The Guardian view on county lines: victims, villains and everything in between

The once poorly understood phenomenon of county lines drug dealing is taking firmer shape in terms of public policy and also of awareness. The emerging picture is disturbing even to those familar with the most destructive consequences of illegal drugs. What is going on, as our reporting and interviews with senior police officers reveal, is that increasing numbers of vulnerable children and adults are being exploited by criminal gangs, with all 44 UK police forces (including the national British Transport Police and Police Scotland) reporting county lines activity last year, up from just seven forces four years ago. The over-representation of looked-after children and those who have been excluded from school in the county lines drug trade is concerning. In fact it is hard to imagine a worse outcome for such children than being recruited by criminal gangs.

Exactly when, why and how this business model cohered in the UK is being explored by researchers. The government commissioned its first official “county lines” report in 2015, when it was described as an “emerging national issue” and coastal towns were highlighted as key locations for up to 180 urban gangs looking to expand into new territory, aided by the ubiquity of mobile phones. The modus operandi was to establish a base, sometimes in a property occupied by existing addicts or via a personal connection, and recruit customers, mainly for heroin and crack cocaine, using dedicated phone numbers, known as county lines, and special offers. Low-level salespeople or runners were typically boys aged 14-17 groomed using gifts and debt – and often threats and violence.

It took police and prosecutors some time to develop an appropriate response. The first conviction of a county lines drug dealer for modern slavery offences, encompassing the abuse and exploitation of children, was in Birmingham just under a year ago. The first conviction in Wales, in a case that involved the enslavement of a vulnerable 15-year-old, followed in January. The National County Lines Coordination Centre has created a hub around which law enforcement agencies can work together. Police say their intelligence with regard to this growing problem is the best it has ever been. Less encouraging is their warning that the scale of the problem remains unknown; reports of the number of lines – currently estimated at 2,000 – and the number of children drawn in are likely to increase.

The criminal justice system has a key role to play in tackling street dealers, and more importantly their bosses, who are far more likely to be involved in other forms of trafficking and serious violence. But resources both financial and human must now be directed into prevention and rehabilitation. While 13-year-olds bullied into travelling across the country are relatively easily identified as victims, along with the adults with mental health and other difficulties whose homes are taken over for the purposes of dealing (a process known as “cuckooing”), police point to grey areas. When an older teenager has been groomed and exploited, for example, before moving into the role of groomer, the authorities must be able to make informed judgments. There must be alternatives to prosecution and imprisonment, and serious attempts at diverting young people from what can at first be made to appear attractive to those who lack opportunities, money and status.

There is no point in pretending that there is any quick fix. But a sensible first step would be for the government to put youth services on a statutory footing – and to fund councils properly to deliver them.

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