'County Lines' - An unintended consequence of prohibition

An increasingly common way young people are exposed to organised crime is through ‘County Lines Exploitation’. Like alcohol Prohibition in the US during the 1920’s & 30’s, drug prohibition has gifted a market valued at £6.6 billion annually to organised crime groups, with the resources and incentives to enslave young and vulnerable people in the UK.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime acknowledges this dynamic:
“Yet, the drug control system has had its costs, and these are not limited to the public expenditure on supply and demand reduction…Among them, the most formidable collateral damage has been the creation of a lucrative black market for controlled substances, dominated by powerful crime cartels and resulting in unprecedented violence and corruption.”

‘County Lines Exploitation’ is of particular concern, as this involves the exploitation and slavery of children. These children are often criminalised for drug offences or deported if trafficked from abroad, when in fact they should be given appropriate support and in some cases, treated for physical and mental trauma.

By regulating the drug market we will not only remove the power and financial incentive to enslave young people, but we will enable authorities to identify these children as victims of modern slavery, instead of criminalising them and driving them further into the criminal underworld and a lifetime of abuse.

County Lines Exploitation

  • ‘County Lines Exploitation’ is the term used to describe a criminal network set up by organised criminal gangs between a city and a county location, typically rural and coastal towns, into which drugs are supplied. A dealer in an urban location has complete control over what drugs are being sold, and often exploits children to act as drug runners to replenish stock and transport cash. These criminal gangs often commandeer vulnerable people’s homes to use as a base for dealing, (AKA ‘cuckooing’). ‘County Lines Exploitation’ is highly exploitative, and relies on intimidation, violence and weapons to coerce vulnerable adults and children into being complicit.
  • ‘County Lines Exploitation’ was a consequence of conventional drug supply routes being shut down – so gangs shifted their tactics – grooming and exploitation of young and vulnerable people, who are harder for police to detect and arrest, and are easier to control by gangs.
  • The Children’s Commissioner estimates that 46,000 children are involved in gang activity in England. And it is estimated at 4,000 teenagers in London alone are being exploited through ‘County Lines Exploitation’ every single year.
  • For many of these children, they join a gang for the money or sense of glamour and belonging. For those already caught up in the drug trade, education or conventional work is not always an alternative to the amount of money or gifts they can earn from selling or running illegal drugs. For others, they are forced into the drug trade through coercion and violence.
  • These young people are criminalised because of their forced involvement in the illegal drug trade, and are consequently denied proper support to deal with the trauma they will have endured.
  • According to the National Crime Agency, the most common form of exploitation for both adults and children is forced labour exploitation, which also include criminal exploitation, such as cannabis cultivation. The UK’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has also said that, between 2011 and 2012, of all the trafficked children who had disappeared, 58% were being exploited for criminal activity, including cannabis cultivation.
  • UK intelligence and police forces are currently ill-equipped to deal with ‘County Lines Exploitation’ and safeguard children caught up in the illegal drug-market.
  • The Home Office recently called for increased use of children to infiltrate organised criminal gangs, but has been criticised for putting already vulnerable children at greater risk by putting them in direct contact with violent criminal gangs.
  • ‘County Lines Exploitation’ is an unintended consequence of an enforcement-led approach, and more enforcement will only make things worse – gangs will shift tactics, increase violence, and further endanger children.

What can be done?

  • The UK should explore options for legalising and regulating the drug market. It puts government in control – not gangs. The illegal drug market would shrink, meaning the use of child labour would shrink with it.
  • Under a regulated market, children who are exploited would not be treated as criminals, instead they would be safeguarded and recognised as victims – similar to how we already apply Modern Slavery legislation.

Transform Drug Policy Foundation is a UK and Mexico based think tank campaigning for the legal regulation of drugs www.tdpf.org.uk  0117 325 0295 info@tdpf.org.uk

Anyone’s Child is a campaign of Transform Drug Policy Foundation working with families affected by the drug war, who call for the legal regulation of drugs

For more information please contact: Ben Campbell, Communications Officer, 0117 325 0295 ben@tdpf.org.uk