Meet the first-time voters of Hicksville, Ohio

"Even though some of them have been indoctrinated at home, they are open-minded."

Hicksville's high school is housed in a state-of-the-art red-brick building, opened in 2009, on the east side of town. Students spill corridors filled with lockers in classic American high school style. On the day I visit, government teacher Dave Blue is taking two senior-year classes, most of whom will be eligible to vote for the first time tomorrow.

Among them, some are simply not interested. “I don't really pay attention to [politics],” says one 18-year-old student, Chad Klema, while another, Dean Conley simply says “I'm not voting.” When this gets an anguished response from the more politically active of his peers, he defends himself. “I just hate hearing about it. I don't think any president can fix this.”

Many are entirely disillusioned with the political process as a whole. “Neither candidate is great” is a common factor among many – though not all – students in both classes. “There are negative ads before every video on YouTube,” says 18-year-old Morgan Hahn. “It's not cool.”

Many of them, however, are more politically aware. Each lesson has a clearly dominant voice; obviously old rivals, they tell me they often spar with each other on political issues. Andrew Willis, the most powerful voice in the morning lesson, is a staunch and vocal Democrat. “I'm pro-choice, and gay marriage. I don't like that the rich get the tax cuts – Bush's tax cuts added to the deficit.” What does he think of the Republican challenger? “I think Romney is really, really untrustworthy. I think he changes his opinions to get elected.”

“He's a political rat!” he says with venom.

The afternoon class, by comparison, is all about Austin Laney – whose conservatism Willis tells me he likes to goad. “[Romney's] not just for one part of the country, he's for all of it,” Laney tells me. Even for the middle class? “Yeah.”

“Obama doesn't know what he's talking about,” he continues. “I don't like Obama. Romney's not that great – but he's better.”

Their teacher, Dave Blue, is one of those teachers that all his former pupils remember with a grin. I first meet him in the Brickhouse, Hicksville's local sports bar – I'm introduced by several former pupils. “You have to meet Dave,” they tell me. He makes quite an entrance, wearing a long leather trenchcoat and a battered stetson, and orders a whisky.

Blue has been helping his pupils negotiate the minefields of American politics for 28 years. I ask him if the students he sees generally lean one way or another. “I'd say [they're] more Republican than Democrat,” he tells me, “but Obama's got a good chance among these kids. They're young, they're willing to listen. Their minds are reasonably flexible. Even though some of them have been indoctrinated at home, they are open-minded. Some are probably going to rebel from mum and dad.”

When I ask the afternoon class if their political beliefs have been affected by their parents, there is a chorus of “yes” – except from Laney, who tells me scornfully that his parents are Democrats.

“I could go either way,” says another pupil, Charlie Guto. What would sway him? “I dunno.” He stops to think. “I'm against abortion. I don't think it's right.” Does that mean Romney's on his side on that one? “Yeah. But I feel like whoever wins, no one's going to fix it right away.”

Some of them have been under pressure from their classmates – but Shane Bostik is not giving in. “I'm on the border still,” he says, looking at Laney with a grin. “I've had Austin trying to persuade me to go for Romney... but I think I'm sticking with Obama. I think things are getting better each year.”

“They are starting to realise,” says Dave Blue proudly after the bell has gone and the students have joined the throng in the corridors heading to their next class, “that the real world is not that far away.”

He gestures expansively around his classroom. “And this is a part of it.”

A Democrat volunteer encourages people to turn out in Ohio. Photograph: Getty Images

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