Illicit drug markets and the exploitation and criminalisation of young people

Keir Irwin-Rogers
Tuesday, 8 October 2019

For the past five years, much of my work has focused on the harms associated with prohibitionist drug policies.

In short, my concern is that our current prohibitionist approach results in far too many young people being violently victimised and criminalised as a result of their involvement in illicit drug markets. 

In 2018 alone, 6,383 young people between the ages of 10 and 24 were cautioned or proceeded against in court for the production, supply and possession with intent to supply Class A, B and C drugs. While we lack sufficient data to make precise estimates of the amount of serious violence directly or indirectly linked to illicit drug markets, research suggests that street level drug dealing is playing a central role in the recent rise in knife crime. 

Based on a six-month period examining content uploaded by young people to five major social media platforms, supported by interviews and focus groups with young people and a range of adult professionals, I sought to address some key questions around young people’s involvement in illicit drug markets: for example, why do young people become involved in drug distribution, and to what extent is their involvement predicated on adults’ use of threats and coercion? 

Tracking the accounts of dozens of young people who self-identified as ‘gang involved’, I collated a database of hundreds of photos and videos uploaded to social media platforms in which the account users created content that displayed the fast money and the luxury consumer status symbols they had acquired through their involvement in drug distribution.

A number of high-profile commentators, including MP Ann Coffey, have sought to highlight the role of threats and physical violence in forcing young people to participate in illicit drug markets, particularly concerning the phenomenon of county lines. While the data I collected also revealed cases involving shocking levels of violence and physical coercion, in many cases the presence of violence and coercion was unnecessary.

Indeed, the idea that adults are primarily dependent on strong-arming young people into drug distribution was refuted not only by the content on social media, but by young people’s accounts in interviews and focus groups, which highlighted that the combination of status, respect, excitement and fast money associated with drug dealing was more than adequate in ensuring a constant flow of young people into street-level drug distribution. 

The narrative suggesting a pivotal role for threats and physical coercion is prone to underplaying a range of structural factors that create the conditions in which it is relatively easy for adults to attract young people into drug distribution, without needing to resort to intimidation and violence. 

For example, in London alone, there are over 700,000 children growing up in poverty. Alongside these high rates of child poverty, we have concerning rates of school exclusions: in 2016-17, 7,720 pupils were permanently excluded from mainstream schools, with an additional 381,865 who were subject to fixed-term exclusions. 

With rates of child poverty and educational exclusion at these levels (in addition to a range of other structural challenges that blight the lives of many children), it is naïve to think we can stem the continual stream of young people into illicit drug markets by cracking down on violent and coercive gang leaders. 

I often hear people arguing that another means of keeping young people away from drug dealing is to provide those involved, or ‘at-risk’, with wrap-around support – in fact, a few years ago I conducted research for a social business that was engaged directly in this line of work. Most of the time this work is incredibly resource-intensive and ultimately unsuccessful – youth workers will readily concede that the pull factors are just too great to contend with – but admittedly, sometimes a young person will be supported out of drug dealing and into a job or further education; of course, this is fantastic news for that particular young person.

We invariably ignore, however, the fact that the gap left by the young person we have just helped will almost immediately be filled by another – most likely one of the tens of thousands of young people growing up in poverty and excluded from mainstream education. In short, there is an ample supply of young people ready to become involved in street level drug distribution with only a small nudge needed from someone already involved. 

Although motivated by good intentions, these care and support tactics are fundamentally flawed from the outset. If I’m being cynical, however, they do provide a continual stream of funding for public and third sector organisations, which pays the salaries of those purportedly involved in solving the problem. Similarly, the police receive huge sums of money to supposedly tackle the drug trade. Yet, despite billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money being spent on suppression and enforcement in recent decades, the size of the illicit drugs market has continued to grow - and is projected to grow in future years.

Like it or not – and many people don’t – the only feasible way of preventing young people being drawn into street-level drug distribution – and consequently of reducing the criminalisation and violent victimisation of thousands of young people every year – is to legalise and regulate the drug markets. 

While a £5-6 billion illicit drug market continues to exist in the UK, neither an increase in the severity of criminal justice enforcement, nor enhanced levels of care and support, will prevent the flow of vulnerable young people into street level drug distribution. Pretending otherwise will prolong the suffering and misery of those embroiled in the toxic trap of illicit drug markets, vast inequalities, and a rampant culture of hyper-competitive consumer capitalism – a trap which I discuss in more detail in a forthcoming article in Critical Criminology

Keir Irwin-Rogers is a lecturer in criminology at The Open University. Keir is lead criminologist to the cross-party Youth Violence Commission, and his most recent research explores violence in young people’s lives and the harms associated with prohibitionist drug policies.