7 March 2016
by Frances Perraudin
More than 2m bottles of poppers are sold legally every year – and Yorkshire is the centre of the trade. How is one factory preparing for the ban?
John Addy is standing next to a hi-tech machine stacked with hundreds of tiny golden bottles. “We’ve always called them aromas,” he says. “Poppers was more a kind of slang word because the chemical used to come in little glass vials that you snapped under your nose.”
The machine – which is specially designed to work safely with flammable liquids – cost more than £200,000 and is used to fill small, airtight bottles with a class of chemicals called alkyl nitrites at a rate of 1,000 per hour.
Addy, 67, is the biggest producer of poppers in Europe, under the brand Liquid Gold. The business is based in a turn-of-the-century mansion overlooking a valley on the outskirts of Huddersfield, West Yorkshire. The house used to be owned by the Wrigley family – of chewing gum fame – and the poppers are produced in outbuildings on the property’s acre of land before being distributed to wholesalers around the world.
Poppers is the name given to chemicals which, when sniffed, give the user a short, sharp head rush. The substance was first circulated as an angina medicine before emerging as a party drug on the gay scene in the 1970s.
Poppers are particularly, though not exclusively, used by gay and bisexual men to enhance sexual pleasure, as they relax the muscles and make it easier to have anal sex. They are sold for about £5 a bottle in most sex shops and some cornershops and are available for anybody over the age of 16 to buy.
Yorkshire is the poppers capital of Europe, and the second-biggest brand, Pure Gold, is based just down the road in Leeds. Between them, the two companies sold 2m 10ml bottles of the product last year. But the first John Addy heard of the government’s plan to ban his product was in the press. The psychoactive substances bill is due to come into effect on 6 April. The Home Office has confirmed that the bill will make poppers illegal, but to date, neither Addy nor Jimmy Adams – the director of the company that makes Pure Gold – have heard from the government about the ban.
The psychoactive substances bill seeks to crack down on legal highs, especially the new generation of drugs that are designed to mimic the effects of traditional illicit substances such as cannabis and ecstasy, and which the Home Office claims caused 129 deaths in 2015. Unlike previous UK drugs legislation, which names banned drugs, the bill applies a blanket ban to any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing “a psychoactive effect”.
The definition is so broad that a string of exemptions had to be included for alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, food and other medicinal products. Home Office minister Mike Penning was forced to write to English cathedrals to allay ecclesiastical concerns that incense burned in church would be banned by the bill. During the bill’s final stage in parliament, the Shadow Home Secretary, Andy Burnham, asked for an amendment that would have exempted poppers from the bill. The debate made the headlines when Tory MP Crispin Blunt stood up to announce that he used poppers.
“I use poppers. I out myself as a poppers user,” said the MP. “I would be directly affected by this legislation. And I was astonished to find that it’s proposed they be banned and, frankly, so were very many gay men.”
As grateful as Addy was for Blunt’s intervention, he does not want poppers exempted from the bill. He says poppers aren’t a psychoactive substance, and that the product was dragged into the bill because of ill-informed media reports that named poppers as being part of the new generation of legal highs.
“I don’t want our product to be an amendment because it’s not psychoactive,” says Addy. “If we agreed to an amendment, we’d be agreeing that our product is psychoactive,” he says. Psychoactive substances work by suppressing or stimulating the central nervous system to produce a high. Yorkshire’s poppers industry claims alkyl nitrites are a vasodilator, so dilate the blood vessels to enforce involuntary relaxation.
A report by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in 2011 noted that poppers did not produce “harmful effects sufficient to constitute a societal problem” and therefore should not be banned, a conclusion that was agreed with by the home affairs select committee.
Addy, along with Adams, has mounted a campaign to persuade the authorities not to crackdown on the industry after the bill comes into effect in early April. “I employ eight people, and if I get closed down they go on the dole immediately,” he says. “Then the knock on effect in the industry is that 600 or 700 people could be made unemployed, because the product is sold in adult shops, and the revenue from that pays people’s wages.”
Following the passage of the bill, the government announced a review into the legal status of poppers, which will be overseen by Home Office minister Karen Bradley, but a spokesperson confirmed that poppers would be treated as an illegal product in the period between the bill coming into effect and the outcome of the government review.
The review is expected to report before the summer recess in July, leaving a period of a few months in which Addy says Yorkshire’s poppers manufacturing industry risks going bust. “It is seen as a safe product and we’ve already been selling it for 30 years, so surely the correct way to deal with it is to allow us to continue selling it until the review is published,” says Adams, who asks why the government took no time to examine poppers before passing the bill. “I don’t know what kind of government would harm businesses and individuals’ lives by making people close down to then reopen again once their scientific findings are done,” he says.
Addy first came across alkyl nitrites when he opened the Gemini gay club in Huddersfield in 1976 – the first gay club in the town – with his late partner of 22 years, Anthony Porter.
“Gay men would know somebody who was a chemist who could get hold of some for them,” he says, stressing that it was legal to buy. “People would bring it in to the club and we started buying small quantities from a company in the US and selling it in the club. A few friends who owned other gay clubs used to buy it from us, so it turned into a bit of a side business.”
In 1981, Huddersfield’s Gemini nightclub found itself at the centre of a gay-rights storm when police tried to remove its licence, a move that was interpreted as having homophobic motives. “A police officer said to me: ‘I’m from County Durham and we don’t have any homosexuals in County Durham, and I’m not going to have any in Huddersfield’,” recalls Addy.
As a protest, the London Pride march was relocated to Huddersfield that year. “People in Huddersfield didn’t quite know what hit them,” he says.
Even though the campaign worked and the club was allowed to keep its licence, Addy was left exhausted by the experience and decided to sell up. “We had to find something to do, so we thought we could go into selling poppers commercially.”
Anthony died in 1992 and lies buried in the sprawling garden at the back of the house that the couple bought together 40 years ago. Initially, the pair only sold the product to the gay market, but it was when they approached major sex shops that the business really took off. Thirty-five years later, and Liquid Gold has just had its most profitable year yet.
Stonewall is among many gay-rights charities to have warned that banning poppers will criminalise the lifestyles of many gay and bisexual men, and Addy sees his fight to keep poppers legal as a fight akin to his battle to save his club. “It is make-or-break for us. And, like with the club, it’s make or break for the gay community.”
This is not the first time that Addy has had to prove that his product is safe. In 1999, the Medicines Control Agency took poppers manufacturers to court on the basis that poppers containing the chemical isobutyl nitrite were medicines, and therefore required a licence for sale and supply in the UK.
“We won the case,” says Addy. “A jury came back and decided [poppers] weren’t harmful. They’re not addictive. When the jury first came in, I thought I was going to be hung. I thought: ‘When they find out that gay men have anal sex with this product these people are going to be shocked,’ but they just weren’t.”
In his defence in parliament of the government’s decision to ban poppers, Penning said the product had been mentioned on 20 death certificates since 1993, and that the ban would save lives. Addy strongly disputes those figures.
“If it had been killing people, we would have known about it. And I would never sell something that I thought was harming people,” he says. “I have been selling this product for 35 years and it was used as a medicine for 100 years before that.” “You can’t die from our product,” he adds.
The national drug education service Frank lists poppers as being potentially dangerous for anyone with heart problems or anaemia. A study in the Lancet, published in 2014, also claimed to have established a “clear cause–effect relationship” between the use of poppers and eyesight damage since the product’s main ingredient isobutyl nitrite was substituted for isopropyl nitrite following changes to legislation in 2006.
Jeremy Cook, a lawyer acting on behalf of Addy and Adams, wants the government to agree to another test case to determine whether poppers fall within the definition described under the psychoactive substances bill and for the industry to be allowed to carry on functioning until an official decision has been reached. “The legal and scientific advice we have so far is that the answer is no – it does not fall under the legislation,” he says.
“This act is typical. Whether it is the Tory government or the Labour government before it, [it] seems to be a reaction to what is reported in the press more than anything,” he says.
Presented with Addy’s concerns, the Home Office issued a statement: “The landmark Psychoactive Substances Act will fundamentally change the way we tackle psychoactive substances,” she said. “The bill was debated extensively in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The government is now working with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and others on the evidence for the use of ‘poppers’ and we intend to respond before the summer recess.”
Both Addy and Adams say they support the premise of the bill. “I agree with the bill,” says Addy. “There are products that are being shipped in from overseas that are harmful and youngsters are getting hold of them and dying. Those products need banning, without a shadow of a doubt.” But, he says, poppers aren’t one of those drugs.