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Tens of thousands of 'poppers' smuggled into Finland, officials say

Poppers is a slang term for inhaled alkyl nitrate, a recreational drug often sold at sex shops.

Poppers-tuotteita.
Alkyl nitrate is sold under many different brand names. Image: Tulli

Finnish Customs is investigating a long-running case of alkyl nitrate products commonly known as poppers having been illegally imported over the course of several years.

Bottles of the liquid drug inhalants have been sold at erotic shops and websites to customers who often use it for its mild euphoric and muscle-relaxing effects, according to officials.

During the pretrial investigation Customs also questioned several individuals suspected of narcotics offenses and smuggling, but the agency did not specify the number of suspects involved. Officials believe the suspects used adult entertainment businesses to move their product.

According to the Finnish Medicines Agency (Fimea), ordering poppers from another country is prohibited without a proper permit. The agency has classified alkyl nitrate as a medication since 2013.

In early 2019 Customs seized around 2,500 bottles of the drug in southern and western Finland. The agency said that about 40,000 poppers products had made their way into Finland since 2013 and sold for a total of about 600,000 euros, and that it had secured nearly that amount of money from the suspects in confiscated assets.

The pretrial investigation is nearly concluded, and the charges will be considered by prosecutors in Helsinki and Western Finland before the end of the year, according to Finnish Customs.

Potentially fatal side effects

Pharmacist Veli-Matti Surakka writes in an article at Addictionlink.fi that alkyl nitrates "no longer have significant therapeutic uses," although angina pectoris sufferers were treated using the chemical after it was synthesized in the 19th century.

"Poppers are thought to increase nitrous oxide levels in the body, which is responsible for the primary effects," Surakka writes. "It causes blood vessels to dilate, causing a mild sense of drowsiness. The effects are almost immediate and wear off in a matter of minutes, although this can vary between preparations."

Due to their effect of relaxing the smooth muscles in the body, including the vaginal and anal sphincters, poppers are used to facilitate sexual encounters as well to achieve a brief euphoric "high".

Due to their dilating effect on blood vessels, "use [of alkyl nitrates] with anti-hypertensive and erectile dysfunction medicines ... is dangerous as they may cause life-threatening hypotension."

The side effects and risks of alkyl nitrate are mostly limited to blushing of the skin, headaches, heart palpitations and mild allergic reactions. Poppers are not addictive, but alkyl nitrate can be fatal if ingested orally and does not deliver the desired effects.

Surakka writes that in the 1960s amyl nitrite was sold in ampoules, which made a popping sound when they were opened, hence the slang term "poppers".

"As legislation was tightened, existing poppers were reformulated to avoid litigation. Indeed, even today, the substances are sold as room fresheners in an effort to abide by the regulations."

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