By Andy Hirst

Two former prisoners say youngsters involved in drugs running have often been groomed by older drug dealers and should be treated more like victims than villains.

Both Reece McLaren and Mark Johnson have served time in jail and have given a graphic insight into how they say youngsters are ‘radicalised’ into crime by older criminals.

The two Huddersfield men are turning their lives around and have come up with a raft of ideas to try to combat the growing menace of so-called county lines drug dealing.

Reece, 26, of Scapegoat Hill, thinks there may be as many as 200 youngsters in our area involved in county lines drug dealing with many groomed into doing it. Nationwide, at least 27,000 children in England have been identified as members of county line gangs and the risk of children being exploited is increasing with referrals of county line victims up by 35% between 2019 and 2021. 

County lines drug trafficking happens when drugs are pushed into rural areas and smaller towns away from major cities and big towns by dealers targeting areas away from their home turf. Traffickers often recruit vulnerable children.

Reece said: “People just don’t speak about what’s going on for fear of intimidation, but what is happening to some of these children is terrible. They are being groomed by drug dealers tempting them with cash and expensive items such as trainers, designer clothes and mobile phones.

“They are made to feel that people who go out to work for a living are boring and that drugs is a far easier and more lucrative way to earn money. But violence is often involved and music such as drill reinforces the message that it’s normal to sell drugs, carry knives and, if necessary, stab people.”

He revealed that county lines gangs targeting other areas will track down addicts there and give them free drugs at first to get the new line going. The drug dealers already in those areas will fight to protect their trade so violence can quickly escalate.

Reece also said there is a sexual assault angle to county lines drug-dealing with older dealers showing and helping youngsters how to conceal drugs such as heroin inside their bodies.

Both Mark and Reece have been involved in football violence in the past and 40-year-old Mark, of Thurstonland, had links to right wing organisations which led him to get involved in violence and disorder. He finished his last jail term just before Christmas.

Reece, who has previously lived in Crosland Moor and Golcar, has been jailed four times, spending a total of five years inside. He has 26 convictions for 77 offences and the most serious involved firearms.

He said: “Prison has left me with post traumatic stress syndrome from what I’ve witnessed in there – the suicides, self-harm, people at the lowest point in their lives. I’ve seen some terrible things.”

He also met some hardened criminals inside and one tempted him out to Marbella.

Reece said: “I didn’t realise it at the time but he was grooming me with stories of the yachts, Bentleys and mansions and they were looking for younger lads to help them in their criminal enterprises. I discovered they were drug-running on a huge scale with links to drug cartels in Holland, Ireland and Morocco.

“It became clear they wanted me to help them set up a supply chain into the UK using contacts I’d made in prison, but I turned them down flat.

“If I’d said ‘yes’ and then changed my mind later then that would have been an issue.”

He discovered that the man who lured him to Marbella was later killed in Bulgaria during a drug deal that went wrong.

Reece realised that could easily happen to him so he turned his back on crime and tried to launch a career in boxing but that was cut short by the Covid pandemic. His son was born prematurely and was very ill at first which also spurred him on into changing his ways.

He has become an ambassador for a charity called Change Your Life Put Down Your Knife to try to persuade youngsters away from a gang life of violence and crime.

Mark has also made a big effort to change. His latest prison term was from a crime four years ago with sentencing delayed due to Covid, but he had already started an Open University degree in History and Politics and is now also doing a short course in politics at Oxford University.

The two have written to Prime Minister Boris Johnson urging him to put a Bill before Parliament saying that children involved in county lines drug-dealing be treated as victims, not criminals. This would give them chance to get help if they have been abused and to steer them away from crime.

Their letter states: “We are proposing that children who are forced into committing crime are seen as victims rather than perpetrators and a new approach is identified to rehabilitate the victims as an alternative to a charge, conviction or prison sentence. 

“Research has consistently shown that time spent in prison does not successfully reform and it can actually expose children to further criminal activity.”

For this to work they want the age of criminal responsibility raised from 10 to 15 in the UK line with the United Nations’ convention on children’s rights.

Reece added: “The poorest and most vulnerable children in society are often targeted by these gangs to sell their drugs on the ground in new areas. They are often forced to do this through fear and intimidation.”

The two men are now working with West Yorkshire Violence Reduction Unit, Kirklees Council and other organisations. The unit brings together specialists from health, police, local government, education, youth justice, prisons, probation, third sector and community organisations to tackle violent crime and its underlying causes.

Mark and Reece are also liaising with mental health charities with the aim of setting up a support group for parents whose children are involved in crime.

Mark said: “It has now dawned on us the horrendous stress we have put our parents through. Once you’re in prison the criminals who led you into crime don’t want to know anymore. The only people who visit you are your family.”

Another idea is to hold workshops in schools and community centres to try to steer children away from the lure of joining gangs in the first place.

A third is to hold a weapons amnesty in perhaps an empty shop in Huddersfield town centre. Reece says a similar amnesty in South Yorkshire recently worked very well.

* Written by ANDY HIRST who runs his own Yorkshire freelance journalism agency AH! PR ( specialising in press releases, blogging and copywriting. Copyright Andy Hirst.