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A summer of scapegoating: Laurie Penny on being trailed by the police

Millions have urgent, legitimate grievances with government. The criminalisation of dissent should outrage us all.

Last weekend, some friends and I took a trip to the seaside. We ate ice-cream on the beach in the brilliant sun, and tiptoed out into the icy waves, negotiating bits of floating plastic, shrieking like excited children with rolled-up trousers and tucked-in skirts: five get messy in Brighton. It was, in every respect, a normal holiday. Except for the eight or nine uniformed police officers watching us paddle.

Two "forward intelligence teams" had been sent down from London specifically to keep an eye on us, taking pictures as we handed out flyers about tax avoidance with a local anti-cuts group and ate chips with little wooden forks. If this really represents a danger to the state, the state is in far more trouble than we have been led to believe.

Bad things happen to people who protest against the British government and its austerity program. You no longer even have to have committed a crime to be reported to the police. This week, the City of Westminster's "Counter Terrorist Focus Desk" issued a call for all "anarchists" to be identified, stating that anyone who thinks that the state is "undesirable, unnecessary and harmful" should be considered as dangerous as al-Quaeda. Presumably the architects of the "big society" project will soon be getting the heavy knock at the door.

The Metropolitan Police have made their priorities extremely clear. Up to 200 officers have been devoted to hunting down students and anti-cuts activists, knocking on the doors of school pupils and arresting them for their part in demonstrations against education cutbacks that took place nine months ago. Thirty UK Uncut protesters are still facing charges for their part in a peaceful demonstration in Fortnum and Mason, footage from the police recordings of which shows some dangerous anarchists waving placards in the foyer and batting a beach ball over a stack of expensive cheese. Up to 300 activists have been arrested so far, in a joint operation that has already cost the taxpayer £3.65m. By contrast, only eight man-hours were spent in 2009 investigating the allegation that feral press barons were being permitted to run what amounted to a protection racket at the Met.

When he resigned as Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson listed some of his proudest moments at the Met. These included the force at their "glorious and unobtrusive best" on the occasion of the royal wedding. Thats not how I remember it. I remember hippies and students all over the country being dragged out of their homes and arrested for crimes they hadnt even thought of committing. The disgraced former police chief also congratulated the force on their "professional and restrained approach" at the recent student demonstrations. Thats not what I saw. I saw them dragging Jody McIntyre out of his wheelchair. I saw crowds of students and schoolchildren screaming and scrambling over one another as they fled a charge by mounted police that put at least forty-three of them in hospital and left one young man fighting for his life on the operating table.

As students and activists continue to be charged with violent disorder, it seems to have been forgotten that this offence normally relates to acts of self-defence in the face of police brutality. It is now a crime to fight back when you're getting bludgeoned with batons for daring to take a stand against unfair, unnecessary cuts to public services. Police officers, meanwhile, are rarely charged in connection with violence against protesters. In 2009, despite video evidence showing Sgt Delroy Smellie assaulting Nicola Fisher, District Judge Daphne Wickham ruled that he had acted lawfully. This week, the same judge ignored sentencing guidelines to send Jonnie Marbles to prison for attempting to splatter Rupert Murdoch with shaving foam.

Marbles hurt nobody with his misguided prank. Nor did 20-year-old Frank Fernie, who is serving a year in jail for "throwing two sticks at police officers" in full body armour. Nor did Charlie Gilmour, whose drunken antics at the student demonstrations earned him 16 months in Wandsworth, where he is currently spending 23-hours a day locked in a tiny cell with an armed robber. Although some have identified these opprobrious sentences as attacks on the right to protest, the courts seem only to be making examples of certain types of protester whose principles directly threaten the ruling consensus. Stephen Lennon, the leader of the far-right English Defence League, was recently convicted of leading a street brawl and threatening members of the public, but received only a fine and a community order.

The Home Office has admitted to ongoing discussions with the Metropolitan police about operational policies and procedures concerning UK Uncut and other anti-cuts groups. So much for the separation of powers. So much for the rule of law. I am sick of it. I am sick of seeing peaceful protesters scapegoated as violent thugs and sent to prison while right-wing extremists and corrupt media tycoons walk free. At a time when millions have urgent and legitimate grievances with this government, the criminalisation of dissent should outrage us all.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

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