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      Why Are So Many Black People Being Convicted of Drug Dealing in London?

      February 2, 2016
      From the column 'Narcomania'

      Undercover cop Neil Woods (left) buying crack. (Photo from "Inside the Secret World of a British Undercover Drugs Cop")

      Nearly half of all people convicted for class A drug supply in London are black, according to previously unpublished data seen by VICE.

      Figures released to VICE under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that 42 percent of people convicted for selling class A drugs in the capital are black, a proportion that rises to 50 percent for drug dealers aged under 21.

      According to the 2011 census, just over 10 percent of people living in London are black, while just under 60 percent are white. However, three times as many black people aged under 21 are convicted of class A drug supply than white people aged under 21. Around three-quarters of class A drug supply convictions result in custody.

      These new figures come a couple of days after Prime Minister David Cameron announced a review into the treatment of ethnic minorities by the criminal justice system, pointing out that a young black man is more likely to be in prison than at a top university.

      The data released to VICE shows that black people are over-represented nationally when it comes to drug supply convictions. While making up just three percent of the UK population, black people account for 20 percent of all class A drug supply convictions.

      The data, which covers convictions for 2013 and 2014, also reflects the expansion by London drug gangs into other parts of the country. They show high numbers of black drug dealing convictions in the south-east and east of England, as gangs send young sellers to "go country" and take advantage of commuter belt markets.

      It's not just at the lower levels of the drug trade that black people are over-represented. Of the 567 people convicted for class A drug importation over 2013 and 2014, 120 were black, compared to 132 white and 55 Asian. Almost all of those convicted were arrested in London and the south-east of England.

      The region-by-region data obtained through the FOI request provides an exclusive insight into the age and ethnicity of people making a living in the drug trade in England and Wales. The further you travel up north, away from London, Bristol and Birmingham, the number of black drug dealing convictions peters out.

      In the north, those found guilty of drug dealing are overwhelmingly white, a reflection of the more extensive network of white crime groups in cities such as Newcastle, Liverpool and Manchester.

      The north-west hosts the highest number of class B (chiefly, cannabis and speed) selling convictions in the country, as well as the most people found guilty of producing class B drugs (almost entirely cannabis grows).

      Importation convictions are highest in London, the south-east and the north-west, a reflection of the importance of these areas as hubs of trafficking and onward distribution within the UK.

      The data raises important questions about why a disproportionate amount of black people are ending up in the dock for dealing drugs. VICE has spoken to a number of experts – including former drug dealers and specialists in the drug trade – to seek an explanation for this phenomenon.

      Their responses on the following pages suggest the figures are being driven by a number of factors, such as social exclusion, biased policing, gang culture and cultural links to the cocaine trade.

      It appears that the high representation of black people in the drug supply statistics, particularly at the business end – the heroin and crack market, which has a far higher risk of injury or arrest than any other drugs – is a reflection of three main drivers:


      Young black men have a higher unemployment rate than all other ethnic groups – more than double the rate for young white men. In 2012, government statistics showed that more than half of young black men available for work in Britain were unemployed. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, black ethnic groups have worse labour market outcomes regardless of whether they live in better-off or deprived neighbourhoods.

      As John Pitts, director of the Vauxhall Centre for the Study of Crime, told me in 2011: "To someone who is struggling at school, who has a cold, hard home life with few prospects, it's dangerous, it's exciting and it's a step up the ladder. You have escalating youth unemployment and a lack of those opportunities. In today's drug business you could be earning, with relatively little effort, £500 a week. The old ways of reasoning with young offenders – all that is now gone."

      Analysis of the motivations of those who took part in the 2011 riots in London and elsewhere in England revealed a similar narrative: the rioters, most of them young black men, said they were driven by social exclusion and economic deprivation, combined with a strong sense of injustice. They were poorer, younger and of lower educational achievement than average.

      Drug dealing is a logical solution to a problem for many of the world's urban poor. Some of those locked out of the mainstream economy turn to one of the biggest illegal economies: the drug trade.

      It's the same story the world over. In towns and cities across every continent, there are hundreds of thousands of people who are using the drug trade as a way to escape a dead end life, and indeed, widespread social inequality. A study into the drug market in New Orleans, published in the Journal of Ethnicity in Substance Abuse in 2010, found "a clear connection between poverty and entrance into the drug market, as mitigated by race, lack of societal opportunity, lack of social capital, distressed families and closed neighbourhoods. Specifically, the research illustrates the mechanisms by which macro-level social forces intersect to legitimise drug dealing as a viable alternative method of acquiring money and social capital."

      Some people are coerced into the drug trade. But for most, access is relatively easy and socially acceptable, often through family or friends. Either way, once you get on it's hard to get off. Political campaigner Kenny Imafidon, 22, who grew up on an estate in Peckham and did his A levels in Feltham prison described this in The Kenny Report, a 2012 publication handed into Parliament to raise awareness of the challenges faced by young people from deprived areas:

      "Many young black people at the age of 16 are aware of the economic climate and the lack of legitimate career opportunities, so can often be lured into illegal ways of making money such as selling drugs, particularly if they are living in an area where this is an accessible and viable option. Young people in deprived communities who obtain criminal convictions by the age of 16 believe that no one is going to employ them anyway and therefore commit to ongoing criminality."

      Societies that combine social inequality and consumerism cannot be surprised that people who have no opportunities want to find another way of buying the things that everyone else seems to have.


      There is no doubt the police target black people for stop and search, therefore making them more likely to be caught if they are carrying quantities of drugs deemed high enough to warrant arrest for supply. Despite a clampdown on discriminatory stop and searches ordered by home secretary Theresa May, which has dramatically reduced the practice, black people in London are still three times more likely to be frisked than white people, rising to 17 times more likely in some parts of the country.

      Black people are also three times as likely than white people to be arrested and prosecuted. This is reflected in the prison statistics, with significant rises in the proportion of young black and Asian people being locked up. A report – led by Baroness Young and published last year – into the high numbers of young black men in prison found that one of the reasons behind the rise is that black offenders "are stereotyped as drug dealers".


      The reason so many black people are being convicted for class A drug selling, predominantly for selling heroin and crack, has its origins 20 years ago, with the rise of the crack cocaine market in Britain. The first crack importers and suppliers were British Jamaican gangs who used existing friendships and supply lines from the Caribbean to import cocaine and wash it up into crack.

      Because of its short, intense high and need for users to buy repeat hits, crack became a lucrative trade. Dealers began selling it alongside heroin, and the two drugs virtually became one – a first course and a main course – with some users combining "white" and "brown" in the same syringe, known as a speedball.

      By its very nature, the crack and heroin trade – particularly when it comes to the young runners who carry out the transactions – is far more visible to the police than the trade in other class A drugs. It's a lot tougher to avoid arrest if you're serving up to heroin users on a notorious estate than passing a few bags around in a noisy, dimly-lit nightclub.

      Click through to read the opinions of a number of experts, including criminologists, a former crack and heroin dealer, and a couple of former international cocaine traffickers.

      Topics: drugs, drug dealing, drug convictions, Narcomania, Max Daly, FOI results, exclusive, institutional racism, ethnicity, London, drug dealing by area, UK, Crime


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