There are unimaginable amounts of money to be made through covertly manufacturing and transporting drugs. When that takes place in the shadows, outside civilised society and free of law and order, it inevitably results in brutality and tragedy.
In November 2020, Orges Rizak and Agustin Grembi were arrested at a converted industrial building in Possilpark, Glasgow. Police raided the site and seized cannabis plants with a street value of almost £10 million. The two men pleaded guilty to drug charges and were set to serve long prison sentences.
Then, in January 2022, everything changed. In a highly unusual development, Orges and Agustin were allowed to withdraw their guilty pleas and enter new pleas of ‘not guilty’. The new pleas were accepted, and they were let off and released from prison.
In those intervening 14 months, it emerged that Orges and Agustin had been the victims of human trafficking. They were, it now appears, brought to the UK to work in the cannabis factory, likely in thousands of pounds’ worth of debt to their captors and transporters, and being made to work to pay it off.
The only reason the two men had pleaded guilty to the charges was because they feared the consequences for themselves and their families if they told the truth about what had happened to them. Judge Lord Mulholland, who heard the case, described the plea reversal as “an exceptional step” but said it was justified because “there are exceptional circumstances”.
But that’s just it. How exceptional are those circumstances?
Human trafficking is horrifyingly widespread. It is a tool used without a second thought by criminal organisations all over the world. How many others are there like Orges and Agustin rotting away in prison who pleaded guilty to drug charges out of fear for their lives, and who aren’t lucky enough for the truth to come out later and exonerate them? How many people are there across the globe effectively enslaved by cold-hearted human traffickers making money off the illegal drugs trade?
Orges and Agustin were at least adults – but tragically that is often not the case. There are countless heart-rending examples from around the world of children being put in impossibly dangerous situations as they are forced into the drug trade. This is not something we can pretend doesn’t exist – it is happening very close to home.
At a recent meeting of Hampshire County Council, one topic of discussion was the exasperation police are feeling in their efforts to protect children from being exploited by criminal organisations, especially where drugs are involved. Known as ‘county lines’, drug dealers are thought to evade police by forcing children and teenagers to carry drugs to their destination via public transport.
‘Young people are lured in with promises of earning lots of money,’ said Sarah Marston, who works within safeguarding at Hampshire County Council. ‘We’re talking hundreds of pounds. And maybe that happens the first or second time, but it doesn’t last for long. Instead, they end up being mugged by the very gangs they have joined, which puts them in debt to the dealer. These young people then have no clear escape and end up trapped in this criminal business model. Typically, it’s vulnerable young people who are targeted, but it can happen to anyone.’
The situation is not improving. We are sitting by and doing nothing as the drug trade only grows, creating more violence and exploitation as it does so and dragging countless young people into lives of crime, poverty and abuse. It is often left to parents and teachers to spot the tell-tale signs of exploitation, such as young people suddenly coming into a lot of money or becoming reclusive and reluctant to explain who they are meeting up with.
Both in the UK and in other countries, the criminalisation of drugs is known to underpin an enormous amount of crime, not least human trafficking. Drugs being illegal is vital for criminal gangs. It fuels violence. It is so often the motive behind appalling crimes like human trafficking.
If we want to tackle human trafficking, reforming drug policy is a necessary first step. Legalising drugs, especially cannabis, would take the legs out from under a huge chunk of the criminal classes. It would cut off what is by far and away their most reliable and lucrative stream of income. It would, therefore, make us all safer – and it would prevent future cases like those of Orges Rizak and Agustin Grembi, who were too frightened to recount what had happened to them even when it meant being unfairly condemned to spend years behind bars.
Jason Reed is the UK Lead at Young Voices and a political commentator for a wide range of outlets. Follow him on Twitter @JasonReed624 or read more on his website, jason-reed.co.uk