Children as young as 11 have been arrested in London for dealing drugs with thousands more prosecuted for possession over the past eight years.
Figures obtained by Freedom of Information requests submitted to the Metropolitan Police revealed there were more than 7,000 arrests for drug offences involving children under 16 between 2014 and 2022, with more than 8,000 offences recorded.
According to one outreach worker for the St Giles Trust, a charity supporting individuals impacted by exploitation, the figures could increase, with the cost-of-living crisis likely to see a surge in the number of children groomed.
Chante McKoy said: “While the figures are high, there’s so much more going on which I think can be easily missed, and many children end up in different places of the country slipping through the net.
“The cost-of-living crisis will certainly see more young people targeted, especially more vulnerable kids who may struggle at school and feel as though there’s nothing for them in the future.
“Some of them will get into this to help their parents financially and put food on the table for their siblings because they feel responsible to pay, when really this is not the case.
“It’s very difficult for a young person to escape from gangs, especially if they get arrested, because they will have built up a drug debt which means they’ve lost the drugs or the money.
“Gangs are targeting children on social media platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat, but they’re also targeting them when they’re travelling to school, and look to see if there are young people who don’t have the latest fashion.
“These dealers almost resemble a loan shark, and it’s hard because these are much older people frightening young people with threats that they know where a young person lives, so we’ve found it’s better to relocate them to a new area where they’ll be safe.
“I worked with one young person who used to swallow drugs and when he got arrested he passed more than 40 wraps of Class A drugs which was such a big debt that we had to relocate him for his safety.”
The figures show that out of the 7,278 arrests made between 2014 and 2022, 1,118 were for offences involving Class A drugs, with 723 arrests made for intent to supply and 392 for possession of a controlled substance.
Meanwhile, 4,986 arrests involving children under 16 have been made for possession of Class B drugs since 2014, with 1,288 offences of intent to supply and 51 cases of drug production.
More than two thirds of the total arrests, 5,307, were related to possession alone, with 1,244 for intent to supply and 543 arrests for both supply and possession.
It follows findings from the Ministry of Justice which revealed young people across England and Wales have been cautioned or convicted for drug offences nearly 48,000 times since 2014-22.
The figures show around 4,000 offences took place during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, despite a fall in crime rates among young people and adults credited to national lockdowns and other measures.
Policy Manager at The Children’s Society, Iryna Pona, said: “These figures are shocking, but are very much the tip of the iceberg. Young victims of exploitation are not always identified by police and other professionals, and 16-17-year-old children are also often exploited.
“Grooming may involve promises of friendship and status, offers of food, cash and gifts, and we are really worried that because of the cost of living crisis and so many family budgets being stretched, criminals will try to take advantage of children’s worries about money.
“Perpetrators cynically manipulate and threaten children into doing their dirty work so they can avoid detection. Any child in any community can be at risk, including young people they call ‘clean skins’, who haven’t been in trouble before and are seen as less likely to arouse suspicion.”
The Commission on Young Lives has called for urgent action and investment to fight against what it described as “the national threat to our country’s prosperity and security” and said the systems designed to keep young people safe are not fit for purpose.
In a new report, the Commission proposes a new Sure Start Plus for Teenagers as part of a package of recommendations to tackle deep-rooted issues in children’s social care, mental health and criminal justice systems.
It warned that the failure of such systems to protect some of the most vulnerable children is allowing criminals to groom thousands of young people in England into county lines and other criminal activities.
A spokesperson for the Mayor of London, said: “Record investment from City Hall in the Met and London’s Violence Reduction Unit has meant violence in the capital has reduced since 2016, with knife crime, gun crime, burglary and teenage homicides all falling.
“But Sadiq remains deeply concerned that the cost of living crisis could jeopardise the progress that has been made and put more children at risk of violence and exploitation by criminal drug gangs.
“That’s why the Mayor is investing record amounts in crime prevention, which is helping to keep young Londoners in education and provides support and activities after school.”
The Metropolitan Police has been approached for comment.