Leigh, 16, had just finished his GCSEs when his uncle asked him to join the family business: selling heroin and crack cocaine.
With time on his hands and keen to please his uncle – who was a well known gangster and veteran drug dealer – Leigh agreed.
“I was bored; school was over,” he told me. “I wasn’t going to college or working as a slave in a dead end job like my mum, who was always stressed out at the end of the month. I thought it was cool to help my uncle sell drugs. He’s always helped my mum out, even though he was the younger brother and she knew where his money was coming from. But when your electric goes off, you don’t care who takes you and your kids out of darkness or where the money is coming from to help pay your rent.”
So Leigh followed older brother Leon into the firm. He became a runner for two years, carrying small bags of heroin or rocks of crack from his uncle to 20-30 buyers every day and returning with pocketfuls of £10 and £20 notes.
The brothers are now entrenched in the £6.5 billion-a-year UK illicit drugs trade, carrying out dozens of daily drop-offs to addicts. And the decision to sign up to the family firm has put money in their pockets. They are each paid £250 a week for selling and distributing 300 bags of heroin and 300 rocks of crack between them. Their uncle pays them from his £4,000-£5,000 weekly proceeds and initially promised a much higher salary, but keeps their money deliberately low. This ties them into long-term jobs as drug runners.
For Leigh and Leon, brought up in a bleak, deprived, inner city area, there was nothing to look forward to after little formal education and few career prospects. Running drugs has become their life.
“It’s people like my brother and me,” Leigh says. “We’ve got nothing else. I know it’s wrong, but what else is there for me?’
The brothers are not the only child foot soldiers in Britain’s flourishing underworld black market in illegal substances – and they are not the youngest. The number of children and teenagers working in Britain’s drugs industry is growing, according to a recent study I was involved in.
For this I worked jointly with criminologists and the Home Office on an in-depth, 18-month investigation on the extent of the problem – and it’s far worse than I could ever have imagined. For the first time we recorded testimonies from scores of underage dealers. The results we found included:
- children aged 11 – and sometimes even younger – are selling drugs on the streets
- many youngsters miss school to keep their clients supplied
- many are drawn into the trade by a close relative or school friends
- teenagers in areas rife with drugs often admire dealers, envy their income and aspire to emulate them
- adult dealers increasingly enlist them as runners and lookouts because they believe their age makes them less likely to be caught.
What’s also shocking is that friends and families in the community, mums and dads are powerless to stop this – and, as in Leigh’s case, can often be actively involved in it. In 2015, children as young as 11 were among some 1,200 children arrested for dealing in drugs, from skunk and heroin to crack cocaine.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
More than 20 underage children a week are being caught by the police on suspicion of dealing in drugs. One in 10 of these are girls – minors who then often become victims of other abuses at the hands of criminal gangs.
Almost all these youngsters fail to comprehend the dangers they are courting or the consequences of what they’re doing until it’s too late. The lucky ones are arrested, rehabilitated and given a second chance. The unlucky ones are caught in a spiral of crime and violence at the hands of very abusive gangsters – for them there’s no way out.
Most of these criminal gangs are based in the metropolitan areas, but are also now branching out into the rural towns and villages. The gangs recruit children and vulnerable adults – many with mental health issues – to be couriers for the drugs trade. The gangs use a phone number for orders, and the trade is dubbed “county lines” by the crime agencies trying to combat the trade. Children become the runners of the county lines (see my next blog).
The National Crime Agency believes gangs from London are combing towns on the South Coast using mobile phone networks to open up new areas for drug trading. Echoing a digital retail model, many are using texting and secure social networks to offer buy-one-get-one free deals and special introductory offers. Gangs even develop their own brands to differentiate themselves from other drug sellers. These brands are publicised in social media networks and also within the gaming community. At the front line of these emerging drug brands are the runners – children as young as 11-12 years old who are supplying the drugs to the buyers.
Police say pushers known as “olders” – in their late teens and early 20s – give “youngers” (early teens) and “tinies,” (under-13s) drugs to sell or to keep safe. This drug culture inevitably finds its way into schools – urban and rural – where pupils as young as 11 are taking drugs themselves and supplying to other pupils. The Department of Education recorded 7,910 pupils were suspended from schools in 2012 for drug offences – and the problem is ballooning every year.
Along with an explosion of criminal activity, abuse, violence and drug use among children and young people, there’s also a concomitant upsurge in mental health problems among youngsters – particularly young boys. This year alone a quarter of a million children have contacted the NHS regarding a mental health issue, 11,000 of these were by children aged 11. Problems highlighted have included depression, eating disorders, self harm and drug use. These are not all connected, but many are.
So what can be done?
My organisation Crying Sons Ltd puts a lot of focus on education and prevention. We go into schools and colleges to talk to young people about depression, drugs, mental health, gangs and abuse relationships. These issue are invariable interlinked in my experience. I have recently started working closely with other organisations such as Shared Vision, with its Voice of the Child (#VOC) campaign, and Chickenshed, the theatre troupe eager to highlight the problems of youth gangs, drugs and mental health problems.
Using a combination of online discussions via social media and also face-to-face visits in schools and colleges, we’re all taking the #VOC campaign across the country to give children and young adults a platform to talk about their problems and concerns to their peers, teachers and child protection professionals.
Everyone needs to help these youngsters – to help them live normal, decent lives away from the threats of violence, abuse, drugs and crime.
Together we can make a difference. But until prevention methods are implemented in schools and in the family, young boys like Leigh will continue to be exploited by older people and the nightmarish cycle of violence, drug taking and child exploitation will continue to mushroom rather than diminish.
Gwenton Sloley was talking to Andrew Chilvers