Nation: Rushing to a New High

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Poppers with a risky bang Amid the flashing strobe lights and pulsating beat of music in discos across the country, too many dancers are moving frenetically these days to the throb of their own physical highs. For them, Saturday night fever is heightened by a tiny amber bottle openly — and legally — held to the nose and sniffed. The contents, isobutyl nitrite, smell a bit like burning rubber, and the effect is intense and brief — lightheadedness and a sudden rush that makes the heart race and the body quiver. But the chemical's aftereffects can be most unpleasant: headaches, nausea, heart attacks and, with chronic use, possible liver and lung damage.

A kind of poor man's cocaine, isobutyl nitrite is known to users as a "popper" because its effects are similar to those of its restricted chemical cousin, amyl nitrite. Poppers have become the newest cheap kick for increasing numbers of people: manufacturers estimate that 5 million Americans regularly inhale the chemical, both on the dance floor and later in bed. Some people use it as a quick upper during the day. "I carry a bottle of it with me all the time," says Ron Braun, 28, a California carpenter. "If I'm bored and want a rush, I take a sniff. It's a short break during the day."

The popper fad began among homosexuals, who first used amyl nitrite to enhance sexual pleasure. The drug dilates blood vessels, lowers blood pressure and, by distorting time perceptions, gives a sense of prolonging orgasm. When the FDA in 1969 classified amyl nitrite as a prescription drug, many homosexuals switched to isobutyl nitrite, which is not covered by the regulation.

In 1976 Pacific Western Distributing Corp. of San Francisco came out with a mass-produced isobutyl nitrite product called Rush. As a result of aggressive marketing, poppers quickly spread to avant-garde heterosexuals. Marketed under such trade names as Bullet, Crypt and Locker Room, isobutyl nitrite is sold openly in some record stores, boutiques and pornographic bookstores. Poppers sell for $4 to $6 for about half an ounce, enough for up to 15 sniffs. According to Pacific Western Chairman W. Jay Freezer, retail sales totaled some $20 million last year; he forecasts a 15% to 20% increase this year.

Thus far, only Connecticut has banned use of the chemical. "We have no solid evidence of damage," says David Ormstedt, Connecticut assistant attorney general. "But we successfully argued the reasonable probability of harm. Our state doesn't require a dead body to ban a product." But drug-and law-enforcement officials in other states seem less concerned, noting that poppers are not addictive. Says Dr. George Michael, director of the food and drug division of the Massachusetts department of public health: "There are millions of chemicals that people can abuse. If people want to run around poisoning themselves, there is very little regulating officials can do." Besides, officials argue, the drug's own adverse effects act as a deterrent to chronic abuse. Recalls one Manhattan user: "It was the most terrifying experience of my life. After I sniffed it, I felt my heart was popping out of my chest. I had a headache for a long while after. I'll never touch it again."