Amyl Nitrite: Legal consequences

Last modified: Thursday, 25. December 2008 - 5:34 am

 Legal consequences of Amyl Nitrite

The FDA made the possession, use, or sale of amyl nitrite without a prescription illegal in the United States in 1969. In 1988, the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission banned the sale of butyl nitrite. However, the most commonly found poppers today contain cyclohexyl nitrite, which has a similar effect as amyl butyl nitrite. With cyclohexyl nitrite legal and readily available in the United States, the illegal use and sale of amyl and butyl nitrite is limited. Researchers point out that regardless of the legal status, the dangers of using any nitrite or nitrate are similar.

The laws and punishment regarding possession of poppers in the United States vary from state to state. In some states, it is illegal to inhale any type of fumes for the purpose of intoxication. For example, in New York, possession or use of any alkyl nitrite, including amyl, butyl, and isobutyl, is a Class A misdemeanor, which carries a jail term of up to one year. The judge also has other punishment options, including imposing a fine and driver’s license suspension or revocation. In Connecticut, conviction for possession of amyl nitrite without a prescription carries a penalty for a first offense of up to seven years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000. The maximum penalty for a second conviction is 15 years in prison and a fine of $100,000.

Possession of amyl nitrite without a prescription in Pennsylvania is a misdemeanor under the state’s Controlled Substances, Drugs, Devices, and Cosmetics Act. A first-time conviction carries a penalty of up to three years in state prison and a fine of up to $5,000. A second offense conviction carries a penalty of up to three years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000. In Georgia, amyl nitrite is considered a “dangerous drug.” A conviction for possession without a prescription carries a penalty of up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $5,000. A conviction of amyl nitrite possession in South Dakota is a Class One misdemeanor. It carries a maximum penalty of one year in county jail and a fine of $1,000 for the first offense.

Several states have made it a crime to drive while under the influence of poppers, regardless of the formula. New Jersey adopted a law in 1995 that specifically bans driving while under the influence of amyl, butyl, ethyl, or propyl nitrates or nitrites. It further bans driving while under the influence of any inhalant or other substance that releases a toxic vapor or fumes capable of causing intoxication, inebriation, excitement, stupefaction, or the dulling of the brain or nervous system.

Conviction under the New Jersey law carries a fine of between $250 and $400 and up to 30 days in jail for a first offense. The offender can also lose their driver’s license for six months to a year. For a second conviction, the penalty is a $500 to $1,000 fine and up to 90 days in jail. Offenders must also perform 30 days of community service work and lose their driver’s license for two years. A third or subsequent conviction carries a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail. Offenders also forfeit their driver’s license for 10 years. In West Virginia, the minimum penalty for conviction of driving under the influence of amyl nitrite is one day in county jail and a $100 fine. The maximum sentence is six months in jail and a $500 fine.

California’s Proposition 36

In 2000, California voters approved a ballot measure that allows state courts to sentence first- and second-time drug use offenders to rehabilitative treatment rather than jail or prison. The measure, Proposition 36 (Prop. 36), also known as the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act, took effect July 1, 2001. As of March 1, 2002, more than 15,000 individuals had been referred to treatment under Prop. 36. The law mandates probation and drug abuse treatment for offenders instead of jail time. Persons sentenced under Prop. 36 are required to spend up to a year in a state-approved treatment regimen. Treatment can include outpatient care, inpatient treatment at a halfway house, psychotherapy, and drug education and prevention classes. The law applies to persons convicted of possession of amyl nitrite without a prescription.

The philosophy behind the law is two-fold. First, it frees up jail and prison space for persons convicted of violent offenses. Second, it mandates treatment and education that a drug user may not get in jail. The goal of Prop. 36 is to reduce repeat drug use and lower crime rates. Drug policy officials say it is too early to determine if the California program is successful in achieving either of these goals. A similar measure, Proposition 200, was approved by voters in Arizona in 1996.

International penalties

The sale of amyl nitrite is illegal in Great Britain without a prescription. But the possession or use without a prescription is not illegal. In New Zealand, amyl and butyl nitrites are controlled under the Medicines Act of 1981. This Act limits the availability of substances that can be used as medicines and imposes penalties for misuse of these drugs. Penalties can be up to three months in jail, a fine of $500, or both. Police also can hold people under the influence of the drug for detoxification under the Alcoholism and Drug Addiction Act 1966. This is rarely done, since the visible effects of amyl nitrite use usually wear off after a few minutes.

Legal history

Federal law required a prescription for the sale, use, or possession of amyl nitrite until 1960, when the FDA lifted the requirement. The FDA reinstated the prescription requirement in 1969. Other poppers were banned in 1988, and the law was amended in 1990 to include a broader range of nitrites.

In Great Britain, the Medicines Act deems it illegal to sell amyl nitrite without a prescription. However, possession or use without a prescription is not a crime. Most other nitrates sold as poppers have escaped prosecution under the Medicines Act since distributors claimed they were room deodorizers and not marketed as medicine. However, the European Union (EU), of which Great Britain is a member, has issued a directive that any substance for sale that has a mood-altering or psychoactive effect can be classified as a medicine even if it is not labeled or marketed as such. The Medicines Control Agency, which administers the Medicines Act, has concurred with the EU directive, although as of early 2002, there was no move to control or ban poppers.

Federal guidelines, regulations, and penalties

The federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act bans the sale, possession, or use of amyl nitrite without a prescription. The law is usually enforced for trafficking in the drug. Federal charges of sale or possession brought in a federal court usually constitute a misdemeanor. Conviction carries a penalty of one year in prison and/or a $1,000 fine per count for a first offense. A second offense is usually a felony. Conviction carries a penalty of up to three years in federal prison and up to a $250,000. Most enforcement is left to state and local law enforcement agencies. Penalties and enforcement vary from state to state.


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