Drug turf wars are not driving street killings involving young people in London, contradicting the narrative of the Home Office, police chiefs, senior government ministers and the media, according to researchers and experts who spoke to VICE World News.
A study for London mayor Sadiq Khan’s Violence Reduction Unit focusing on the circumstances of a sample of 50 London homicides found that of those killings involving people aged 5 to 24, drugs were rarely a factor. Analysing cases where 38 young people were either prime suspects or victims of homicide, it found just two of them may have been driven by drugs.
“Of the 14 cases we looked at where the victim was aged 5-24 years old, there weren’t any where we recorded drugs as a contributing factor,” said Lucy Makinson, one of the researchers on the project. She said of 24 cases where the primary homicide suspect was aged 5-24, drugs were a factor in 2 of them. In 6 of the cases the victim or suspect was likely to have taken drugs beforehand, but the researchers concluded this was not a driver of the killings.
Despite wafer-thin evidence linking London’s rise in youth homicides with drugs, the messaging from Scotland Yard and senior politicians has been that if only people stopped smoking weed or snorting cocaine at the weekend, this bloodshed would end. Analysis has shown that the main drivers of youth homicides are not drugs, but instead a mix of state negligence, tit-for-tat shaming and toxic online gang culture.
The findings contradict one of the main planks of evidence the UK Home Office is using to justify controversial new plans to target recreational drug users by forcing those caught more than once with weed or other substances to do drug tests and hand over their passports. The proposals, outlined in a white paper due to be discussed in parliament next year, were heavily criticised by drug experts on Monday for being draconian, unworkable and counter productive.
In the document, the Home Office justifies its tough stance on “individuals who choose to use drugs casually” who “are sheltered from or wilfully ignore the human cost of the drugs trade which is immediately around them” by claiming that “50 percent of all homicides are thought to be drug related”.
The Home Office’s definition of “drug-related” homicide “is so broad as to be meaningless”, according to criminal justice expert Richard Garside. Far from this statistic covering killings relating to drug turf wars, which is what most people think a “drug related homicide” is, it includes homicide cases where a victim or a suspect may have once used or been caught selling drugs in the past, been found with a bag of weed or some ecstasy in their pocket or even thought by a witness to be smelling of weed. This accounts for the disparity between the Home Office research and that carried out for the mayor of London.
The study, conducted by social research firm the Behavioural Insights Team, was commissioned in the wake of a spate of homicides involving young people on London’s streets. Last year saw 30 teenagers killed in the capital, the highest number on record.
This year so far 13 teenagers have been killed in London and at least 40 teenagers either charged with or convicted of homicide. Most recently Charlie Bartolo and Kearne Solanke, both 16, were stabbed to death in south east London in November. Three teenagers, aged 15, 16 and 18 have been charged with the boys’ murders.
Last week teenager Carlton Tanueh was jailed at Southwark Crown Court for a minimum of 26 years for the murder of Tyler Hurley, 16, in east London in March. Tanueh was 18 when he used a large zombie knife to stab his victim in reprisal for being mocked in a music video his victim had posted online two weeks before.
But killers are not always found quickly. Earlier this month police issued a fresh appeal for witnesses following the stabbing of 15-year-old Deshaun Tuitt in a park in north London in August. A spokesperson for Deshaun’s family said: “No parent should have to experience the feeling of police knocking on their front door to tell them their child has been fatally wounded.” They urged parents to speak to their children about carrying knives and warned youngsters that social media glamorises violence and knives.
“The dark influence of, and competition between, illicit drug-dealers shouldn’t be ignored,” said Ciaran Thapar, a youth worker in south London and author of Cut Short: Youth Violence, Loss and Hope in the City. “But repeatedly blaming these ‘folk devils’ for serious youth violence is a distraction. The police are failing to sustain trust in communities where violence is prevalent and therefore protect young people.”
The Home Office is also trying to convince the public that recreational drug use is linked to children exploited on “county lines” drug networks, even though this drug market is almost solely about providing crack cocaine and heroin to long term addicted, and often homeless and jobless, people. The authorities have already tried convincing drug users to lay off cocaine due to the horrific effect the drug’s prohibition is having on people in Latin America, but this has not worked. So instead the tactic has moved to linking drug use to exploitation and murder in the UK, even if these links have been exaggerated.
“Since 2010, the government has been more interested in turning London and the UK into a haven for the wealthy than solving societal problems like the cost-of-living, housing, public service and mental health crises,” said Thapar. “These authorities need an American-style war-on-drugs to convince the public they’re fighting a good fight. But, at root, violence happens when mounting shame, intergenerational trauma and rising inequality converge in a moment of chaos. Any attempt to argue in other directions is disingenuous and causes more harm than good.”
The research found drugs were more much more likely to be a factor in homicides involving people aged over 25. The analysis into homicides involving young people was carried out for VICE World News by study authors after their initial report was published last month. It found the biggest factor in homicides involving victims and suspects aged under 25 was involvement with gangs and social media. Very few of the killings driven by gang involvement or social media also involved a drugs element.
Rising homicides carried out by and against young people, often using hunting knives, machetes and guns, is also a trend that is being seen across the UK. Most notably the stabbing to death in Liverpool last November of 12 year old schoolgirl Ava White by a boy when he was aged 14, who this year was jailed for her murder.
Dinah Senior, a consultant in youth violence who has worked in prisons with dozens of teenagers serving life sentences for gang-related homicide, said while homicides involving older gang members are more about power and money, those involving teenagers are more systemic. “If you are looking at the lower rankings, what we're seeing at the moment with the youngers it's much more about poverty and deprivation. The problem is intergenerational, so it's an increasingly dangerous blend of inherited behaviour and trauma.”