’My safe lit­tle town isn’t safe any more’: the toll of the county lines drug trade

Sam, 16, was sucked into drug traf­fick­ing and ended up be­ing stabbed

The Guardian Weekly - - UK News - Sarah Marsh Sam, from Ox­ford­shire, who has been in­volved in a strand of drug deal­ing known as county lines

Sam has lived in the same English town his whole life. A new phe­nom­e­non has taken over his and other young peo­ple’s lives in the area. It isn’t the lat­est video game or fash­ion item, but rather teenagers in the re­gion have in­creas­ingly been caught up in the county lines drug trade.

The prac­tice, also known as “go­ing coun­try” or OT (out there), in­volves ur­ban gangs mov­ing class A drugs and cash be­tween in­ner-city hubs and pro­vin­cial ar­eas. Young peo­ple are re­cruited by drug deal­ers who groom them and of­fer them money to sell drugs in ru­ral ar­eas.

Ear­lier this year a meet­ing of the all-party par­lia­men­tary group on knife crime dis­cussed the in­crease in lo­cal re­cruit­ment, say­ing it was a prob­lem for ar­eas not well-equipped to deal with Lon­don-style gang crime.

Si­mon Hard­ing, a pro­fes­sor of crim­i­nol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of West Lon­don, said: “The way it used to work was that they would send up lads from Lon­don but they stood out like a sore thumb. Now they have switched to re­cruit­ing lo­cal peo­ple. Of­ten peo­ple in these ar­eas don’t re­alise that these Lon­don boys play by dif­fer­ent rules and if they threaten to stab you, they will do – that is the end of it.”

Sam, 16, is one of those lo­cal re­cruits. Sit­ting in his liv­ing room, play­ing with his dog and eat­ing a Mc­Don­ald’s, he ex­plains that the draw for young peo­ple, liv­ing in pro­vin­cial towns, is money. “It seems to be the lat­est craze, it’s been a phase for ev­ery­one … those who get kicked out of school,” he says.

“I think mid­dle-class kids will do it too, but it is mainly kids who don’t have a lot … Peo­ple are let­ting any­one do it now but you have to be se­ri­ous.

“I think some kids are get­ting in­volved now with­out re­al­is­ing what they are get­ting them­selves into. I’ve heard of peo­ple around here do­ing it and they are not the sort of peo­ple you’d ex­pect.”

Sam is from Ox­ford­shire, al­though the ex­act lo­ca­tion can­not be re­vealed to pro­tect his iden­tity. He stopped deal­ing af­ter get­ting stabbed just over a month ago. He says his role used to be to pick up drugs from those in­volved in city gangs – mainly heroin and crack co­caine – and sell them.

Ox­ford­shire is one of the ar­eas in the UK be­ing silently af­fected by the county lines phe­nom­e­non. Data from Thames Val­ley po­lice shows that drug traf­fick­ing of­fences have risen by 51% in two years, from 725 in­ci­dents recorded in 2015-16 to 1,321 in 2017-2018. Vi­o­lent crime is also ris­ing, and the num­ber of peo­ple Thames Val­ley po­lice have ar­rested for car­ry­ing a knife or blade has dou­bled in five years.

A free­dom of in­for­ma­tion re­quest sent to the force by the Ox­ford Mail found that of­fi­cers ar­rested 651 peo­ple for car­ry­ing a knife or “bladed ar­ti­cle” in 2017, up from 328 in 2013.

Sam is aware of the vi­o­lence that comes with the trade, hav­ing been stabbed 13 times ear­lier this year. “I was in a long al­ley­way and I heard a shout and then I turned around and was stabbed all over my body. I got up and the other per­son grabbed me and fell over again. I turned around and ran off, got to the top of the road and fell to the floor. I didn’t feel pain when it was hap­pen­ing, didn’t feel any­thing un­til I started run­ning off, then I felt it in my legs,” he says.

He was taken to the hospi­tal and was lucky to sur­vive. The weapon used was a kitchen knife and it would have been much worse if it had been sharper. “I’d never been in a sit­u­a­tion like that be­fore … I had never re­ally felt un­safe when I was deal­ing,” he says.

Thames Val­ley po­lice have poured ex­tra re­sources into tack­ling of­fences amid ris­ing re­ports of drug deal­ing and use on city streets. They have car­ried out a num­ber of raids across the city and county to crack down on county lines drug deal­ing. In a state­ment, the force said tack­ling the prob­lem was a pri­or­ity and it was work­ing with lo­cal part­ners to ar­rest drug deal­ers com­ing into the area.

Ex­perts have warned that the trade can be over­whelm­ing for non­metropoli­tan po­lice forces. Hard­ing said tra­di­tional drug dis­tri­bu­tion meth­ods had changed and forces had not kept up. Lo­cal ser­vices in a lot of ru­ral ar­eas have been scrapped. “Some po­lice forces have not kept up to speed, they are find­ing it a chal­lenge with all the new peo­ple com­ing in tak­ing over prop­er­ties and set­ting up drug dis­tri­bu­tion houses.

“If you’re a ru­ral or pro­vi­sional di­vi­sion or force it is un­likely you have had to deal with that in the past so it puts you on the back foot,” he said.

“In some towns, for ex­am­ple, there are a num­ber of ad­dresses used for drug deal­ing and cuck­oo­ing [when a house is taken over by a gang and used to stash and sell drugs]. This sur­prised me but there are not many po­lice of­fi­cers around that area so it’s the ideal lo­ca­tion”.

Sam’s fa­ther, Do­minic, said so­cial ser­vices were slow to re­spond to his son’s stab­bing. He said he was told it was the first time they had en­coun­tered county lines and did not know what they were deal­ing with.

“They asked: ‘What do you want?’ They wanted me to come up with a plan. There is not much sup­port in the town. I felt pow­er­less and even­tu­ally I had to take my son away for a while with a friend. There is no sup­port now we are back,” he said.

Do­minic said where he lived could be de­scribed as “bor­ing” but he stayed as he thought it was safe.

“Now you have got groups of kids car­ry­ing knives, that is where we are at – my safe lit­tle town isn’t safe any more and some peo­ple are obliv­i­ous to what is go­ing on un­der their noses. It needs to be dealt with be­fore more chil­dren get caught up and risk their lives.”

‘The Lon­don boys play by dif­fer­ent rules. If they threaten to stab you – they will do’

Some names have been changed

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