POLICE have caught two dozen children aged under 16 dealing drugs, including heroin, in the force area during the last three years.
A total of 24 youngsters were snared for peddling illegal substances such as cannabis, ecstasy and diazepam in figures today branded “shocking”.
Police chiefs said they would continue to pursue anyone involved in the illegal drug trade “regardless of their age”.
But calls were also made to give the young dealers “intensive support and help” rather than condemn them as criminals.
The figures, released under freedom of information laws, also showed that 332 under-16s were caught in possession of drugs during the same period, including ten youngsters who were holding Class A substances.
Gavin Brown, Lothians Tory MSP, said: “The figures for under-16s dealing drugs should make us all pause for thought and will prove shocking to most of us.
“This is an extremely serious issue, particularly when harder drugs such as heroin are involved.
“We need to take a zero tolerance approach to anyone who deals in drugs so that they face the full consequences of the law.
“But at the same time we need to provide education for our young people to help them avoid becoming involved in drug use.”
Lewis Macdonald, Labour’s justice spokesman, said: “This is very concerning. Part of the concern must come from how it comes about that children, who presumably are living with adults who have responsibility for them, can be in the position where they are involved in a significant degree of criminal activity.
“They are not only breaking the law but there are putting others at risk by selling dangerous drugs to them.
“Some kind of intervention is required from those in a position of responsibility, whether it’s the police or social workers.”
David Liddell, director of the Scottish Drugs Forum, said: “Obviously we don’t know the detail of these cases but those engaged in supply of Class A drugs such as heroin is particularly worrying. Obviously the young people involved will be viewed as criminals but they are likely to need intensive support and help rather than punishment.
“Those young people charged with possession offences highlights the continuing need for support and information service aim specifically at young people.”
A police insider said children are often forced into drug dealing by “puppet-master” adults who want to shield behind them and avoid being arrested themselves.
He said: “They are often just stooges for uncaring criminals who use them knowing, fine well, that the courts will probably be more lenient on the children than them. It’s predatory but probably terrifyingly easy to achieve in terms of using cash payments in exchange for drug dealing as bait.”
Last year, under-16s were charged with two offences of heroin dealing. Three charges were made in 2010 while another two were recorded the previous year.
Scottish Conservative chief whip John Lamont said: “Clearly it is worrying when anyone under-16 is caught in possession of drugs, but when that is with intent to supply it becomes serious.
“The Scottish Government has to drop its soft-touch approach with drugs and make sure those youngsters included in these figures are left in no doubt that this is unacceptable.”
The 24 under-16s caught dealing drugs since 2009 were charged with a total of 51 supply offences. Both herbal cannabis and cannabis resin were among the substances they were selling along with Valium.
Last year, 116 under-16s in Lothian and Borders were charged with drug possession, with three of them caught with Class A substances.
In 2010, the figure was 134 arrests for possession while 152 were made in the previous year.
A police spokesman said: “The force treats the possession and supply of drugs extremely seriously, and we will take robust action against anyone who is caught with drugs, regardless of their age. Our proactive approach in this area has yielded positive results in recent years, and we will always act on information that leads us to suspect that someone is in possession of drugs, or involved in their supply.
“At the same time, we are committed towards educating young people to the dangers of substance misuse, through educational inputs at schools, and through initiatives such as our Choices for Life events.”