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Case Studies

County lines drug-dealing: the latest ‘crackdown’

The most recent talk by police and the Home Office of a ‘crackdown’ on county lines drug-dealing is only the latest example over the years that will not succeed, because of shortcomings in the official response to what is a quicksilver crime, and because of the blunt fact of supply meeting demand for illegal drugs, writes Mark Rowe.

Private security has been coming to terms with this new method of drug-dealing like the authorities more generally. County lines was among the subjects at the autumn 2018 annual conference of the Security Institute. As featured in the December 2019 print issue of Professional Security magazine, Trevor Jones, chairman of the university security managers’ association Aucso, admitted at an evening event by the campus well-being certification scheme ProtectED at the House of Lords that campuses were targets for county lines.

A drug dealer might offer to help a student; in return for using that person as an entry into a campus to sell drugs. This is only a variation on the theme of county lines; dealers seeking to spread their sales from the traditional and almost accepted places where drugs are available, in big cities, into small towns. The county line is the mobile phone number. As that implies, drug dealers embrace technology and see opportunity that leaves police and criminal justice scrambling to keep up, as they seem to have been scrambling ever since illegal drugs became a mass problem, in the 1980s (although opinions may differ over the period).

A speaker at last week’s business crime summit by the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner in Birmingham set out how appealing and ingrained county lines and drug dealing more generally can appear. If you are a young person, you may feel that you can earn more money from county lines; and the dealer is looking to employ the young, as pliable and cheap (no minimum wage or workers’ rights in force here).

The dealer will befriend the young person, maybe give them a nice set of trainers, and the youth may feel that they are in the dealer’s debt. The dealer will entice the youth into doing a few jobs; and then ask the youth to be an ‘entrepreneur’ – significant that the dealer appropriates the language of business – and do some dealing themselves. The youth is told to pick up a package and try and sell it; but meantime, someone else is told by the dealer to rob the youth of the package. That leaves the youth indebted to the dealer; a debt without a timeline. How can legitimate society and businesses compete with the sheer twisted ingenuity of that business model? A model enforced by extreme violence.

And as a new paperback book by Sky News investigative journalist Jason Farrell sets out, County Lines; this is only the newest way for drug exploitation to plague our streets. He tells the stories of victims – dealers and their followers picking up the vulnerable – and the criminals themselves.

Current policing models are too disjointed to allow for the most effective response to ‘county lines’ drug dealing, according to the police inspectorate in a report earlier this month.

Home Secretary Priti Patel recently visited a Merseyside Police-led operation, run with British Transport Police (BTP) at Liverpool Lime Street, targeting lines running from Liverpool to North Wales. She said: “I will not tolerate these abhorrent gangs that are terrorising our towns and exploiting our children. I’m pleased to see such strong results from the police – they have my full backing in this crucial work. We will continue to support their efforts in confronting this threat with 20,000 new officers.”

Except that, even leaving aside whether the much-touted 20,000 officers, once recruited and trained, will even bring police numbers to what they were before 2010; police are not all the time where the drug dealers are hiring and selling: on the street pavements of East Ham (pictured, winter 2018), the skateboard parks (as in a case featured by Jason Farrell), the parks, wherever the writ of law and order do not run.


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