Security Clearance Attorney Sean M. Bigley represents clients worldwide in security clearance denials and revocations. He is a former investigator for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. For more information, please visit

On the spectrum of awkward articles to write, this one definitely skews toward the “mature audiences” end of the scale. Nonetheless, it bears publication for the simple reason that people are losing their careers over an honest mistake.

That mistake is called “Poppers” – or, as it is known in the scientific community, liquid inhalants or alkyl nitrites. These strong-smelling, translucent liquids are designed to be inhaled much like smelling salts, and many people mistake the two as having similarly harmless properties.

Such confusion is perhaps understandable, given that many Washington, D.C.-area adult stores are apparently selling Poppers over the counter as a sexual “enhancer” or novelty, but without any warning labels about potential adverse side-effects. Poppers, however, do have three distinct (albeit temporary) physiological side-effects: a lowering of blood pressure, an increase in heart rate, and relaxation of the muscles.

Those may not sound like particularly harmful results, but when combined with other common drugs like Viagra, inhaling Poppers can actually lower blood pressure to fatal levels. Recent medical evidence is also beginning to suggest that use of Poppers may cause permanent retinal damage. Whatever “enhancement” Poppers add to the sexual experience obviously needs to be weighed against these potentially devastating side-effects, however rare.

We’ve seen several Poppers cases in our legal practice over the last couple years – and, while the drug is seemingly most popular in the gay community, we’ve defended both straight and gay clients in security clearance revocation proceedings for this issue. The commonality is that federal agencies seem to attack Poppers users more for their perceived lack of judgment rather than the drug use itself. That’s because U.S. law appears to be ambiguous on the subject of whether Poppers are, in fact, illegal.

For example, it is lawful to manufacture and sell products made with Isobutyl (including alkyl nitrites) for commercial purposes.  15 U.S.C. 2057a(b)(c)(1).  But while this law does not include production of consumer products that may be inhaled or otherwise introduced into the human body (15 U.S.C. 2057a(c)(2)), it also does not appear on its face to criminalize individual retail customers from purchasing it over the counter in adult stores. Several substance abuse experts with whom we have conferred were unaware of any categorization of alkyl nitrates on the federal controlled substances schedule.

Moreover, Question 23 of the SF-86 Questionnaire for National Security, as it is currently written, speaks specifically to “controlled substances” and “prescription drugs,” and lists amyl nitrate as an example under the category of inhalant. Amyl nitrate was apparently the only ingredient in poppers that ever required a prescription for use – and it ceased to be used in 1988. The SF-86 question makes no reference whatsoever to the generic name “poppers,” or to alkyl nitrites, or the other subsequent chemical compounds which were used in poppers as manufacturers modified the chemical composition to accommodate changing laws so they could continue to be sold over the counter at adult establishments. The version of poppers sold (apparently) legally in adult stores since 1988 does not contain the controlled substance of amyl nitrate, and therefore does not appear to meet the reporting criteria of a “controlled substance” or “prescription drug” as the question is currently detailed on the SF-86.

The use of Poppers thus most commonly arises during polygraph interviews, where examinees are pressed about “anything else” that might fall under the category of drug use. When that happens, the National Adjudicative Guidelines for Security Clearances are so broad as to often render the legal distinctions discussed above irrelevant at certain IC agencies that view due process as an inconvenience over a right. At those agencies, we may be successful in knocking out a drug use allegation only to lose the case under questionable claims of “poor judgment” or a “lack of discretion.”

Whatever your opinion on Poppers, understand that the apparent ambiguity over their legality leaves their use open to interpretation. The National Security Agency, in particular, seems to have an odd fixation on this issue, so applicants beware. And, of course, you should always consult a medical professional before starting or stopping the use of any drug.


Warning: This article is intended as general information only and should not be relied upon as medical or legal advice. Consult an attorney and/or a physician regarding your specific situation. 

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Security Clearance Attorney Sean M. Bigley represents clients worldwide in security clearance denials and revocations. He is a former investigator for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. For more information, please visit