Not being illegal, they were then manufactured and distributed as “room deodorizers, aromas, head cleaners, etc.”  From there, other nitrites falling into the group known as the alkyl nitrites – isobutyl, isopropyl, and butyl nitrite – continued to be legal until being outlawed in the US by Congress through the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 (1). This law, however, included an exception for “commercial purposes” which was “defined to mean any use other than for the production of consumer products containing volatile alkyl nitrites meant for inhaling or otherwise introducing volatile alkyl nitrites into the human body for euphoric or physical effects.” (1)

Here is the text taken from the Consumer Product Safety Act (section 8 of the Consumer Product Safety Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 2057a and b.):

[Title XXIII, Sec. 3202 of Pub. L. 101-647; 15 U.S.C. 2057b]
{Not technically part of the Consumer Product Safety Act}

(a) In General. Except as provided in subsection (b), volatile alkyl nitrite shall be considered a banned hazardous product under section 8 of the Consumer Product Safety Act (15 U.S.C.§ 2057).
(b) Lawful Purposes. For the purposes of section 8 of the Consumer Product Safety Act (15 U.S.C. § 2057), it shall not be unlawful for any person to manufacture for sale, offer for sale, distribute in commerce, or import into the United States volatile alkyl nitrites for any commercial purpose or any other purpose approved under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
(c) “Commercial purpose” defined. For purposes of this section, the term ‘‘commercial purpose’’ means any commercial purpose other than for the production of consumer products containing volatile alkyl nitrites that may be used for inhaling or otherwise introducing volatile alkyl nitrites into the human body for euphoric or physical effects.
(d) Effective Date. This section shall take effect 90 days after the date of the enactment of this Act [enacted Nov. 29, 1990].

Since then manufacturers reformulated their poppers to contain the legal cyclohexyl nitrite which is not in the family of alkyl nitrites – thus not banned or outlawed.

To this day, manufacturers skirted the laws by marketing poppers as “liquid aromas, room deodorizers, head cleaner or leather cleaner” with disclaimers stating that their products are not meant for human consumption and/or sexual use/arousal.

Basically, as I understand it, amyl and butyl nitrite based poppers were the beginning of what we know as “poppers.” Then there was a strong ban on both compounds. Manufacturers turned to isobutyl, isopropyl (illegal except when not marketed for human consumption), a seemingly uncategorizable “isopentyl nitrite” and “C-Hexyal Nitrate,” and cyclohexyl nitrite (legal but in a gray area) and have been manufacturing them up until recently as “room deodorizers, etc“. This is where a lot of information is missing – i.e. why was Pac West Distributing (PWD)  – the largest manufacturer and distributor of these products – closed? They never marketed them for human consumption. What was the straw that broke the camel’s back – so to speak? Hopefully my Freedom of Information Act request will answer some of these questions.

This entry was posted in alkyl nitrites, amyl nitrite, Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, butyl nitrite, Congress, CPSA, cyclohexyl nitrite, FDA, Freedom of Information Act, isobutyl nitrite, isopropyl nitrite, legality, PWD. Bookmark the permalink.

2 thoughts on “Short summary of the legality of poppers/nitrites

  1. Thanks for helping to bring some clarity…for years we’ve been calling it “Head Cleaner.” And I guess since VCR’s went out, so did the need for “Head Cleaners.” Sigh…it’s maddening!