by Dave Owen Leicestershire Live, posted 22 05 2021
Concerns have been raised after drugs disguised as treats were discovered
Drugs gangs operating in Leicestershire could be tempting children into the world of crime by lacing sweets with cannabis, police have warned.
Officers with Leicestershire Police and colleagues in neighbouring counties have raised concerns after drugs disguised as treats were seized in the region.
The force believes so-called 'County Lines' gangs are exploiting young and vulnerable people to get them to peddle their drugs across the country.
The East Midlands Special Operations Unit (EMSOU) is echoing warnings by health professionals over 'cannabis edibles', cannabis-based confectionary that can often contain potent levels of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) - the principal psychoactive component in the Class B drug.
Police are reminding the public to look out for signs of exploitation as part of their #LookCloser campaign.
The ingestion of THC can lead to loss of coordination or consciousness, hallucinations, nausea and vomiting, lethargy and heart problems.
Those in possession of any product containing the Class B drug also risk arrest and prosecution under the Misuse of Drugs Act.
The EMSOU’s Stuart Jones, who coordinates the police's regional response to County Lines, said concerns were two-fold.
"The use of sweets in drug dealing is by no means a new tactic, but we are now starting to see it being used in County Lines across the country, including in the East Midlands," he said.
"What we fear is that children are not only being targeted as a new market, but are also being enticed with seemingly legal confectionary as a means of recruiting them into their ranks, as 'clean skin' couriers and dealers who have no previous record and due to their age are more likely to go under the radar."
Mr Jones added: "The illicit manufacture of such sweets means production is unregulated and thus levels of potency can vary, not to mention there being a high chance other harmful substances mixed in.
"The fact that these sweets are also commonly supplied in packs means the potential for accidental over-dose is highly likely, particularly in young people unaware of the dangers.
“We need people to be aware of these products, which we have no doubt are finding their way into parks and possibly even around schools. Make sure your children are aware of the dangers and call us with any concerns.”
The EMSOU, Leicestershire Police and the four other East Midlands forces are teaming up with The Children’s Society and the British Transport Police (BTP) in the region to raise awareness around the County Lines methods and the signs to help identify and safeguard victims.
It follows a similar initiative last September last year, when public transport was limited under coronavirus pandemic restrictions.
Police are now repeating their plea to the public to #LookCloser at private hire vehicles – which gangs rely on to move their drugs and cash around the country – to spot children being exploited.
They said that pushbikes are also being used by local youngsters who have been coerced into moving drugs.
"These young couriers are usually hidden in plain sight," said an EMSOU spokesperson. "They can be children you know, who are showing signs of changed routines and behaviour."
They added: "They can be young people you see as you travel on the trains, buses or in taxis. They are at stations, taxi ranks and roadside services, often with older 'friends' or alone and appearing unsure of their surroundings."
The #LookCloser campaign was launched in the East Midlands in 2020 as a joint venture between the EMSOU, The Children’s Society and BTP, and has since been rolled out nationally.
James Simmonds-Read, National Programme Manager at The Children’s Society’s Prevention programme, said his team was providing Look Closer briefings to key organisations across the region in a bid to raise awareness of the issue.
He said spotting the signs of exploitation wasn’t just a matter for parents and professionals.
"While lockdown meant exploited children were often hidden from the view of professionals and the public, the easing of restrictions means there are now more opportunities for us all to spot the warning signs," he said.
"Predators have adapted their methods to continue to prey on children during the pandemic - taking advantage of young people’s isolation, worries about family finances and problems at home to groom them with cash, gifts, friendship and status."
Anyone who is worried about a child or vulnerable person is being urged to get in touch with police and share their concerns.
"Through our Look Closer campaign we are urging anyone who encounters children in their daily lives – from morning commuters and delivery drivers to hotel and shop staff – to report any concerns that a child might be being exploited," said Mr Simmonds-Read.
"Places like train stations, parks, shopping centres, banks and taxis, may all be used in the grooming and exploitation of children. The Internet is also a public space."
He added: "Be vigilant for signs of exploitation through gaming and social media, as there have been increased reports of online grooming under lockdown."
For more information visit the Children's Society website or follow its social media channels, along with those of the East Midlands Special Operations Unit - or see #LookCloser on Twitter or Facebook.
To report concerns call the police 101 number. On the trains, text British Transport Police on 61016. Otherwise, phone Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111. In an emergency, people are advised to always dial 999.
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