By Chris Morris

Big Issue March 2001

It was five years ago that the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) prosecuted Millivres, the publishing company behind Gay Times, for selling Poppers - an unlicensed sex drug that some scientists believe can cause AIDS in gay men.

The trial was surrounded by controversy. Was this a homophobic witch hunt because the drug was primarily used within the queer community? Could a drug really cause AIDS? Angry activists from OutRage! protested against the RPS's "homophobia" while gay journalists reassured their readers that Poppers are wonderful, safe and an essential part of gay life. The prosecution was just part of the Tory government's campaign of prejudice, they said.

Their protestations proved insincere when the prosecution barrister revealed that his case was driven by the concerns of AIDS activists, most of whom were gay men. These activists claimed that Amyl, Butyl and Isobutyl Nitrite - the main ingredients of Poppers - could seriously damage the immune system of those who inhaled them, and they said they'd been lobbying the gay press, OutRage! and others for years. Cass Mann, one of the key prosecution witnesses and now President of the Gay Mens' AIDS Forum, says that the "gay establishment" simply wasn't interested.

"I felt at the time, and I still feel now, that these businesses and individuals are more interested in making money than saving lives. They refused even to look at the evidence", he told me.

He believes that, five years on, people are still in danger because the health risks have not been properly publicised. "Not only the linkage to AIDS defining illnesses, such as KS, but the effects to the heart and lungs as well."

Mann is expected to appear for the prosecution in a new case, this time bought by the Medicines Control Agency (MCA), which is being heard at the Old Bailey this week. The target is now the companies that manufacture Poppers, and the MCA hopes finally to bring illegal production to an end.

I think they'll have quite a fight on their hands. The Poppers industry is estimated to be worth over 8m in the UK, and it's very easy money. A bottle of the drug costs around 30p to produce and it retails for around ten times that. The money spent on advertising also helps to prop up the freebie gay press - and journalists never bite the hand that feeds them. Coverage is skewed towards maintaining the status quo.

Some of the gay press also have a direct financial interest in promoting Poppers. The company behind Gay Times, for example, continues to sell the lucrative drug in its chain of sex shops.

Does this affect Gay Times's coverage? After discussions at board level, the magazine's marketing director said the company was unwilling to comment.

Other gay magazines, including All Points North and North of Watford, are also published by businessman who have an interest in selling Poppers.

But Tristan Donovan, news editor of the Pink Paper, denies that commercial interests have prevented his 'paper from running health warnings about Poppers. "It's just not really come up as an issue", he told me. "There really hasn't been much happening to make it a story. We're news-led and there hasn't been a news story surrounding it."

He also says that he hasn't received any of the letters or press releases that activists worried about Poppers have sent him.

Even if the MCA succeeds next week, the chances of stopping illegal sales is small. The drug was outlawed in the United States in 1989 but it is still widely available in gay clubs - it just costs more and has less quality control.

John Lauritsen, the American author of Death Rush: Poppers and AIDS, doesn't believe that banning the drug is the answer. "Our task is to get the word out, that Poppers really are dangerous. We have to counteract the misinformation that has been disseminated - not only by the Poppers industry, but also by sections of the gay press and AIDS organisations."

Chris Morris is editor of Outcast magazine (