The gap between the people on the ground and the politicians in parliament couldn't be starker. A report in yesterday's Observer found offences relating to cannabis had fallen by a third since 2011 due to the police directing their limited resources on more important matters. But this afternoon in the Commons chamber, the psychoactive substances bill will be debated. MPs are bored of criminalising substances one at a time. Now they are going to criminalise all of them unless they can prove they do not have an effect on the brain.
It really comes to something when the police show more sense of proportion in their handling of the drugs issue than MPs do. Back in the day, it was the other way round. When cannabis was reclassified to Class B under Gordon Brown, a 'cannabis warning' option was left on the book, offering police the ability to give young people a no-record warning for a first offence. It was a form of under-the-table decriminalisation.
The police did not use it responsibly. The problem – one the government could have dealt with easily if it had the sense – was that a cannabis warning counted as a completed crime, no different from having solved a murder or a burglary but obviously far less taxing. So police had an incentive to swagger onto council estates, round up groups of kids and walk out with five completed crimes under their belt. Even when police targets weren't an issue, an ambitious officer would have been tempted to do it just to make his record look good.
But the Observer investigation shows that even the police have realised what a waste of time and resources cannabis operations are. The total number of cannabis offences recorded by English and Welsh police forces – including penalty notices, cautions, charges and summons – fell from 145,400 in 2011-12 to 101,905 in 2014-15. The fact the figures include lower level warnings shows police are not just deploying milder punishments – they are avoiding going after cannabis users altogether.
It can't be explained by decline in use. Cannabis use declined significantly over recent years, but not since 2010. This is about police priorities and it is happening everywhere - from tiny rural Welsh police forces to the Metropolitan police, which recorded 40% fewer offences in 2014-15 than in 2009-10.
This quote from a Gloucestershire police spokesperson almost comes right out and says it:
"We prioritise different crime areas according to greatest need and our priorities at this time are safeguarding vulnerable people, tackling dwelling burglaries and violence committed with weapons. However, when resources permit, we do investigate cannabis cases and execute search warrants when opportunities present themselves."
What the police are doing as a sensible use of resources, MPs are now about to undo. The psychoactive substances bill gets its second reading in the Commons today. Few MPs will bother to attend, although they will obediently file in when it comes to voting it through. Labour has told me it will be supporting the bill. Politics can change out of all recognition, but the capacity of political parties to support the most counter-productive and foolish drug policies is undiminished.
The bill bans any substance which has a psychoactive effect. There's no point going over why that is a nonsense premise – there's been plenty written about it already – but suffice to say that there is no way of establishing a causal pharmacological chain in court which strips out the fact that all substances make you feel different when you consume them, and that even if one could, one would still be criminalising products like incense.
There is a 'reasonable' sale caveat which might protect shopkeepers selling glue to a DIY man rather than a bunch of sniggering kids, although it might just as well discriminate against sniggering kids wanting to buy glue for legitimate purposes. And of course the distinction between reasonable and unreasonable sales will be irrelevant on the internet, where you cannot see the customer.
In reality, the bill will simply allow police and local councils to shut down head shops on high streets and people selling laughing gas canisters at festivals. That's about as far as it will go – although in accomplishing this trivial aim it will overturn centuries of British legal tradition of criminalising specific acts, rather than criminalising everything and demanding the citizen demonstrate whatever he is doing is lawful.
Even if the inane aspects of the bill did not pertain, it would anyway be an obscene use of police time. Laughing gas, which is the chief target of the bill, is a largely harmless drug. It provides a minute or so of very mild euphoria. People have taken it in this country for over 200 years.
It is remarkably safe, although very occasionally someone asphyxiates. There were 17 fatalities between 2006 and 2012, almost all of them involving asphyxiation with a plastic bag. Balloons, which are commonly used, are much safer. Given that laughing gas is Britain's fourth most popular drug, with nearly half a million users, that is a tiny number of fatalities. It is more dangerous to eat nuts.
What's more, anyone ordering laughing gas can simply claim they are making whipped cream, which nitrous oxide is also used for. An online vendor selling it for that purpose recently found a user review reading: "Quality product, I ordered on a Friday and chargers were meant to come on Tuesday but arrived on the next day, good laugh with mates at a festival… er, I mean in the kitchen whipping cream." It gives a pretty good indication of how easy the ban will be to side step.
Laughing gas is a near-perfect drug to demonstrate the dim-wittedness of anti-drugs politicians and the waste of police resources they initiate. It is hugely popular, basically harmless and has a legitimate usage which will allow users to get hold of it regardless of the law.
It is telling that as the police demonstrate they have better things to do than chase cannabis users, politicians are urging them to waste even more of their time on those taking laughing gas. One struggles to imagine a more obvious waste of time, money and brain cells.