Victims of the Drug Supply Epidemic – A Special Report

Laura White
Laura White

Two weeks ago, Devon was once again rocked by the drugs related death of a teenager. 15 year old Hannah Bragg died after taking a substance in Tavistock, and last weekend on July 6th, Shakira Pellow from Cornwall was pronounced dead, again after taking an unknown substance.

Unsubstantiated reports have been heard that drugs are becoming an uncontrollable problem in some of Devon’s schools, with dealers actually entering school premises.

The spiderweb of dealers and pushers appears to be catching more and more young people in its trap, and one frightening example of this is a gang network known as County Lines, so called because drug deals are conducted using a phone number, which is controlled by a ‘hub’ outside the area in which the deals take place. High ranking gang members in London, Manchester, Birmingham and other central areas receive the phone call, then relay the order to a local or placed dealer in rural areas.

Highly organised, these gangs ‘recruit’ vulnerable people; those with addictions, children, those with mental health difficulties and those who come from deprived backgrounds. They seduce their ‘victims’ with promises of wealth and material gain, alongside greater respect. The benefit of using such people is that the gangs can use drugs as leverage and generally those who are recruited have very few friends or family members to look out for them. To the gangs, these ‘runners’ are disposable.

The Children’s Commissioner states that at least 46,000 children in England are involved in gang activity. As part of the County Lines network, young people are put on a train from the hub and can spend weeks at a time in rural locations, selling drugs from cuckooed houses, hotel rooms or rented caravans.

They stay there until their supply runs out, then return to the hub. Young people travel to different areas of the country where they’re unknown to the police and can therefore operate undetected.
These young people can be as young as 10. This is known as ‘Going Country’ or ‘OT’ – out there.

Some of these recruits or other buyers are forced to allow the locally placed dealers to use their homes as a base from which the drugs are stored and sold but these premises are not used for long periods of time and are not generally used by dealers known to the police. This is known as ‘cuckooing’, and once the dealers are inside the property, threats of violence are used to keep the rightful occupier compliant.

It appears that a rise in violent crime is a factor in what alerted police to the widespread network; the frequent use of terrible violence is an attribute of County Lines. A key finding in a National Briefing report by the National Crime Agency states ‘County Lines groups impose high levels of violence, including the prevalent use of weapons and firearms to intimidate and control members of the group and associated victims.’

It was this that sparked Operation Hazel, carried out by Avon and Somerset Police in 2016. Weston-Super-Mare saw 13 stabbings between January and June 2014 – something unheard of in the past. 9 months of preparation led to a sting operation in 2016 which targeted 15 homes. 32 dealers were caught and 40 sentenced.

They then extended their operation into Yeovil where after arresting dealers from one ‘line’ they managed to track down a high-ranking member, Raphael Castillo, from London. After his arrest they confiscated designer shoes, clothes and jewellery from makers such as Rolex, Cartier, Versace and Louis Vuitton. After their operation in Yeovil, Operation Hazel resulted in 71 dealers being sentenced and 15 lines disrupted.

Police in Wiltshire have been employing the tactic of confiscating designer trainers from dealers in their area as a method of ‘teaching them a lesson.’ DC George Booth said: “Being arrested doesn’t seem to have any effect on them. These trainers and designer clothes can be seen as a status symbol and so losing that is pretty difficult for them to deal with.”

People from deprived backgrounds often feel that they are looked down upon and so use their clothes and jewellery as signs of status – the more expensive their ware, the more respect they have from their peers and other gang members. One single line can make as much as £5,000 per day; runners who see their ‘bosses’ kitted out with £500 trainers, Rolex watches and money to spend in the bars are seduced by the lifestyle and see that their lives could be enriched beyond imagining just by doing a little running.

One County Lines gang member was interviewed anonymously and explained that after being expelled from school, he had no prospects and couldn’t get any help from the government. On the brink of homelessness, he approached an ‘elder’ and asked for work.

He now runs his own line and has everything he could ask for. He can now make up to £36,000 per kilo of Heroin or crack cocaine, breaking it up into ‘pebs’ that he hands to the ‘young G’, younger gang members, who hide the drugs in small stashes inside their bodies. The drugs are carried this way, in small quantities, so that if a runner gets caught, the loss is minimal.

Talking about the violent side of his world, he said: “We won’t send the youngsters up there empty handed, we won’t go up there empty handed. We have things on us that will protect us. We are always strapped (carrying a gun).”

The rich lifestyle may be irresistible to these vulnerable people, but the violence that seems to accompany this gangland way of living is something from our worst nightmares. In the report from the National Crime Agency, which surveyed every police force in England and Wales, it was recorded that 85% of forces said individuals linked with County Lines were also carrying knives and 74% of forces reported them carrying guns.

It said: ‘Taxing is a newly-reported term which describes the infliction of violence in order to obtain control i.e. the marking or injuring of a gang member who has done wrong…A male’s hand was severed and both legs broken…The victim is believed to be part of a County Lines network with the offenders being a local drug line. It’s suggested to be a punishment attack by the persons the victim was running drugs for, for having used drugs/spent proceeds himself.’

Sexual violence was referenced by 21% of forces although it’s likely that the actual number of gang related sexual offences is much higher. There were numerous mentions of gang members offering their girlfriends up to other members for their ‘gratification’ and one force reported that the girlfriend of one member was gang raped; the incident was filmed, and the film subsequently used to intimidate and humiliate the male member.

In February last year, three members of a County Lines Somalian gang known as the Chyna Crew made a visit to Exeter. On February 8th, police were called to an address in Stoke Hill after gunshots were heard. Upon arrival, they found no casualties and one lone woman who was annoyed to have been woken up.

On February 23rd, a 28 year old woman reported being raped by three men in Ashmore Court after they had spotted her running for a rival gang. She was made to lick the bottom of her shoe, had liquid thrown over her and was threatened with being set on fire and being stabbed. When she reported the attack, she also mentioned that she had overheard the men on the phone looking for another man – Joseph Kelly. Kelly was being accused by the Chyna Gang of having been involved with the robbery of a courier earlier that day. Kelly turned up badly beaten and stabbed, having been found for the gang by the sleepy woman in Stoke Hill.

On February 27th a car was stopped in Cardiff. Two of the men, a large knife and a phone were inside. The third man was arrested six days later in Holyhead where he looked set to be bound for the Middle East.

These ‘men’ were 18, 19 and 20 – just teenagers, all from Birmingham. They were sentenced to a total of 61 years for a range of offences including stabbing, kidnap, false imprisonment and rape.
But Devon and Cornwall police have recently said that this problem isn’t going away.

Devon and Cornwall Police’s County Lines lead, Det Supt Antony Hart, said: “This week we are launching our County Lines campaign and as part of our ongoing commitment in tackling this nationwide phenomenon, we are now appealing to the public to spot the signs within their communities.

‘County Lines gangs will often target children and young people, women and vulnerable adults to deliver drugs and money between locations.”

The police, the National Crime Agency and the youth service all recognise that these vulnerable people are often labelled as criminals themselves and are therefore less likely to be heard or given the support they need to break the cycle of drugs and crime. One man from Yeovil explained that although he couldn’t deny what he’d done, it was done because his girlfriend was pregnant, and he just wanted to give his child the best start in life, make a little money while he could.

DS Hart continued: “Any address that has previously been used is entered onto a database and then visited by neighbourhood teams. This relies on good working relationships between local partners, housing providers and tenants. This process also provides opportunities for rehabilitation and rehousing to break the cycle of vulnerability and offending where relevant.

‘We recognise that County Lines drug supply is a problem that cannot be solved by the police alone. We will continue to work with our partner agencies and our communities to tackle the issue, sending a clear message to drug suppliers that they are not welcome in Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

‘An awful lot of work is put into disrupting criminal drug supply networks and safeguarding those who are vulnerable.”

Confiscated Heroin and crack cocaine in Exeter alone totalled a value of £68,761 in 2016, a figure that rose exponentially to £345,000 in 2017. Although this shows the police being aware and proactive in the disruption of County Lines, this also shows that Devon is being targeted by these gangs and as one police officer said, “We take one down, there’s always a replacement.”

Currently the conservative estimate is that there are at least 720 ‘lines’ across England and Wales.

Second death in two weeks from drugs

By Ben Fox

A 14-year-old girl who died after taking an ‘unknown substance’ has been named as Shakira Pellow.

Shakira collapsed in a park in Cambourne, Cornwall, on the night of Friday 6th July and was rushed to hospital. The teenager was sadly pronounced dead around 12 hours later on Saturday morning.

Shakira Pellow’s death came less than 2 weeks after 15 year old Hannah Bragg died from taking drugs in Tavistock at the end of June.

An inquest has now been opened into Bragg’s death. The inquest noted that Hannah had been found unwell in the Tavistock area of Devon. She was then taken to hospital “where she sadly died’.

The opening statement document from the hearing notes: “Extensive testing is being undertaken to establish the cause of death.

‘There are no suspicious circumstances’

At present her death has been documented as ‘undetermined’ although police have indicated she may have suffered a severe reaction to a consumed substance, namely MDMA, often known as Ecstasy.

A 14-year-old boy, also from the Tavistock area, was also taken to Derriford Hospital and was in a stable condition before being released from hospital.

Police have arrested three people, including two teenage boys, following Hannah’s death.

Det Insp Adrian Hawkins said: “Our investigation continues and detectives from around the force have made a number of arrests. A 20-year-old man from Tavistock was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to supply a controlled substance of Class A, a 14-year-old boy was arrested on suspicion of supplying a controlled drug of Class A and a 15-year-old boy from Tavistock was arrested on suspicion of supplying a controlled drug of Class A and possession of a controlled drug of Class B.

‘All three people were released under investigation pending further enquiries.”

Following the call to the emergency services for Shakira Pellow, two 15-year-old girls and a 15-year-old boy were also taken to hospital. One of the girls is in a serious condition.

Shakira’s mum, Rita Hole, shared a picture of her young daughter on Facebook with the caption: “Baby, mummy and your sisters love you so much. Please come home my baby.”

All four teenagers are believed to have taken the same unknown substance, which has been seized by police and will be subject to further examination. Two other teenage boys, a 17-year-old and a 15-year-old, have been arrested on suspicion of drug offences.
The families of all the children have been informed and are being supported by officers and medical staff.

Detective Superintendent Roy Linden said: “This is a truly tragic incident in which a young girl has lost her life. Our thoughts are with her family and friends at this terribly difficult time.

‘It is believed that all four teenagers were initially hanging around a scrapyard near Tesco, before heading back to the home of one of the teenagers.

‘All four have then gone on to Pengegon Park and an area known as ‘The Courts’, which is a well-known area for teenagers to gather. A short time later the 14-year-old girl collapsed and an ambulance was called.

‘At this time we would like to speak to anyone who has information in connection with this incident, including anyone who was in the area on Friday evening.

‘We want to warn children and young people of the dangers surrounding taking drugs. Safeguarding young people is a priority and we ask parents and carers to speak to their children about the risks associated with taking drugs. This is a tragic incident and we do not wish for anyone else in our community to have to go through the same ordeal.”

Ecstasy: Some facts you need to know

By Ben Fox

What is ecstasy?

Ecstasy (also known by its chemical name MDMA) is often seen as the original designer drug because of its high profile links to dance music culture in the late 80s and early 90s.

Clubbers took ecstasy to feel energised, happy, to stay awake and to dance for hours. The effects take about half an hour to kick in and tend to last between 3 to 6 hours, followed by a gradual comedown.

The main effects and risks of ecstasy include:

  • An energy buzz that makes people feel alert, alive, in tune with their surroundings, and with sounds and colours often experienced as more intense.
  • Users often develop temporary feelings of love and affection for the people they’re with and for the strangers around them.
  • Short-term risks of ecstasy can include feeling anxious or getting panic attacks, and developing confused episodes, paranoia or even psychosis.
  • Lots of people feel really chatty on Ecstasy (although these chats don’t always make sense to people who aren’t intoxicated!).
  • Physical side effects can include dilated pupils, a tingling feeling, tightening of the jaw muscles, raised body temperature and the heart beating faster.

Sometimes, there is no MDMA at all. Sometimes, it contains other drugs, like PMA, which can be fatal. Regardless of what it looks like and what it is called, you can’t be sure what’s in a pill or a powder and you can’t predict how you’ll react.

What is ecstasy cut with?

A big problem with Ecstasy pills is that they’re rarely pure. They can be cut with amphetamines (like speed), caffeine and other substances with some similar effects – because it’s cheaper to produce and can increase the dealer’s profits.

When Ecstasy has been cut with an alternative stimulant that is slower to kick in than MDMA, some users have then topped-up with another dose prematurely. They then find they suffer side-effects because they’ve then overdosed.

What does ecstasy look like?

Pure ecstasy is a powder made of white crystals. Ecstasy is usually sold on the street as tablets, although it’s getting more common to see it sold as powder and called by its chemical name, MDMA, or ‘crystal’.

Ecstasy pills come in all sorts of colours and some of them have designs or logos stamped into them. This can result in some ecstasy pills getting ‘nicknames’, for example some pills were called
Mitsubishi’s because they were stamped with a Mitsubishi logo.

Some dealers pass off new man-made drugs like PMA and 4-MTA and ‘legal highs’ as E’s.

How do people take ecstasy?

Ecstasy pills are usually swallowed – although some people do crush them up and smoke or snort them.

A recent study has suggested that some ecstasy pills may be marketed as being stronger than others and that increased strength may be reflected in a higher price.

MDMA powder can be ‘dabbed’ onto the gums or snorted.

People have been known to take another pill when they haven’t initially felt the expected ‘high’ from the first one, this is called ‘double dosing’. The danger then is that both Es kick in and
you’ve a double dose of effects (and risks!) to deal with.

What are the health risks of ecstasy?

  • Ecstasy affects the body’s temperature control. Dancing for long periods in a hot atmosphere, like a club, increases the chances of overheating and dehydration. Users should take regular breaks from the dance floor to cool down and watch out for any mates who are on it – they mightn’t realise they’re in danger of overheating or getting dehydrated.
  • However, drinking too much can also be dangerous. Ecstasy can cause the body to release a hormone which stops it making urine. Drink too quickly and it affects your body’s salt balance, which can be as deadly as not drinking enough water. Users should sip no more than a pint of water or non-alcoholic drink every hour.
  • Anyone with a heart condition, blood pressure problems, epilepsy or asthma can have a very dangerous reaction to the drug.
  • Using Ecstasy has been linked to liver, kidney and heart problems. Some users report getting colds and sore throats more often, which may be partly caused by staying awake for 24 hours, which can itself affect your immune system.
  • Evidence suggests long-term users can suffer memory problems and may develop depression and anxiety.
  • There’s no way of telling what’s in ecstasy until you’ve swallowed it. There may be negative side effects from other drugs and ingredients added to the E.
  • The comedown from ecstasy can make people feel lethargic and depressed.

There have been many deaths involving Ecstasy. Between 1996 and 2014 in England & Wales there were 670 deaths in which ecstasy/MDMA was recorded on the death certificate.

What we should be looking for

By Ben Fox

Police across the country have asked the public to be aware of what to look for in their communities to help fight the ever-expanding network of drug dealers.

Devon and Cornwall Police have said: ‘The gangs are likely to exploit children and vulnerable adults in order to move and store drugs and money.

‘To do this they will often use coercion, intimidation, violence and weapons.

‘The deal line is often treated as a ‘brand’ for the gangs who generally focus on supplying Class A drugs like heroin or crack cocaine.

‘An operating base is an essential feature of county lines gangs. They will regularly exploit vulnerable people, by building up a debt or using threats and violence in order to take over a person’s home. This practice is commonly referred to as ‘cuckooing.’

What should you look out for?

  • A child or young person going missing from school or home or significant changes in emotional well-being?
  • A person meeting unfamiliar adults or a change to their behaviour
  • The use of drugs and alcohol
  • Acquiring money or expensive gifts they can’t account for
  • Lone children from outside of the area
  • Individuals with multiple mobile phones or tablets or ‘SIM cards’
  • Young people with more money, expensive clothing, or accessories than they can account for
  • Unknown or suspicious looking characters coming and going from a neighbour’s house
  • Relationships with controlling or older individuals or associated with gangs
  • Suspicion of self-harm, physical assault or unexplained injuries

Police and the Youth Service are asking that the public remain vigilant and contact them if there are any suspicions.

County Lines

Around 75 young people in the London Borough of Islington are thought to be involved in the lucrative drugs trade in a practice known in police circles as ‘running county lines.’

This involves London gangs selling drugs to towns in Devon and Cornwall and other parts of the country using a single telephone number dealers can ring to make their drug orders.

One of the Islington gangs ‘Easy Cash’ also known as ‘EC1’ is most involved in the burgeoning branch of the drugs trade.
Detective Inspector Will Lexton-Jones who heads Islington Police’s Gangs Unit, said: “Easy Cash is more of an organised criminal unit with a hierarchy and a strategy, it’s essentially a business.

‘They are not as violent as some other gangs. Being involved in violence is seen as a business risk.” DI Lexton-Jones said the Metropolitan Police is moving towards a ‘less reactive and more proactive’ way of working, focusing on diverting youngsters away from the drugs trade.

Joe Caluori a schools and young people’s chief has urged the Met Police to target the older organisers of the drug network using anti-slavery legislation rather than just arresting young people.

He said: “We see young people getting arrested in other parts of the country, police need to target those gang-masters, they are enslaving boys, creating debt, organising for people to be robbed.
We need national and regional resources and we need to have a safeguarding policy. We have to regard these young people as victims, not as ‘Soldiers’.”

Drop in those convicted on cannabis possession

By Ben Fox

Convictions for cannabis possession in Devon and Cornwall have plummeted significantly as calls for legalisation grow louder.

In 2012, some 342 people were found guilty of cannabis possession in court, Ministry of Justice figures have revealed.

But by last year the tally had dwindled by 200 to just 142, a drop of just under 60 per cent. And experts reckon the rapid fall is down to a decline in stop and search across England and Wales.

Niamh Eastwood, executive director of drug legislation charity Release, insisted: “The fall in the number of prosecutions for drug possession offences, and in particular cannabis possession, has largely been a result of the significant decrease in the use of stop and search.” Of those successfully prosecuted by Devon and Cornwall Police, 103 were given a fine or discharge while three received prison sentences.

Cannabis possession charges made up 22 per cent of the total drugs possession offences pursued by two counties police through the courts. It is regarded as the most commonly used drug in the UK.

“This trend is welcomed as low-level possession offences should not be a priority for police,” Ms Eastwood argued. That being said over half of all stop and searches still focus on this type of activity, with huge disparities in how drugs are policed across the country.

Some police forces such as Durham, and Avon and Somerset are taking a more pragmatic approach and diverting people away from the criminal justice system for possession offences.”

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