SEX DRUGS - A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH?
By Chris Morris
Big Issue March 2001
It was five years ago that the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS)
Millivres, the publishing company behind Gay Times, for selling Poppers -
unlicensed sex drug that some scientists believe can cause AIDS in gay
The trial was surrounded by controversy. Was this a homophobic witch hunt
because the drug was primarily used within the queer community? Could a
really cause AIDS? Angry activists from OutRage! protested against the
"homophobia" while gay journalists reassured their readers that Poppers
wonderful, safe and an essential part of gay life. The prosecution was
part of the Tory government's campaign of prejudice, they said.
Their protestations proved insincere when the prosecution barrister
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
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
of the drug costs around 30p to produce and it retails for around ten
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,
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
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
John Lauritsen, the American author of Death Rush: Poppers and AIDS,
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 (www.outcastmagazine.co.uk).