West Hollywood and Los Angeles County officials are at odds over whether the county Department of Health Services has the authority within the city to ban sales of alkyl nitrites, chemical stimulants suspected of making users vulnerable to AIDS.
Officials in both jurisdictions said the dispute could lead to confusion among West Hollywood store owners who sell alkyl nitrites, known as "poppers" among those who sniff them during sex for their alleged aphrodisiac effects.
"Businesses in West Hollywood that sell these products need some kind of clarification so they know how to respond under the law," said West Hollywood Mayor Stephen Schulte. "The problem is, which law?"
Alkyl nitrites are used in large quantities in industry. In small quantities, they are marketed as incense and room deodorizers and are easily obtainable in supermarkets and convenience stores. As poppers, they are sold under such brand names as Rush, Bolt, Locker Room, Bullet and Aroma of Man.
The dispute is centered on two laws, passed last year by the city and the county, which posed alternative solutions to the widespread abuse of poppers, particularly among sexually active homosexual and bisexual men.
Health Warnings Required
In June, the West Hollywood City Council passed an ordinance requiring store owners who sell poppers to post health warnings about the possible dangers of the chemicals. Three weeks later, the Board of Supervisors banned the sale and public use of poppers throughout the county.
With no health department of its own, the city of West Hollywood has contracted with the county for health services since its incorporation in 1984. Although the county health department works for the city within West Hollywood's boundaries, county officials insist that they can only enforce one of the laws. In this case, they say they will enforce the ban on poppers.
"Our position is that the county ordinance takes precedence over a contract city's ordinance," said Steven Carnevale, deputy county counsel. "Contract cities can't pick and choose which ordinances they want enforced."
Carnevale said the health department is reluctant to make an exception for West Hollywood for fear that other municipalities might ask for exceptions. Eighty cities contract with the county for health services.
"If we kept making exceptions, our health officers would have to memorize a huge book of laws before they could go out and perform their duties," Carnevale said. "It would end up a hodgepodge, with 80 different sets of rules."
West Hollywood City Atty. Michael Jenkins countered that the county ban on poppers could only apply in West Hollywood if the City Council adopts it as a city law. When the ban was brought before the council Monday night, it was quickly tabled.
'Most People Smart Enough'
"I just don't think we need to get into the business of banning," Councilman John Heilman said afterward. "With adequate warnings, most people are smart enough to know what's not good for them."
Heilman and Schulte said the city's rationale for not banning poppers is that medical evidence linking their use to the development of acquired immune deficiency syndrome is still uncertain.
"I've resisted a ban because it seemed to me that it would be a pretty drastic measure and I haven't seen conclusive scientific and medical evidence to ban poppers," Schulte said.
County officials, however, insist that there is enough medical evidence to require stores to remove poppers from their shelves.
"There is not a clearly demonstrated causal relation, but there is a strong statistical correlation between the use of nitrite products and the development of Kaposi's sarcoma in gay males," said Dr. Caswell Evans, assistant director of programs for the county Department of Health Services.
Other Dangers Cited
Kaposi's sarcoma is a cancer that afflicts many AIDS victims. Medical researchers have also warned that poppers have been known to cause heart irregularities, rashes, lung infections and nasal irritations.
Although available in California outside Los Angeles County, poppers have been banned in nearly a dozen states, including New York.
The county's own ban was not being enforced until Dec. 16, when it was upheld by Superior Court Judge Warren H. Deering, who ruled against an alkyl nitrite manufacturer who tried to overturn the sales ban.
Later in December, Carnevale said, county health inspectors visited dozens of stores selling poppers and advised owners that they were in violation of the sales ban. Although Carnevale said he was uncertain if any West Hollywood stores were among those warned, he said that "anyone who sells poppers is on notice to stop the sales."
Convictions for violations of the county law, a misdemeanor, carry a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, Carnevale said.
City May Not Prosecute
But as long as the City Council refuses to ban the sale of poppers, Jenkins said, the county's law is unenforceable. Jenkins added that if West Hollywood store owners are cited by county health inspectors, the city could decline to prosecute them.
"Ordinarily, the prosecution would be handled by the city," Jenkins said. "I'm not certain that if called upon, the city would want to prosecute these cases."
Jenkins added that the city council has the final decision whether to go ahead with any prosecution.