For seven odd and turbulent months of my young adult life, I found myself working as an associate at a particular adult video store that shall remain nameless. Without going into specifics or plunging too deep into one of the many bizarre interactions that seemed to come with each night shift, I can assure you that it was one of the most chaotic and unorthodox jobs that a college student could ever have. And that’s when I learned about legal highs.
It wasn’t the midnight foot traffic that made the job borderline unbearable, nor was it the drunk and disorderly clientele — if anything, that was often the best part. What made the job feel awkward, stressful and, above all, downright shady was how the store handled the legal highs sold directly behind the counter.
“Legal high” is a general term for products that replicate the psychoactive effects of popular illegal drugs like cocaine, marijuana and ecstasy. Their chemical composition is changed just enough to pass under the nose of the FDA. When high school students and young adults alike aren’t able to get their hands on illegal substances, or just don’t want to take the risk, they turn instead to their synthetic and minimally tested variants, often with catastrophic results.
While my store never carried the more infamous synthetic drugs like Eric-3, Silver Bullet, Dimethocaine or brands of synthetic cannabinoids like Black Mamba, we did sell a few products that deserve to be placed into the same “legal high” category. The most popular and harmful of these products were our wide assortment of “poppers,” a general slang term for chemicals called alkyl nitrites.
Alkyl nitrites are sold in tiny, conveniently-sized containers over the counter. They are often masked by their less popular “commercial purpose,” which is cleaning VCR equipment. In reality, they are bought as recreational drugs for inhalation, their fumes acting as vasodilators that dilate the blood vessels and send a warming sensation throughout the body. The effect is almost instantaneous and only lasts as long as a minute, making poppers that much more alluring and addicting.
Though many find the effects of poppers to be a euphoric sensation, most will agree that the aftereffects are anything but pleasurable. Poppers usually end with minor to severe headaches due to the dilation of blood in the brain. They can also result in a complete loss of consciousness after use, and this risk only amplifies when used alongside alcohol. Furthermore, consistent use of poppers can spawn skin lesions around the nose and mouth.
You may be asking: Who buys this stuff, anyway? Poppers are actually huge in the gay community for their ability to facilitate anal sex, which is one of the main reasons they were carried at my store. Outside of the gay community, even straight couples have begun to embrace the euphoric side of poppers. While working at the adult video store, I had dozens of both straight and gay couples nonchalantly ask about their use in the bedroom.
The problem was, I couldn’t actually tell them anything about poppers — nothing they wanted or needed to hear, at least, which is precisely why selling poppers has become such a morally gray area.
Each employee was required to sign an agreement stating that we wouldn’t sell poppers, or “cleaners,” as we were supposed to call them, to anybody we believed would use the product illegally. If, at any point, an employee was caught doing so on one of the store’s many surveillance cameras, then the result would be instant termination. This is what was needed for the legal highs to remain legal.
Customers would constantly ask how they work, what the best brand was, if there were any negative side effects and if there were ways to avoid those effects. Not only was I not allowed to answer any questions, but as soon as somebody so much as implied they were using poppers for anything other than cleaning, I was required to kick them out of the store for at least 24 hours. After that time period, the customer was more than welcome to return to the store, mask their words and try again.
I always felt liable making these sales. Maybe not legally, but morally. I felt guilty selling products that suffocate the human brain with toxins to people who really didn’t know much about them, and felt worse that I couldn’t even explain anything about the product. Shockingly, the store even offered employees a bonus incentive for selling poppers.
It was almost like being a drug dealer, or, at the very least, a drug middleman. All it required was me to turn a blind eye to what the customer did with the legal high after they left.
In all fairness, poppers and other legal highs that were sold at my store (whip cream chargers were another wildly popular inhalant we carried) aren’t going to kill you. You aren’t going to wake up in a hospital bed, and you certainly aren’t going to get cancer from inhaling a few poppers.
Regardless, legal highs are anything but a safe time, and your first use will make it clear that momentarily suffocating your brain with chemicals isn’t the most responsible idea. But, hey, it’s a recreational activity that doesn’t harm anyone but the direct user, so the dilemma doesn’t necessarily reside in the products themselves.
The real problem is that companies like the one I worked for are stifling their employees, threatening them with termination and then monetarily persuading them to sell legal highs that many of the customers don’t completely understand. It’s a ridiculous loophole that companies use to divert all blame from the corporate offices and place it onto the shoulders of the individual employees.
But the real loser isn’t the employee — it’s the customer. The customers are missing out on the opportunity to actually learn and understand the risks associated with particular legal highs before investing time, money and brain cells in the matter.
Is there a feasible solution to the dilemma? Unfortunately, not really. Producers of legal highs will continue to find ways to get their products into stores, and stores will continue to sell the fast-moving items without any real regard for their customers. My only hope is that people hear my stories as an ex-employee who once pushed legal highs, and feel inspired to research the products themselves before plunging headfirst into the minefield.