What it’s like for those run­ning ‘county lines’ drugs net­works

The New European - - Agenda - BY GRACE ROBIN­SON

The po­lice use the term ‘county lines’. To those in­volved, it is ‘go­ing cunch’ (coun­try) or ‘go­ing OT’ (out there). What it en­tails is sim­ple: the grow­ing prac­tice among crim­i­nal gangs – when the sup­ply of drugs out­strips de­mand in ma­jor cities – of trav­el­ling to re­mote ru­ral ar­eas and mar­ket towns in search of new cus­tomers.

The process has ini­ti­ated ugly forms of ex­ploita­tion. Chil­dren as young as 12 are hired as ‘run­ners’ to trans­port and sell il­licit drugs, while the homes of vul­ner­a­ble adults are oc­cu­pied with­out per­mis­sion to cre­ate a base to sell from – a prac­tice known as ‘cuck­oo­ing’.

Tack­ling county lines is now a na­tional pri­or­ity: the govern­ment has launched a new £3.6m Na­tional County Lines Co­or­di­na­tion Cen­tre, made up of ex­perts from the Na­tional Crime Agency. The cen­tre aims to mea­sure the threat of county lines, fo­cus re­sources on the most se­ri­ous of­fend­ers and work closely with part­ners in health, wel­fare and ed­u­ca­tion to re­duce the harms as­so­ci­ated with the prac­tice.

For our lat­est re­search, pub­lished in the In­ter­na­tional Jour­nal of Of­fender Ther­apy and Com­par­a­tive Crim­i­nol­ogy, we spoke with mem­bers of or­gan­ised crime groups, po­lice, staff on youth of­fend­ing teams and young peo­ple aged be­tween 14 and 17 in­volved in drugs gangs in Glas­gow, Scot­land and Mersey­side, Eng­land, to find out what leads them to get in­volved in this prac­tice, and how it af­fects their lives.

Be­fore gangs started us­ing the county lines model, class A drugs such as heroin and crack co­caine were typ­i­cally sup­plied in re­mote ar­eas by user-deal­ers who would sell to lo­cals from their own sup­ply. Com­pe­ti­tion in these ar­eas was low, and vi­o­lence was kept to a min­i­mum.

But in re­cent years, gangs have been us­ing ex­pe­ri­ence gained in the big cities to en­ter into smaller, satel­lite ar­eas with high de­mand, good profit mar­gins and low po­lice pres­ence. They are lev­er­ag­ing vi­o­lent rep­u­ta­tions earned in the big cities to in­tim­i­date and dom­i­nate ex­ist­ing play­ers in the il­le­gal drugs mar­ket. Po­lice in pic­turesque county towns such as Shrews­bury are now deal­ing with turf wars.

Dur­ing our re­search, we found that one of the root causes of this prob­lem is how nor­mal it is among teenagers to use cannabis – and the mon­e­tary cost of this. Young peo­ple in our study be­gan smok­ing the drug recre­ation­ally with their friends as young as 13. Per­haps more sig­nif­i­cant than the psy­cho­log­i­cal and phys­i­cal ef­fects of cannabis use, which are height­ened around the time of pu­berty, was the fact that it cost money that these ado­les­cents did not have. The ma­jor­ity of county lines work­ers we in­ter­viewed in Mersey­side owed money to a drug dealer. They ac­crued debt by hav­ing their drugs ‘on tick’ – a slang term for a ‘buy now, pay later’ scheme. When they failed to pay, the in­debted were forced into work­ing for their deal­ers. Work­ing the lines meant be­ing de­ployed any­where at any time, an­swer­ing the phone with­out de­lay when their masters (or clients) called, and leav­ing their post only to meet pay­ing cus­tomers.

Debt bondage wasn’t the only way peo­ple ended up work­ing the lines. Some of our in­ter­vie­wees in Glas­gow en­tered the trade by their own vo­li­tion. They were will­ing to travel and sim­ply asked known drug deal­ers for a job. Ow­ing to bore­dom, poverty and a sense of hope­less­ness about their le­git­i­mate job prospects, these young peo­ple felt they had no choice but to sell drugs.

The ex­pe­ri­ences of young peo­ple who had made a choice (al­beit a con­strained one) to ‘go coun­try’ didn’t fully con­cur with the hor­ror sto­ries about the prac­tice por­trayed by the me­dia. Dur­ing their in­ter­views, some young peo­ple re­called their ex­pe­ri­ences as “funny”, es­pe­cially when they spoke of the ex­ploita­tive re­la­tion­ships they had formed with vul­ner­a­ble drug users.

Young in­ter­vie­wees in both cities re­counted how drug users would be “ter­rored” or in­tim­i­dated to pass the time be­tween wait­ing for the phone to ring and com­plet­ing drug sales. Young peo­ple would en­ter­tain them­selves by get­ting users to per­form sex acts, eat from ash­trays and “shit off the floor” or un­dergo

“chal­lenges” in ex­change for “free” drugs.

Our find­ings ex­pose a para­dox at the heart of county lines – the ex­ploited and the ex­ploiters are of­ten one and the same. Drug deal­ers, drug run­ners and drug users form a hi­er­ar­chi­cal struc­ture, with the most vul­ner­a­ble – the users – at the bot­tom. Drug run­ners look down on drug ad­dicts to make them­selves feel bet­ter about their own sta­tion.

County lines ex­pose that drug pro­hi­bi­tion is not work­ing: cur­rent laws nei­ther ef­fec­tively pre­vent young peo­ple from sell­ing drugs, nor pro­tect the most vul­ner­a­ble in so­ci­ety from con­sum­ing them. Pos­i­tive ini­tia­tives such as the Na­tional County Lines Co­or­di­na­tion Cen­tre are nec­es­sary for shar­ing in­tel­li­gence be­tween po­lice and so­cial ser­vice providers, but con­strained by the folly of ex­ist­ing drug pol­icy.

Our re­search high­lights that a crim­i­nal jus­tice ap­proach based on tough en­force­ment and re­cov­er­ing the pro­ceeds of crime is not enough to dis­suade deal­ers from deal­ing. Un­less we tackle de­mand for il­licit drugs, and the root causes of gang cul­ture – namely so­cial and eco­nomic marginal­i­sa­tion – county lines will con­tinue to be drawn.

GRACE ROBIN­SON talks to those in­volved in the new drugs trade criss­cross­ing Bri­tain and gains some de­press­ing in­sights

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