The starting gun: in a grey and rainy Ohio, early voting begins

Nicky Woolf's latest dispatch from Hicksville, Defiance County.

A new morning means a new email from the campaigns. Usually, it means several new emails of increasing neediness – fundraising deadlines have been approaching recently. But today's are different. Today, the campaign enters a new phase today. Today's emails are Get-Out-The-Vote emails.

At eight this morning across a grey and rainy Ohio, polling stations opened to allow early voting. Hicksville's nearest is in the county seat of Defiance, and the polling station is in the local electoral services office. Six or seven people queue good-naturedly in the warm.

Semi-retired warehouse worker Todd Walker describes himself as an independent. “I looked at both candidates, and I made my decision. I voted for the President. I wish there was a better candidate from the Republican party, but there isn't.”

It is not just the Presidential election that excites people here. Ohio Restricting Amendment, Issue 2 has been proposed by the state's Democrat party; it is an ordinance which prevents gerrymandering. It is foremost in people's minds outside the Defiance polling booth. “Issue 2 is the most important to us,” says Susan Brogan, who has come with her wheelchair-bound mother Sherry to beat the queues.  Todd Walker agrees: “I don't want gerrymandering.”

Jim Jurcevitch, at the board of elections, is helping to operate the station. He is not expecting a rush today. “Educated guess? There'll be about 200, because of the weather.”

Early voting is a crucial factor. In Defiance county in the 2008 Presidential election there were 4,800 early ballots cast – both in-person and absentee. McCain's majority in the county was only a little over over 2,000 – and the ratio is the same all over the state, where more than quarter of a million early votes were cast. Early voting could carry Ohio – that's why there's been so much foul play around early voting here. The campaigns are trying to capitalise on this huge electoral resource.

Charlie Grey is the chair of the local Democratic party. I ask if he's expecting trouble, and he answers quickly: “Yes. But it won't be widespread.” He squares his shoulders like a man about to go to war. “We're watching for it.”

There's no sign of trouble at the Defiance polling station. Sherry Brogan doesn't feel like an electoral resource; she's just enjoying flexing her democratic muscles. “It feels great,” she tells me as she and her daughter head for the exit. “I could do it all over again.”

A voter at the Wood County Court House October 2 in Bowling Green, Ohio. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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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