The isolation of day-to-day life feels harder than ever to beat

Reaching out to other human beings ought to be the easiest thing. Why do I find it so difficult?

It's difficult, writing words for others to read. Not properly difficult in the sense of hard, physical labour, or difficult like learning to play the piano. Just difficult to know how to get your tone of voice right, how much to reveal and how much to admit. When I started writing things down it was a continuation of my childhood bad habit of talking to myself. Then you become aware of the audience and unless you're careful, you end up trying to second guess what the audience wants to hear.

So.

On Saturday we're shopping in The Lanes in Brighton. We are coming to the end of a week's holiday and it's time to buy a present for the good friend who's looking after our cats back in London. What do two middle-class gay men, wealthy by any reasonable standards, buy as a present for a single version of the same? Expensive bath foam, of course, from one of those shops which sell nothing else, shops that are both a delight (because lying in a hot bath, in the dark, listening to a Paul Temple mystery on the radio is a genuine pleasure) and an obscenity (because bath oil is bath oil is bath oil, regardless of the mark-up applied to the tube of sodium lauryl sulphate you buy).

But I'm happy, because the holiday has worked. We are both redeemed from the stress of work, for a time, and have slept well and walked dozens of miles along the coast and over the Downs. Life is good. We are lucky. The gift is purchased. We come back out into the Lanes.

And the sky darkens and the rain starts to fall and in the narrowing light I see my reflection on a plate-glass window, a comfortable well-fed man holding a preposterous bag of bath oil. I feel a warning stab of discomfort.

Because of the rain we head for the nearest cafe. As do dozens of other shoppers but we're lucky, we beat the queue and we get a window seat and blow on our flat whites and laugh at the drenching we received.

A man my age has the table next to us, hunched over a copy of the FT. Everything is neat, down to his used tea-bag, tidily placed on his saucer. But the cafe is filling up. A younger man approaches, balancing his bag and a cup of frothy coffee. He comes to Tidy Man's table.

"Is this chair free?"

Without looking up, Tidy Man grunts assent. Coffee Man slides into the free chair, but of course as he does so, his bag falls from his arm and catches the coffee cup, which slops some of its contents onto the table.

"Sorry mate."

Nothing. Nihil respondit. Coffee Man fetches a paper napkin from the counter. As he comes back I see him more clearly. His brow is furrowed with concentration and he seems to have a slight twitch.

He dabs at his spillage with the napkin. The table -- of course! - - has a wobble, so even as he mops up his own coffee, he causes Tidy's tea to spill. Tidy, who still hasn't acknowledged Coffee's existence beyond the initial grunt, picks up his paper and stands up.

"Bye then", says Coffee Man.

Tidy manages to filter past Coffee Man and exit the cafe as though the only human being in the shop.

I'm not explaining well why this upset me so much. There is a yearning for some form of human interaction from Coffee Man which is tangible. He frowns over his coffee cup. When he looks up I smile at him. But not for long enough, because I'm always hyper-sensitive to not give the wrong signal, and just as Coffee Man begins to return the smile, I break contact and look away.

In the street outside I say to Keith:

"Did you see that boy?"

And Keith says:

"Yes. A poor soul."

"I wanted to hug him, to tell him everything will be alright. But I couldn't even say hello properly."

"Everything won't be alright anyway."

We walk home along the seafront in silence. And I'm thinking: reaching out to other human beings ought to be the easiest thing. Why do I find it so difficult? Yes, I was projecting, but I'm more like Tidy Man in his self-contained space than I like to admit. Don't we all feel pain at isolation? We can see it but it's so hard to overcome, maybe it's always been hard but it seems to have become harder, I think we're more suspicious of the motives of others than we used to be. If I were of the left I'd make some excuse, as I'm on the right I make another, but that's all these explanations are: excuses for not touching. I remember my lonely weekends in Harlow, when I'd visit the supermarket solely in order to hear a human voice that wasn't piped in by Radio 4. I wonder at the effort it took for that young man, to overcome the problems life has thrown at him, to get his act together to come out for a cup of coffee and some social interaction, to end up receiving nothing.

The sun has broken through, I can feel Keith close to me, I remember that I'm not alone, and feel the weight of the preposterous bag of bath stuff in my hand.

"This is a stupid present for a man. We'll give it to your mum. Let's have Simon over for dinner one night instead. To say thank you properly."

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The government has admitted it can curb drugs without criminalising users

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity