A store owner in San Francisco's predominantly gay Castro district got a big surprise when his store was busted last week for selling "poppers"--inhalant chemicals popular among many gay men as a sex-enhancing drug. Federal officials arrived unannounced last week and pulled bottles of leather cleaner and video head cleaner from his shelves, according to the San Francisco Examiner.
Imad Bitar, who has owned his store, Phantom, for two years, said he didn't know the products could be used as an illegal drug.
"I'm straight," he said. "I have a shop in a gay area. In the catalogues we get from the companies, [poppers are] like any other product. We never had any warnings about it."
Poppers are made of alkyl nitrites and butyl nitrites--inhalant chemicals said to enhance orgasms and relax muscles to ease anal penetration. They also make people feel carefree, which often translates into lax condom use and could contribute to the rising HIV-transmission rate.
"It has an incredibly disinhibiting effect on people," said Hank Wilson, a Bay Area AIDS activist who cowrote the anti-popper book Death Rush in 1986. "Your Ph.D. in safe sex goes straight out the window." Worse, the nitrites temporarily suppress the immune system, said Wilson, leaving users more likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases
that their natural defenses would otherwise fight.
Bitar may not have known the innocent-looking cleaning products were used as poppers, but his customers certainly did. According to the Examiner, it was they who encouraged him to stock the products.
Louie Pain, a Consumer Product and Safety Commission investigator who visited last week, was dismayed to see boxes of poppers brazenly displayed in several Castro storefronts, said Bitar. But Pain didn't raid other shops or threaten merchants with the $200,000 fine Bitar faces if he sells the products again. Neighbors speculate that the spotlight on Bitar, who is Palestinian, may be a case of post-September 11 racial profiling.