Drug gangs are expanding their operations from large city centres such as London, Birmingham and Manchester into smaller towns and rural areas. To do so they are using a new business model referred to as ‘county lines’ – dedicated mobile phone drug deal lines which local drug dealers in smaller towns can use to order drugs from the suppliers in the city centres. According to a recent report by the National Crime Agency, there are over 1000 established county line networks which are each capable of making profits of £800, 000 a year.
These lines are so profitable that gangs increasingly resort to violence to protect them, so this county line model of drug gang expansion probably goes a long way to explain the 50% increase in knife crime since 2015. In fact, a spike in knife crime in a small town or city is believed to be an indicator that a new drug line has been opened up.
How county lines work
Drug gangs in larger cities establish branded mobile phone lines using ‘burner phones’ which are disposable and anonymous, and these are then used to send out group messages to the local dealers around the country offering what drugs are for sale, which is mainly heroine and crack cocaine. Frequently there are special offers such as two for the price of one deals. The drugs are delivered by runners who also collect payment from the local dealers.
Children and drug lines
School-aged children, typically aged 15-17, but as young as 11, are usually used to deliver the drugs and collect payment. The charity Safer London estimates that 4000 children from London are involved. Sometimes these children might stay away in a drug-hub for an extended period, which is known as ‘going country’ or ‘going OT’ (out there).
The children recruited are usually vulnerable, having been excluded from school or from broken families, and many are drug users themselves. They are roped into the gangs by the lure of financial reward, or some might be debt bondage because of their drug habits. Once in, they are exposed to a violent lifestyle and effectively take all the risks for the upstream dealers.
NB – from a legal perspective, the use of children as drug mules now counts as child trafficking, so anyone caught being involved in this is likely to get a very lengthy spell in jail.
A particularly insidious aspect of these drug networks is a process known as cuckooing…. Where a new local recruit’s house in a rural or coastal taken over by a drug dealer from one of the main centres and that house is turned into a local dealing hub, used to store and possibly manufacture drugs, and sell drugs.
One way this can escalate is that the local dealer is allowed to get into debt, and then has their house taken over as a means to repay this.
Such victims will often be drug addicts with mental health issues and are also likely to be in poverty.
Countering the problem of drug gangs and drug lines
This is an enormous problem, and its growing fast: 75% of police forces believed new lines had been opened up in 2017 and it’s estimated that the 1000 lines in existence are worth £500 million a year. With that kind of coverage and that amount of money involved, tackling this isn’t going to be easy!
A new National County Lines Coordination Unit has recently been established so the 43 police forces in England and Wales can easily share information, and the police are using anti trafficking and anti-slavery laws to punish the dealers.
In a week of raids in January police arrested 600 people and referred 600 children and 400 adults to safeguarding authorities. More than £200 000 in cash and 140 weapons were also seized.
Relevance to A-level sociology
This is obviously highly relevant to the crime and deviance specification. Probably the most obvious links are to right and left realism, and to my mind it’s a great example that proves the limitations of the right realist approach – the nature of this crime is that it’s hidden, and so right realist crime control techniques will probably be ineffective in controlling it.
It seems to offer support for left realism – relative deprivation and marginalisation are the root causes, and maybe addressing these are the only way we’re going to see a reduction in drug related crime in the future?
The Week, 9th Feb 2019