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Australian teens and ‘jungle juice’: The resurgence of interest in ‘poppers’

‘The Real Deal on Drugs’ – is for young people. More specifically, it is a blog designed to provide the opportunity for students that I speak to across the country to ask me questions that they may have that they did not feel comfortable asking me face-to-face, or something that they thought of after I left the school.

It is proving to be quite popular (I’m getting twice as many visits to that site as I am to this one!) and some of the questions I get asked have proven to be quite challenging to answer! I want to make sure I am as honest as possible (visitors won’t come back if they think they’re being lied to) but also ensure that it doesn’t appear to condone or promote alcohol and other drug use. It’s a very fine line and each of the responses I have given have taken quite a long time to put together . Most interestingly though, some of the questions have also provided a real insight into the drug-using behaviour of Australian young people … that was certainly the case with a question about ‘Jungle Juice’.

Without a doubt my answer to the Jungle Juice question is the most popular post on the page and the email I received was as follows:

Hi Paul you came to my school today cheers for that. I have seen and known people to use JJ’s (Jungle Juice, I think it’s a type of popper which was a big gay drug, that’s all I know about it) at quite a few parties more than any other drug besides alcohol. I was just wondering what’s the deal with them. We haven’t received as much drug ed on them as the other drugs. I don’t know if it’s because it isn’t as dangerous or it’s just more common due to us not being as educated on them.

For those of you who don’t know, ‘Jungle Juice’ is one of the brand or product names for a group of drugs known as ‘nitrites’. Known as ‘poppers’ to many in the past the most widely used nitrite was ‘amyl’, but most of the products available today belong to the alkyl nitrite family. It comes as a liquid, with users inhaling the vapour from a small bottle. Most probably best known as a ‘gay drug’ (as the young man suggested) with gay men, particularly in the 70s and 80s, it was used to enhance sex or to make the lights and music seem more intense when dancing in nightclubs.

I have to admit that when I received the original question I was a bit shocked – I hadn’t really heard of the use of amyl or poppers for some time. You occasionally hear something about the drug when a sex shop is raided and bottles of these products are seized and the owners prosecuted, but in all my time speaking at schools I had never come across students admitting to using them or asking a question about them. Since I posted my answer I have received many responses from young people, usually asking for more information, others simply thanking me. What I have done with all of these responses is asked for a little more information from them as to what they know about the use of Jungle Juice and the like amongst their social group … the results have been surprising as it certainly seems as though the use of poppers amongst young Australians is on the rise, particularly at teen parties where alcohol is present.

As far as I am aware, there is little, if any, information on the prevalence of poppers amongst adult Australians, let alone young people. So should we be worried about this trend, if indeed use is increasing amongst this group? There are two concerns I have with how the young people I have had contact with say they and their friends are using these drugs:

  • they know nothing about what they are doing – there are many of these products around and they are usually sold online or in specialty shops (usually sex shops) as room deodorisers, leather cleaners or the like. When many of these young people were first exposed to them, they were handed the bottle and told to take a sniff and they did so without question. They knew nothing about what they were inhaling and didn’t even think about asking until after the experience. Many of the young people who contacted me after reading my blog entry said that they were doing some research ‘after the event’ because they had got such a splitting headache after using the product they were worried about what damage they may have done!
  • the vast majority of them are using poppers together with alcohol – most reported that the reason their friends were using the product was that it intensified the effect of alcohol. They were usually introduced to it when they were already pretty drunk and inhaling ‘Jungle Juice’ gave them a bigger high. As far as I am aware, this is a new trend and is potentially very dangerous. Taking one drug is risky, when you combine two or more drugs together you may well intensify the experience but you also greatly increase the risk of things going wrong. I have been unable to find specific research on the risks associated with this combination but many websites clearly state not to use alcohol and poppers together often highlighting the risk of possible unconsciousness.

As I said in my original post, most people do not continue to use nitrite products regularly mainly because of the unpleasant after-effect. Headaches the morning after are often reported, particularly if the drug is used regularly through the night. Most of the young people I have had contact with reported that their friends see these products as a bit of harmless fun. The ‘buzz’ is quite short and most of them have not seen any major problems with their use amongst their social group (although one girl did report her friend passing out after inhaling the drug, and many did talk about the headaches they and their friends experienced the next day). The truth is, however, that they can be very dangerous substances if people are not totally aware of what they are doing …

Is this the greatest problem we face as far as young people and drug use is concerned? Most probably not, but it does illustrate to me that there are things going on that do not necessarily get picked up by conventional research and sometimes we only ever find out about these practices when something goes terribly wrong.

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