Government data seen by VICE has revealed a sharp rise in the number of young people convicted for selling class A drugs such as crack, heroin and cocaine. The figures, released under the Freedom of Information Act, provide a unique insight into the age, ethnic background and location of the 15,308 people convicted for producing and dealing illegal drugs in Britain last year, and how this picture has changed since 2013.
Despite fairly static demand for class A drugs over this time, the number of people convicted for selling them has risen from 5,777 in 2013 to 7,070 in 2016. Worryingly for those working to steer young people clear of serous crime and gangs, and despite calls to reduce punishments for people exploited by drug gangs, one of the key drivers of this increase has been a 50 percent jump in people aged under-21 being convicted for selling class As, from 1,031 in 2013 to 1,566 in 2016.
Last year, over a quarter of all class A drug supply convictions in England and Wales were of people aged under 21, compared to a sixth in 2013.
The data reveals black offenders continue to be vastly over-represented among those convicted of drug dealing. Despite making up 3.3 percent of the population of England and Wales, black people accounted for 20 percent of those convicted for dealing drugs in 2016.
In London, more than twice as many black people are convicted of selling drugs than white people. Crucially, nearly half of all young people in the capital convicted of dealing drugs are black, even though black people make up just 13 percent of London's population.
The practice of "going country" – the expansion of urban drug gangs sending out young dealers to sell crack and heroin in rural and coastal towns – appears to be reflected in these statistics. Between 2013 and 2016 there has been a steady rise in the number of young people and black people convicted for drug supply across the South West, South East and East of England, commuter zones well known for playing reluctant hosts to drug gangs from inner city London.
The data raises important questions about why a growing number of young people are getting caught up in the serious end of the drug trade and why black people are so frequently winding up convicted for drug dealing. Are the figures just a reflection of biased policing and clampdowns on young gangs and knife crime, or are there other dynamics at play?
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There has been a recent rise of cocaine use among young people, which inevitably means there will be more of them caught selling it to each other. But drug dealers are most often caught when they are selling it on the open market, on the road, rather than in a club toilet.
Even though the street drug-selling scene is a dangerous one, with heightened risk of violence, jail time and further social exclusion, it has its attractions for some teenagers in modern austerity Britain, wherever they live. They need the drug trade like it needs them. As the class A drug trade has become increasingly profitable and professionalised by drug-selling outfits, young people have become a more efficient team of runners and gofers than addicted "user-dealers".
For some teenagers, selling drugs is the best of a bad bunch of options, says Jude Jubey, Co-founder of Youth Ink, a London-based organisation that helps young people on the margins of society. "Young people I know are closed off from the rest of the world and to the opportunities out there," says Jubey. "They've got a bad education, they've got no GCSEs and no hope of going to university or doing an apprenticeship. Selling drugs is a shortcut to building yourself up. It's a quick way of making money, especially selling heroin and crack. If you get a decent line you can rent a place out and buy your own car without a 9 to 5 job."
The more young shotters there are, the more will be arrested. Jubey says that although many young dealers are recruited by older friends and family, street drug-selling outfits are getting younger from top to bottom. They are now more likely to be run by teenagers or people in their early twenties, and so to maintain hierarchical harmony and mutual respect, the underlings tend to be younger too. He says this growing number of young dealers can leave themselves open to arrest simply because they are less experienced at spotting the danger signs, such as undercover police. Young dealers, says Jubey, are also more likely to have customers turn on them and grass them up to police for a reward.
For young dealers who are black, and who have a higher unemployment rate than all other ethnic groups, the likelihood of joining gangs, getting stuck in the drug selling cycle and of being caught by police intensifies. A report exploring the views of young black people and the black community on drug policy found that the current reality is that "drug use, drug dealing, 'gang' involvement, school exclusion and involvement in criminal justice systems by young people were discussed as 'common' and a 'source of concern' by all BAME community members consulted".
Dr Tara Young, a criminologist at Kent University specialising in gang culture, says the young black men she has spoken to started selling drugs "on road" because it seemed the only viable economic alternative to them. However, "Not everyone has the opportunity to do it because they do not have the connections," she says. "People do not have an innate propensity to be drug dealers; it is learned behaviour and a response to the deprived socioeconomic conditions experienced by large sections of the black community. It's like becoming a doctor: if you grow up in a relatively affluent area where your family or friends are doctors, then it's not surprising if you become a doctor. The same goes for drug dealing: if a kid grows up in a poor area where he is exposed to drug dealing, then it's not a surprise if he goes on to become a dealer. Likewise, if you do not know any doctors or dealers, then it is possible that you will not become either."
Jubey believes the rise of "going country" may have fuelled the rise in class A convictions among young black dealers, which the National Crime Agency and some recent analysis in Essex indicate make up the majority of crews travelling outside London to sell. Jubey says they are more susceptible to being caught than white dealers, especially in rural areas, because they stand out more, both physically and in the minds of police officers: "The police are mainly white. They look out for black dealers, they see black people as the problem. I see white, black, Asian dealers. But the difference is that white dealers do it for years and get away with it."
One senior drugs detective from the National Crime Agency says the reason more young people and more black people are being convicted for drug dealing is because they make up such a large part of the street drug trade.
"Those involved in selling heroin and crack are predominantly young black guys exploited by older gang members, and there is an endless supply of them. In Sussex, for example, there are 300 drug dealing phone lines, with four or five young black lads on the end of each one who are seen as expendable by the handful of people behind all those lines," he explains. "And to be honest, especially when they go out of London, police are falling over them without any effort."
The detective tells me that, in some areas, young black men are picked up for drug supply as a bi-product of police investigating certain age and ethnic profiles for street robberies.
The drug conviction figures show a stark north-south divide when it comes to the ethnicity of those caught dealing drugs. For example, in the North-East of England, of the 180 people convicted for selling class A drugs, only two were black. There has been a significant rise in the number of white dealers convicted in the North-West, much more so than of black or Asian dealers. This is a reflection not only of the dominance of white organised crime groups in the north, but of growing austerity in the region triggering more young people to sell drugs.
Across Britain, the FOI statistics reveal that police forces appear to be pulling resources away from policing cannabis, perhaps leaving more time and money for targeting class A dealers. The number of people convicted for class B supply has fallen, meanwhile convictions for cannabis cultivation have plummeted. Between 2013 and 2016, the number of people found guilty of growing cannabis farms nearly halved, from 6,240 to 3,573.
Most of the young people convicted for dealing drugs will likely be convicted again. It is an addictive career. "You get your first score and you are hooked," says Jubey. "It creates the lifestyle, and the lifestyle keeps you on it. Everyone wants something different in life. Dealing is the only option for some; for others, it's a stepping-stone. But drug dealing is no one's first option. I've never met anyone who stopped selling drugs who missed it. They all say it's terrible."
Sometimes dealers find exits, through the jolt of a large prison sentence, an incident of extreme violence – perhaps because they have grown out of the game or because they become a parent. But, as Dr Ebony Reid of Brunel University concluded during a ground-breaking piece of research into road culture in her own north London estate published this year, many young dealers find it difficult to get out of the game.
"Put simply, trapping is a paradox," she says. "It appears to offer opportunities, but also entangles the mandem further in the trap, therefore diminishing opportunity and engagement with wider mainstream society."
Every conviction of a young person, black or white, for selling drugs is its own tragedy. The rise in young people being convicted for class A supply represents a hidden harm of the drug trade. It is not just drug users – the people buying drugs – who need to be considered in terms of harm reduction policies, but those who have little option but to sell them.
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