County lines refers to the transportation and supply of drugs from larger towns and cities to market locations (usually rural and suburban areas and towns).
These activities are undertaken by drug gangs using transportation and supply lines controlled by a mobile phone, also called ‘deal lines‘. County lines usually involves the trafficking and sale of Class A drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine.
Drug gangs exploit children and vulnerable adults by forcing them to engage in county lines activities. They are groomed through offers of ‘free’ drugs, causing them to accumulate debts which can only be paid off by participating in county lines activities. Promises of money, power and status, and threats of violence and intimidation are also used as methods of grooming and coercion.
People exploited by county lines gangs may act as ‘runners‘. This involves moving drugs and money, sometimes across large distances, to maintain the supply of drugs to market locations.
Once a new location is identified, drug gangs set up operating bases from which they can produce and sell illegal drugs. These are typically established through taking over the homes of vulnerable adults in a process known as ‘cuckooing‘. These properties (also called ‘trap houses’ or ‘safe houses’) may be used for short periods of time before operations move elsewhere. During this time the inhabitant may experience intimidation, violence and abuse.
National and local context
Children aged fifteen and sixteen, and vulnerable adults, are most commonly targeted by drug gangs, although children as young as twelve have been identified as victims. Vulnerable adults who use drugs, are in financial difficulty or have mental health problems are at greatest risk of being exploited by county lines gangs. Girls and women who are in a relationship with gang members may also be involved in county lines activities, and this may be seen as an ‘expected’ part of their association with the gang.
Drug trafficking often takes place through public transport networks, with runners travelling to market locations along train or bus routes. Taxi firms, hire cars and private cars may also be used.
Drug runners are often given mobile phones which enable them to be contacted by the person controlling a particular county line. This allows them to receive instructions about when and where to transport the drugs and allows the gang to exercise a greater level of control over them.
County lines exploitation is widespread, with drug gangs from major cities operating throughout the country. Children and vulnerable adults who are recruited by these gangs may be from the same area as the gang, or could be local. They may be forced to move locally or nationally to traffic drugs.
Drug gangs have recently emerged in towns, villages and coastal areas within the South West, and drugs are being trafficked into Devon from across the country. Areas with high levels of deprivation, poverty, unemployment and crime have been particularly targeted. Drugs gangs operating in Devon are increasingly seeking to exploit local children, young people and adults.
Those involved in county lines activity are exposed to and witness intimidation, violence and assault, experiences which can be highly traumatic. They may also become addicted to the drugs that they are involved in trafficking and selling. These experiences can have long term impacts on their mental and physical health and can become a route into criminality.
Factors increasing vulnerability to county lines
Factors increasing vulnerability to county lines can include:
- being in care or being a care leaver
- being homeless or living in insecure accommodation
- experiencing mental health difficulties
- experiencing substance misuse issues
- feeling socially isolated
- having a learning disability
- having a communication difficulty
- having a physical disability or illness – older people who use drugs and have an illness or health condition are particularly vulnerable to cuckooing by county lines gangs
- having an autism spectrum condition
- having connections with people involved with drug gangs
- having financial difficulties
- living in an unsafe or unstable home
- past trauma and adversity, including experiences of neglect or abuse.
People may be on the edges of county lines activity for some time before becoming actively involved. Sometimes they may follow older peers or siblings into participating in county lines.
Locations where county lines activities take place
Drugs tend to be trafficked via public transport networks, or through taxis and private hire vehicles. People who are forced to traffic drugs may congregate at bus stations, train stations and taxi ranks.
Drugs are prepared and sold from properties which the gang can gain easy access to, and in which they are unlikely to raise suspicions. These places include:
- sheltered housing
- short-term and holiday lets
- residential care homes
- the homes of vulnerable people (especially those who use drugs)
Drug sales can take place in a range of locations, especially in places where there is less chance of the deal being observed. Drug gangs may target specific locations where they believe it will be easier to sell drugs. These include:
- schools and alternative education settings (including pupil referral units)
- sheltered housing
- residential care homes
- open spaces such as parks or town centres
- places where people who are street homeless or vulnerably housed may congregate
- universities and colleges.
The internet and social media are also used to advertise drug sales and to groom people into becoming involved in county lines activities.
Signs that someone is being exploited
Common signs that someone is being exploited include those listed below. Please note that this is not an exhaustive list and that warning signs will show themselves differently in each person. It is important to explore all concerns over someone’s behaviour and personal circumstances and to consider whether they could be signs of exploitation.
Appearance and behaviour
- becoming more secretive, aggressive or violent
- meeting with unfamiliar people
- persistently going missing – someone may go missing from their home or local area when they are trafficking drugs along ‘deal lines’
- leaving home without explanation or staying out unusually late
- loss of interest in school, college or work and decline in performance
- significant changes in emotional wellbeing
- suspicion of physical assault or unexplained injuries – including ‘DIY injuries’, (knife and puncture wounds) which are signs of punishment for drug-related debts
- using language relating to drug dealing, violence or gangs
- carrying a weapon.
- associating with a gang
- becoming isolated from peers and social networks
- having a friendship or relationship with someone who appears older or controlling
- sudden changes in lifestyle
- using drugs, especially if their drug use has increased
- unexplained acquisition of money, drugs or mobile phones.
Other observations and circumstances
- being found in possession of large quantities of drugs
- being taken to different houses and locations by unknown people
- receiving an excessive amount of texts or phone calls
- using more than one phone, especially if both are used to communicate with different people – for example, if one phone is used exclusively to communicate with specific people or a specific group.
Signs that someone’s property is being cuckooed
- suspicious items in the property, such as weighing scales, multiple phones, sim cards or drug paraphernalia
- unexplained presence of cash, clothes and other items of value
- doors and windows which have been blocked off
- presence of unknown people in the property, who may act as friends of the inhabitant – their accents may indicate that they are not local and may have travelled to traffick drugs
- more people than normal entering the property, or people arriving and leaving at unusual times
- cars arriving at the property for short periods of time
- concerns that the inhabitant of the property has not been seen for a while – they may feel too afraid to leave the house or may have been prevented from doing so by the drug gang.
Harry grew up with an abusive, controlling and violent father. He spent several years with his mother in refuges and temporary accommodation, fearful that his father would track them down.
To help him feel safe Harry became friends with a group of young people, over which he gained control. He tried to dominate and intimidate rival peers through using verbal and physical abuse. Harry and his peer group became involved in robberies and drug dealing, using these activities to increase their status and power. They often used violence to carry out their actions.
Local drug dealers started to hear about Harry’s activities. They were keen to exploit his peer group for their own purposes. They groomed Harry through offering him free drugs, clothes and mobile phones and through making him feel important. They exploited his position of power over local youths, arranging for him to distribute drugs through his peer networks.
Harry quickly became part of, and indebted to, this drug gang. He regularly went missing from home and school. Much of his time was spent travelling on public transport, transporting drugs to various locations.
Harry’s mother was very concerned about Harry’s behaviour and activities. She felt unable to influence or control his actions, and sought help from a local Police Youth Intervention Officer. Harry was referred to the Youth Intervention Team (YIT), a council-funded group working with young people at risk of entering the youth justice system.
The YIT allocated Harry to a worker. After building his trust the worker began to address and challenge the thoughts and fears which were driving Harry’s actions. Through several months of intense one-to-one work Harry gradually reduced his involvement with the gang. He began socialising with different peers and kept away from the drug dealers. He received threats from these dealers, who continued to approach him, hoping to draw him back into gang life.
Due to the support that he received Harry developed the courage and confidence to resist the gang’s influences. With the help of the YIT he re-engaged with his studies and became determined to free himself entirely from what he now recognised as an exploitative situation.
This case study is based on a number of real cases which have taken place in Devon. In the interests of confidentiality all names and other identifying features are fictional.
Links between county lines and other forms of exploitation
County lines can involve many forms of exploitation as well as violence, gang activity and organised crime.
People who are forced to transport drugs along deal lines, or whose properties are cuckooed by drug gangs, may be victims of human trafficking and modern slavery.
People involved in county lines activities may be financially exploited by drug gangs. They may accumulate debts which they owe to the gang, especially if they were groomed with ‘free’ drugs. Gangs often use these debts to exercise control over others and to coerce them into participating in county lines activities.
People may accumulate money through transporting or selling drugs for a gang, but most of these earnings will be taken by the gang, often as repayment for drug debts. If someone is unable to pay these debts they may face violence from gang members.
County lines can also involve sexual exploitation. Girls and women involved in drug possession and dealing are particularly vulnerable to domestic violence and sexual exploitation by drug gangs. They are often viewed as objects of status and power by male gang members and may be pressured into having sex.
Pressure to engage in sexual acts can also act as a way of exercising control over female gang members, or as repayment for drug debts. Girls and women may also be trafficked by gang members for sexual exploitation.
Whilst girls and women are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation, drug gangs may also sexually exploit boys and men.