THERE will always be a market for illegal drugs in Essex.

It is a sad but acknowledged truth based on fact and experience.

However, that does not mean police officers will ever stop trying to clamp down on the practice which destroys so many lives.

Over the past month, inroads have been made in catching those at the top of the gangs which exploit the vulnerable to fuel the trade.

Forces across the UK boosted activity in the week from May 17 with 1,100 arrests and 33 guns and 219 knives among weapons seized and 80 drug dealing phone lines identified.

There are currently thought to be about 600 so-called county lines gangs operating in the UK, urban drug dealers who sell to customers in more rural areas via dedicated phone lines.

The term “county lines” refers to the phone numbers, or lines.

The dealers are notorious for exploiting children to work as couriers and forcing vulnerable people to let them use their homes to conceal or deal drugs.

Det Chief Insp Lewis Basford, who has led Essex Police’s serious violence unit for more than a year, said different methods are deployed across Essex to tackle the dealers.

He said: “With Southend, we know the gangs are using a model which requires link up with people, often youngsters, who are more local who will then be doing the dealing locally.

“Whereas in Colchester, it is still generally people physically bringing their product from London to the town.

“Combating them requires different tactics and we are always working on ways we can do that.”

DCI Basford added: “Would I love to get the number of county lines in Essex down to zero? Of course, but the nature of what we do means we are always going to find more.”

Since DCI Basford took up the role, the countywide teams have made 344 arrests with 212 charges and seized 141 drug lines.

As a result, there are now fewer county lines gangs – 34 – in operation across the county than ever before.

Just weeks ago, Jake Gregory, James Martin, William Locke and Jake Holliday were jailed for a total of 30 years and three months for selling drugs in north Essex.

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They processed the drugs at a house in Halstead, before putting them in glass jars and burying them in two rural locations in Colchester.

They’d then retrieve them from the hiding places to process and sell on. During the investigation, officers found 2.5kg of drugs with an estimated street value of up to £180,000 between September and December 2019.

Despite the successes, DCI Basford has said there is no chance of complacency creeping in.

He said: “What we are doing is working top-down instead of bottom up. We are going after the people who are holding the lines – that’s where we see the biggest harm. But it does take patience; we have to bide our time.

“Only by doing that can we dismantle the lines and take drugs off the streets of Essex.”

He added: “Are drugs always going to be sold in Essex? The reality is, yes. We cannot arrest our way out of this problem. It requires so much more than that and, for us, that means case building.

“You could arrest people, bail them or release them under investigation and then begin case building but we prefer to case build before making those key arrests.

“What we’re now starting to see in Essex is sentences of the like of more than three years rather than 15 to 18 months.

“That’s because the evidence we are able to provide might lift defendants from one level in the sentencing guidelines to a higher one.”