As gang violence rises again, drug legislation is screaming out for reform | Deborah Orr

Murder rates among UK teenagers dropped sharply a few years ago, but lately have started to spike again. There can be no doubt that the illegal drugs trade fuels gang violence – and that sensible reform could save lives. Now is the time

After the appalling killing of Rhys Jones in Liverpool in 2007, there was a huge upsurge in concern about gangs in Britain. That was hardly surprising. An 11-year-old child playing on his bike had been shot in the back, entirely capriciously, by 16-year-old Sean Mercer, a member of a gang called the Croxteth Crew. Mercer is serving life for murder, and a number of other gang members were convicted of assisting an offender.

Jones’s death had the dark distinction of being the most shockingly arbitrary in a long spate of incidents of outrageous street violence and killing by and of young people. In the year that Jones died, no fewer than 28 teenagers were murdered in London alone. The next year, it was 29, including my 18-year-old neighbour, Freddy Moody, who was stabbed to death outside my home in south London.

Then, for some years, the news was good. Those awful figures began to fall. In 2012, eight teenagers were murdered. Eight too many, but still. It was a huge improvement in quite a short space of time. What’s more, you could sense greater calm on the streets. The crunch of shattered car windows was less prevalent. Casual drug-dealing stopped being a ubiquitous sight. You got out of the habit of being worried sick every time your own kids when out.

It was easy to assume that the worst of the carnage was over, in a combination of good police work by the specialist Trident team, improved community outreach and, one blithely hoped, simple realisation that violence and nihilism were bad companions in life. But of late the number has been creeping up again, and gangs are once more becoming a concern. Last year saw 19 teenage murders in the capital, 15 by stabbing. Convictions for knife crime and knife possession are also on the rise. Those years of respite are starting to look like a false dawn.

Gangs have simply changed, and not for the better. A grim Home Office report confirms that gang activity did indeed move off the streets. But this doesn’t seem to have been in a rejection of gang values. Members had just become more careful. They didn’t want the publicity that such extremes of random, blatant criminality brought. That may be good news for the innocent bystander. But there’s no other good news.

On the contrary, gangs have become more purposeful, and more deeply involved in organised drug crime. London dominates, recruiting vulnerable people who can be bound into the culture, isolated from others, with ease. Young women and girls are increasingly used to move drugs to other cities. The girls are exposed to sexual violence and abuse as well, which isolates them further. The report includes testimony from girls who consider it “normal” to be “cornered” into having sex with five or more gang members. They don’t even know that this is multiple rape. Girls are also used to look after firearms or as bait to lure rival gang members into attacks.

It’s safe to assume that some of the teenage boys whose violence is becoming so visible probably became involved with gangs and their activities when they were very young. The report says it is extreme but not unknown for nine-year-olds to be drawn in, and that generally the age of those becoming involved is getting younger. That superficial calm hid darkening depths, and it’s certain that some people in their mid to late teens will have been embroiled in a range of organised criminal activities for a good chunk of their lives.

It’s reasonable to assume that austerity has increased the handy supply of young people who are vulnerable. Quite how much long-term expense will be generated by making short-term savings on social interventions can only be guessed at. The Home Office has a six-point plan for tackling the situation, which includes offering greater protection to vulnerable children in care homes and pupil referral units, who can be lured into drug dealing with the promise of a new pair of trainers.

But surely, sooner or later, Britain is going to have to join much of the rest of the world in asking how long a market as lucrative as dealing in drugs can be left in the hands of criminals. At the moment these people are being given – on a plate – the means to make money and the motivation to involve as many vulnerable children as they can in doing their dirty work. It’s like something out of Oliver Twist.

Recreational drugs have long been seen as a moral problem, caused by their users. If only everyone would stop buying drugs, then the problem would vanish. But the problem isn’t vanishing. The problem is creating new, horrific problems for children who have plenty of problems already. I’d be curious to know how many girls are raped in the cause of ensuring that the legions of middle-aged taxpayers who like a joint while they watch Netflix remain unlikely-to-be-caught criminals. And the global situation makes that in Britain look puny.

It’s not hard to understand why politicians tend to steer clear of the subject of legalisation. The more entrenched this trade becomes, the more difficult it will be for it to be wrested away from those who currently benefit from it. Gangs won’t give up their income streams without a fight. Legalise weed and they’ll sell more coke. Legalise coke and they’ll sell more crack. They’ll always be able to sell cheaper, and to younger people, than a taxed and regulated market could or should.

But at the moment the government’s only response is to keep on making illegal markets bigger, broader and harder to police, as it did last year with the Psychoactive Substances Bill. Surely it’s time to make a start on the task of making the recreational drugs market smaller, narrower and easier to police instead?


Deborah Orr

The GuardianTramp

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