Watch Rachel Bullock's report
With children as young as 13 seen selling drugs on the streets of Teesside, a project is offering an alternative to young people at risk of falling into the trade.
Paul Harris and Davey Leopard, who have lived in Middlesbrough’s Grove Hill estate their whole lives, were inspired to launch the YouCan project after seeing young people selling and taking cocaine.
Mr Harris said: “There's plenty of drugs in the area, always has been, I don't think it'll ever change. The kids here, I don't want to see them go down that path. They've got to understand, we're telling them because we care.”
Cleveland Police has the third highest rate of drug offences in the country, at 4.1 per 1,000 people, with only Merseyside and Metropolitan Police having higher rates.
YouCan was set up with the aim of offering children and young people an alternative to the drug trade that blights so many lives. Everyone is welcome, but the rules are strict; respect each other and yourself.
It offers football, computer games and days out for younger children. Older children and teens are supported with guidance into jobs, with a number being helped onto local apprenticeships.
Mr Leopard said: "We're just trying to provide a better option, something for everybody to do. It does take time and effort and there's no money in it, it's just for the love of everyone, really"
Mr Harris, who was inspired by his own experience of being involved in drugs, says he fears for the future of children getting caught up in it.
“The 13 and 14-year-olds now, the majority of them won’t see another 20 years,” he said. “Definitely not. I can honestly say that.”
He added: “It’s common sense that they want to sell drugs because they want to have nice clothes but they’re rushing because they’re seeing the money.
"They’re not seeing where it will take them – sitting in their bedroom on their own thinking ‘no, what have I done? Where am I going to hide it? Have I got the right money?’”
He added: “I’m not going to point my finger at anyone, I’m only going to point the finger at myself and the way I’ve lived my life. I don’t want to see these kids go down that path – all the drug dealing, drug taking.
“They’re coming here and I’m basically telling them ‘listen, don’t follow the path what I’ve taken. Take a different path.”
ITV Tyne Tees has been investigating the impact of drugs on Teesside.
One woman, who lived near a drugs house until it was closed by Cleveland Police, said she had seen children as young as 12 armed with machetes and guns.
She said: “It was breaking my heart. They used to have two big great cars come in the back, posh cars.
"The men used to deliver the drugs and dish them out to the kids and the kids would go out and deliver them."
Another man, who spoke to ITV on the condition he would remain anonymous, has had to move to a different part of the country to escape the gangs.
He said: "I put myself in prison. I took a drugs charge for the drug dealer because I knew I was going to lose my legs. I knew there was a way out there. I knew for a fact that I was going to die."
He added: "It's a soldier's ladder, the same as in the army. So if someone below them pinches stuff, you've got to go and give them a good hiding. Drug dealers sitting around in their houses, they just send the runners out.
"The kids have the top bikes, bracelets hanging off and Rolex watches, trainers, tracksuits, the full lot.
"And now the runners, the young ones, are ten a penny."
Responding to ITV's investigation, Assistant Chief Constable of Cleveland Police Richard Baker said: "It's shocking when you hear it in the language that you've used. Around 12 years old was carrying weapons. It is shocking and you know a lot of the work that we do with our partners is around early intervention and prevention.
"It's about working with schools. We have funding three projects to reduce drug deaths, to reduce drug use and also to reduce drug-related crime. Through that funding, we've managed to invest in a Barnardo's worker to try and divert those children away from gangs and drug dealing.
"We've seen the normal retail industry move from the High Street to online. It's no surprise we've seen very similar within the drugs market. Young people are utilising social media to market drugs, to sell drugs"
He added: "You see it on a daily basis, our officers see it, our communities see it but this is something the policing alone cannot and will not solve.
"There's a huge amount of socioeconomic issues that sits behind a lot of these problems, and that is slightly unique to Cleveland.
"We see really high levels of deprivation, low educational attainment. So we have to work with our statutory partners and our third sector partners to try and improve things"
A Home Office spokesperson added: “Through our County Lines Programme over 4,300 lines have been closed, 14,200 people arrested and 6,300 people referred for safeguarding since 2019 and we remain committed to funding victim support services to help those affected.
“We are also giving the police the resources they need to tackle crime, and through our police recruitment campaign we have more police officers in England and Wales than ever before, with Cleveland Police having recruited 267 additional officers.”
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