A spike in emergency admissions has prompted the Federal Government to propose a ban on the party and sex drug amyl nitrite - commonly referred to as "poppers."
Amyl nitrite is extensively used by gay and bi-sexual men as a therapeutic aid to relax sphincter muscles during sex, but it's increasingly misused in the club scene.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) recommended criminalising the drug last year, sending shockwaves through LGBTQI communities. After a barrage of submissions, the TGA decided to seek feedback at public consultations, which are now underway in Sydney and Melbourne.
Global difficulties regulating amyl nitrite were highlighted at the recent Sydney forum, held at the Kirby Institute. Participants grappled with the social effects, administration costs, and the health risks of regulating a drug easily bought at any adult shop.
Professor John Skerritt is the head of the TGA. He says he's surprised that the regulation of amyl nitrite is a "mess" globally.
“Maybe we’re trying to solve a problem that bigger and better funded organisations haven’t been able to,” he said.
Speaking at the forum, Deputy CEO of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO) Heath Paynter, described criminalisation as "a part of our community’s collective memory."
This process has reminded our community that… their sexual practices are deviant and warrant punitive measures.
Yet, Mr Paynter also acknowledged a long and successful relationship between the AFAO and the TGA, citing their successful collaboration in AIDS management.
“We come here in good faith to help you [the TGA] and advise you in making a good decision,” he said.
The AFAO presented research showing 45 per cent of gay men in Sydney used poppers in the last six months. Despite decades of widespread use in LGBTQI communities, the issue is now complicated by the drug's increasing popularity among party-goers - particularly young women.
The European Union banned amyl nitrites in 2007. This led to drug manufacturers exploiting a loop-hole in the law, which ultimately led to more toxic substitutes. These alternative drugs caused permanent eye damage and other health issues in numerous users.
The United States allows prescriptions for amyl nitrite, a possibility the TGA proposed at the Sydney forum. This was deemed by many to be a positive alternative to criminalising the drug, but also raised concerns about forcing users to ‘come out’ to health professionals and the particular challenge that presents in small towns.
Marriage celebrant Aaron McDonald came from Wagga Wagga in the NSW Riverina, to attend the forum.
You’re only going to make it more difficult for people in regional areas [who are] gay.
Despite the considerable social, logistical and public health challenges of public consultations, Mr McDonald believes it's worthwhile.
“It was great that the TGA was here to make themselves available and to partner with the Kirby Institute to hear from stakeholders - to find out what our thoughts actually are on these proposed changes," he said.
“I think they’ll go back and do some homework and hopefully come back with a better outcome than what’s currently proposed.”
Similar hopes were expressed by Dr Vincent Cornelisse, a sexual health specialist who has been working with the TGA to highlight the issues that banning poppers would cause in the gay community.
“In today's meeting (January 31) it became quite clear to me that the TGA is taking these concerns very seriously and now... considering other options,” he said.
After hearing the considerable feedback from health and community leaders - and users - Professor Skerritt said he hoped they saw the forum as more than a matter of "going through the motions."
"You can see the dilemma we are in, trying to protect public health and not take a draconian measure. Maybe I’m jumping in where angels fear to tread."
To which Dr Cornelisse quickly replied: “You’ve got a chance to be an angel.”
The final public consultation will be held in Melbourne this Thursday (February 7).