Gangs using teenage drug sellers is "the most alarming development in the recent evolution of the UK drugs market", according to a new government report into the nation's escalating drug problem.
A review carried out for the Home Office by Dame Carol Black said the drug dealing phenomenon known to the police as "county lines" – where inner city teenagers are employed to sell crack and heroin in rural and coastal towns and cities – is subjecting them to high levels of exploitation, violence and increased social exclusion. More and more young people, it said, are getting dragged into the most visceral part of Britain's burgeoning trade: the street crack and heroin market.
Amid an onslaught of rubbish spoken and written about the drug trade – especially county lines and drug-related violence – Dame Black's review is refreshingly clued-up. Unlike much of the rhetoric around this subject from the country's most senior criminal justice officials, MPs and the media, Dame Black's review has done a good job of analysing the complex nature of an issue that makes Dickensian street gangs look fairly sweet by comparison.
The review makes it clear that not all of the young people engaged in county lines drug dealing have been forced into it. "Not all young people are groomed or coerced – some see it as their best opportunity to earn money and status," she rightly points out.
This is important, because it acknowledges that the situation is so bad for some children living in the Tory Britain of 2020 that they have to resort to selling drugs in the middle of nowhere to make money and survive.
Commenting on what frontline youth workers told her, Dame Black said: "They report a complex picture that mixes elements of conscious choice with grooming and exploitation against a backdrop of poverty, widening inequality and a lack of alternative opportunities for these young people. This overlap between victim, offender and conscious choice presents challenges in the current response, where there can be a binary approach in categorising individuals either as victims or perpetrators."
It's true that these teenage dealers are perpetrators of violence themselves. County lines is not just about kids being exploited, it's about kids being so traumatised by their lives that they think nothing of torturing a heroin user who is begging them for a hit.
All this gets to the heart of the major social drivers behind county lines, and the real reason children from inner city council estates are ending up in crack houses in places like Southend and Oxford, rather than sitting in a school classroom.
The rise of county lines is not, as those in power would have the public believe, the fault of middle-class cocaine snorters or evil drug barons, or even of drug prohibition. It's the result of major fault lines in our society, largely driven by austerity and entrenched inequality.
As the review puts it: "There are strong associations between young people being drawn into county lines and increases in child poverty, the numbers of children in care and school exclusions. The trends in young people becoming involved in drug supply, drug consumption and in serious violence have occurred against a backdrop of increasing numbers of children in care and children in need, falling local government budgets, cuts to young people's services and increasing child poverty.
"There is clear evidence that those young people, disproportionately young black men, drawn into county lines and related activity are much more likely than other young people to have been affected by adverse experiences such as neglect, substance misuse problems in the family, domestic violence, poor mental health and exclusion from school."
Thankfully, the review at last buries the deluded notion – voiced by a queue of people, including MP David Lammy, Head of Scotland Yard Cressida Dick and former Home Secretary Sajid Javid – that if only everyone stopped snorting cocaine, these domestic drug problems would be solved. This idea, as criminologist Jack Spicer has pointed out, is so off the mark it represents either a "dereliction of duty for senior criminal justice officials – or consciously [misrepresents] the problem". Because the market in crack cocaine – the drug sold by county lines dealers and young street drug gangs in big cities – is entirely separate from the powder cocaine market.
As Dame Black points out: "When it comes to retail supply, the powder cocaine market diverges from that of heroin and crack, with dealers tending to be older, white and often delivering to venues within the night-time economy. Many powder cocaine users will have accessed the drug through a friend, rather than directly from a dealer. At the retail level, the powder cocaine market is associated with less violence than the markets for heroin and crack, although the supply chain internationally is extremely violent."
One of Dame Black's main tasks was to pick apart the links between the drug trade and violence. While there is no doubt that the spread of city drug gangs into the provinces to wrestle control of street drug markets has driven up violence in those areas, the same cannot be said for big cities such as London, where a high volume of street killings have occurred in the past three years.
There is little evidence provided in the report that drug turf wars are the motivation behind inner city street homicides. Most of those killed in London, or their killers, are undoubtedly involved in the drug trade, but analysis carried out by VICE shows that most of these killings are sparked not by drug money or drug turf disputes, but by a mixture of petty beefs and nihilistic postcode gang rivalries. In other words, people are far more likely to be killed just because they come from the wrong postcode or said the wrong thing on Snapchat than because of a drug business dispute.
Countrywide, while young people are severely traumatised by their involvement in county lines and street gang culture, the number of murders linked to the drug trade is not as high as the review suggests. It mentions a rising number of "drug-related homicides", murders which sound like drug gang warfare. But when you look into what a drug-related homicide is, this includes any murder where the victim or suspect has recently used drugs. Even for homicides linked to people actively involved in the drug trade, it may be not be the case that it was their job that spurred the attack – but, instead, an argument over disrespect, or a dispute about a love interest. Data from the Office of National Statistics last year showed that of 2,050 murders over the last two years, 13 were of known drug dealers. Britain is not The Wire.
Why point all of this out? Because if the causes of county lines and street violence are wrongly attributed or based on propaganda, the right solutions will not be found. It is in the interests of those in positions of power to divert blame away from the social conditions they help to create and maintain by just pointing the figure at "drugs" or "the drug trade". Clampdown on drugs and jail all the dealers, they tell us, and we'll all be fine (Dame Black admits that "government interventions to restrict supply have had limited success").
Rising numbers of drug dealing children, widespread drug addiction and rocketing drug deaths are symptoms that there is something fundamentally wrong at the heart of a society we keep on voting for. What Dame Black's review tells us is simply that we are not doing enough to look after the people who most need caring for.