A few years ago, the term “County Lines” would have conjured up a vision of rolling plains, meadows and peaceful tranquillity. In recent times, however, the term has had a different meaning for communities and law enforcement who now associate it with drugs (mainly crack cocaine and heroin) and the violence which such trade brings to communities.
Successful law enforcement, mainly in London, has forced those who ply the drug trade to be more inventive and spread their operations in order to circumvent local Police intelligence. The system is simple: Run the operation away from your “home turf”. The term “County Lines” refers to the dedicated telephone lines and couriers used by drug networks outside of their local area.
Typically, a drug gang (say located in South London) would befriend a vulnerable drug user in Kent. In return for drugs and other inducements, the user’s home would then be used as storage for quantities of drugs, with a member of the gang either staying there or being close by. From this new base new “customers” would be found and networks developed with surprising speed. This is known as “Cuckooing” and has been very effective especially when dealers are able to obtain several addresses in a town they have targeted from which to ply their trade.
It is not uncommon for vulnerable people to be subjected to physical assault, or to incur debts either in terms of drugs or cash, or to find themselves in an assertive, controlling relationship. Many, if not most vulnerable users, suffer from mental health issues already. This tactic also makes it very difficult for the Police to gather intelligence because the gangs may impose “taxing” or inflict further violence on anyone believed to have broken their code.
A gang might also use young people as “runners” moving between the urban hub and the county or rural network. Runners transport the drugs or cash for the gangs and to avoid detection by the Police, they sometimes put their own health at risk. Children as young as 8 years of age have been identified as runners.
The National Crime Agency has not been able to put a value on County Line activities but acknowledges that it is likely to be substantial. Some sources estimate that a network might make between £3,000 to £5,000 a day. It is a measure of how seriously the government is taking this new problem that it has proposed anti-slavery laws be used to tackle the networks. This proposal has been brought into sharp focus by the many deaths reported in recent months in a variety of locations across the country, believed to have been the result of ingested drugs supplied by the County Lines.