County lines (dangerous drug networks)

In this section

  • Overview
  • National and local update
  • Vulnerability to county lines
  • Locations where county lines takes place
  • Signs of exploitation
  • Case study
  • Links with other forms of exploitation
  • More information
  • Overview

    Key points about county lines

    • county lines involves the transportation and supply of drugs from larger towns and cities to market locations (usually suburbs, small towns and rural areas)
    • they also include the transport and supply of drugs within a specific area, for example a city or town
    • county lines activities are managed by drug gangs using transport and supply lines controlled by mobile phones (‘deal lines’)
    • county lines usually involves the trafficking and sale of Class A drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine
    • drug gangs set up bases in new locations to produce and sell illegal drugs – this often happens through taking over the homes of vulnerable adults in a process known as ‘cuckooing’. These places are sometimes known as ‘trap houses’ or ‘safe houses’

    Who is affected?

    • drug gangs exploit children and vulnerable adults by forcing them to take part in county lines activities
    • drug gangs groom people through giving them ‘free’ drugs and money – this creates a ‘drug debt’ that can only be paid back by taking part in county lines
    • promises of money, power and status and threats of violence and intimidation are also used for grooming and coercion
    • people forced to take part in county lines activity are exposed to intimidation, violence and abuse and can experience high levels of trauma. Addiction to drugs used in county lines activities is also a risk. Impacts can be long term and affect physical and mental health, and increase vulnerability to involvement in crime.

    How are people exploited?

    • becoming a ‘runner’ – people forced to move drugs and money to maintain the supply of drugs to market locations, sometimes involving travelling long distances on public transport or in private vehicles. This is a form of human trafficking where the person is forced to travel against their will.
    • runners are often given mobile phones so they can be contacted by the person controlling a particular county line – this allows them to receive instructions about when and where to transport drugs and gives the gang more control over them
    • being ‘cuckooed’ – where the property of a vulnerable adult is taken over by a drug gang. The person being cuckooed may be threatened with violence and may have drug debts to the gang
    • people may be on the edges of county lines activity for some time before becoming actively involved.
  • National and local update

    How is county lines currently taking place?

    • 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, have financial difficulties and with 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 be involved in county lines activities, sometimes as an ‘expected’ part of their association with the gang
    • drug trafficking often uses 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
    • children and vulnerable adults recruited by gangs may be from the same area as the gang, or could be local, and may be forced traffic drugs to other local areas or nationally
    • county lines exploitation is widespread, with drug gangs from major cities operating throughout the country – places with good public transport networks and high levels of deprivation, poverty, unemployment and crime are more likely to be targeted, although county lines has also been found in smaller rural locations
    • drug gangs are present in towns, villages, rural areas and coastal areas in the South West, and drugs are being trafficked into Devon from across the country
    • drug gangs operating in Devon are increasingly seeking to exploit local children, young people and adults
  • Vulnerability to county lines

    People may be at greater risk of exploitation by county lines gangs if, for example

    • they are using or are dependent on substances, which can be an avenue for county lines gangs to groom someone through offering ‘free’ drugs
    • in some cases county line gangs may actively target people known to local drug dealers
    • they are associating with other people who may be known to a county line gang – including peers, siblings or as part of a relationship

    Other factors that can increase vulnerability can be found here

  • Locations where county lines takes place

    Transport networks – drugs are often trafficked through public transport networks, or through taxis and private hire vehicles. Bus stations, train stations and taxi ranks are also high risk locations.

    Houses – drugs are prepared and sold from properties which the gang can gain easy access to, and where they are unlikely to raise suspicions. These places include:

    • sheltered housing
    • short-term and holiday lets
    • Airbnbs
    • residential care
    • the homes of vulnerable people the have ‘cuckooed’

    Drug sales – take place in many locations, and dealers may target locations near to vulnerable groups, including

    • schools and alternative education settings
    • sheltered housing
    • residential care – including children’s homes
    • open spaces like parks or town centres
    • places where people who are street homeless or vulnerably housed may congregate
    • prisons
    • 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 of exploitation

    Common signs that may indicate someone is being exploited include those listed below.

    This not an exhaustive list and warning signs will show differently in each person. It’s important to explore all concerns over someone’s behaviour and personal circumstances and 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.

    Personal situation

    • 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 signs

    • 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.
  • Case study


    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 with 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 owe debts to the gang that are used as a form of control and coercion, and as an excuse for acts of violence
    • sexual exploitation– girls and women involved in drug possession and dealing are particularly vulnerable to domestic violence and sexual exploitation by drug gangs. They may be 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 be 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.
  • More information

    The following resources and websites provide more information about county lines.

    The following organisations provide support to people being exploited by county lines gangs