Middle class drug use is partly to blame as vulnerable youngsters across Bedfordshire continue to be hoodwinked into county lines drug dealing, say those on the front line.
Recreational drug taking in the county is fuelling a £50m market with serious consequences for some young people, a meeting heard.
“This is the criminal exploitation of children and vulnerable adults through the phenomenon known as county lines,” said Luton Borough Council’s youth offending service manager Dave Collins.
“It’s a tactic used by gangs and groups to facilitate the selling of drugs in other areas,” he told a meeting of the local authority’s scrutiny children’s services review group.
Conservative Icknield councillor Jeff Petts asked: “Is it true to say a good deal of the drug market is driven by the needs of the middle classes?”
Mr Collins agreed, saying Bedfordshire Police and the drug agencies in all three unitary authorities have calculated the county's drugs market in the region of £50m annually.
“Absolutely spot on,” he replied. “It’s driven by the recreational use at the weekend when people think they’re doing no harm.”
He described debt bonding where young people are given the task of taking drugs from one place to another.
“While on that journey they’re getting robbed of those drugs,” he said.
“They still owe the money for those drugs to the people they’re doing the job for.
“They will work for that gang or group of individuals until that debt is paid off.
“But what that young person doesn’t realise at the time is it’s actually his own gang that’s robbed him, so that’s debt bonding.”
The popular perception is of people street begging for money to buy drugs, Mr Collins explained.
“One person has to give £50 to a dealer every day. Probably at one time he had drugs worth £50 in that one day.
“But he doesn’t now. He might get £10 or £20 of drugs.
“But if he doesn’t give £50 to that dealer every day there’s the threat of violence, the threat of intimidation.
“Debt bonding comes in different forms,” added Mr Collins.
“Someone’s in a prison cell and takes drugs from the person in the next cell.
“That individual gets moved on to another prison and someone else moves into that prison cell.
“The debt is on the cell, not the person. It’s all about debt bonding and it’s all led by intimidation.
“Young people become indebted to groups and gangs and they’re forced into these types of labour and exploitation.
“If young people are given a choice, they’re not going to choose being on the streets, selling drugs, with a knife putting their life at risk every night.”
Asked if some drugs should be legalised, Mr Collins replied: “Human greed exists, so what do you legalise?
“If you legalise class B then you’re going to be taxing it, so there’ll still be a black market.
“Cigarettes are legal. But there’s still a black illegal market.
“I have to believe that if we lived in an area where our young people have opportunities, and are able to achieve their goals and their dreams, you would not have this on the level we see.”
Adding further perspective, Mr Collins said: “We are dealing with a small percentage of young people in Luton getting involved in this.
“The other 95-97 per cent of children are out there learning violin and engaging in creative things, and sometimes we don’t focus on that enough.”