County Lines is undeniably the most significant trend in over a decade in the market for illicit drugs in Britain. It is a criminal business model unlike any other across Europe, thriving on the daily demand for heroin and crack cocaine from a dependent user group estimated to exceed 300,000. The term was coined to describe the expansion of urban drug networks and gangs to smaller, more rural county towns, typically utilising violence to oust local dealers and soliciting the use of children and young adults as actors in distribution chains. The success of the model is heavily dependent on mobile phone connectivity and/or digital media platforms, as well as accessibility to residential and low-cost commercial accommodation which are used to store illicit drugs, cash and weapons.
Given the clearly exploitative nature of County Lines, many responses to date have focussed on the public health threat to young people and the vulnerabilities of adults. While this is an undoubtedly important priority, there is potential for overlooking the reasons why some people opt to get involved in County Lines. Without a more nuanced understanding of the opportunities provided by County Lines, we risk potentially alienating the very same victims we are trying to help.
Thriving County Lines: Supply and Demand
County Lines is successful because there is a strong, daily nationwide demand for the drugs it supplies, namely heroin and crack cocaine. Addicted heroin users commonly require two 0.1 gram ‘bags’ a day, at £10 each, costing the user around £7000 per year. The supply of crack cocaine rocks, though similar in price, responds to a very different user craving, resulting in high reaching peaks and plummeting lows.
With around 300,000 opiate and/or crack users (OCU) in England alone, some users are estimated to spend between £14,000 and £20,000 per year. Published in February 2020, Dame Carol Black’s Review of Drugs suggests the illegal drug market is worth £9.6 billion in England and Wales; with around £4 billion a year brought in by heroin, while the crack cocaine market is worth a further £1 billion. The latter estimate may be too small, however, considering the rise in crack cocaine users reported by Public Health England.
The value of an ounce (28 grams) of heroin or crack cocaine (when taken as a part of the cost of a kilo) can be as low as £600. When divided into street deals of 0.1 of a gram, an ounce has a retail value of £2800. This means the risk of losing an ounce in one market (£600 outlay) is easily balanced by successes in other locations (£2800 return per venture). For those in control, risk and reward are easy to calculate and mitigate. According to the National Crime Agency in 2018, a single County Line can bring revenue of up to £800k per year.
To assume that all young people were tricked is to misunderstand the opportunities County Lines offers and potentially alienate those we are seeking to help.
County Lines also exploits the situations of the communities it serves. In seaside locations, cash-in-hand payments for seasonal work is the norm for many. Between April and September, it is possible to earn the equivalent of an annual wage, but the informal nature of payments combined with a lack of spending discipline (half for now, half for later) can lead to an impoverished winter – compounded by the added burden of Christmas costs. During the thriving summer season, County Lines capitalises on this ‘wealth’. In the winter period, when the demand from local consumers continues, County Lines offers work for those otherwise unemployed, with tasks including running drugs or cash, dealing, or providing transport or accommodation.
The business model also conveniently aligns with the school timetable that many of its local workers also have to adhere to. The high demand periods for heroin in particular are from wake-up in the morning (before school), before a second hit is required in the late afternoon (after school). If a County Line dominates the local market – which is the general intension – workers need to be available to supply in person at these times. If the line is employing local children, they can ‘work’ before and after school without even being absent. Some children even pretend to have delivery rounds in the morning, to alibi their departure from home or care at times otherwise deemed highly unusual. This alignment is highly convenient to all parties.
County Lines is undeniably the most significant trend in over a decade in the market for illicit drugs in Britain.
Of course, this demand and these market conditions existed long before County Lines became the high volume, high frequency supplier we see today. Before, markets were much more local and the supply chains far less transient, dominated instead by local dealers breaking down small amounts purchased from mid-market distributors and supplying deals onwards. The emergence of County Lines has usurped local dealers almost entirely in some locations, restructuring local drug markets and requiring a new type of workforce to maintain control of these unfamiliar and remote marketplaces.
The more monopolising County Lines became, the greater workforce it required. This workforce includes diverse roles; some are isolated in ‘trap houses’ dividing and wrapping tiny units, while others deliver these to the street. Some provide transport and facilitate properties, or replenish stock and recover cash proceeds. These workers exist in a large ecosystem: County Lines comprises of many competing gangs, groups and networks. Not only is it necessary for suppliers to counter local dealer resistance, but also protect against robberies by rival groups.
Why do People Choose to Get Involved?
To support this complex supply chain, large-scale and successive recruitment has become the norm. But if County Lines are well known for their exploitative practices, from violence to conditions of modern slavery, why would people want to get involved in a well-known exploitative trade?
Within any command pyramid, the base-level workforce constitutes the greatest number of participants, receiving a relatively small portion of the profits generated. Nonetheless, these actors are vital cogs in the County Lines machine who, to some extent, make choices to participate in the system that they are victims of. Understanding the role of choice and opportunity is essential to understanding the County Lines recruitment cycle, and thus protecting the people it exploits.
Recognising that a participant made a choice is not to nullify their potential victim status or neglect the need to pursue those offering the opportunities as likely exploiters, but rather to understand the role of their agency in deciding to join the group.
The element of choice is perhaps better understood as being comprised of the ‘5 Cs’:
1. Complicit - Those who know the risks, reap the rewards and do not suffer at the hands of others.
2. Compliant – Those who become involved due to a pre-existing or deliberately orchestrated relationship with those in control. Their sense of loyalty or requirement to repay favours can influence participation.
3. Compelled - Those who feel a need to join due to personal circumstances such as debt/low income or dependent drug use, loss of employment, higher outgoings or a relationship or affiliation/loyalty to a group that creates stronger demands than personal will can counter.
£500 per week is a figure commonly quoted as a typical wage for those working in County Lines. This is a staggering income for many. This is one element of County Lines that families and professionals struggle to counter, when seeking to extract participants. While there are a range of issues that can be addressed, the attraction of this level of income is inevitably compelling.
Many also report a sense of loyalty or affiliation to those who recruited them. This loyalty is often described as a form of indoctrination. It is important to recognise that County Lines has long since become a threat that spans communities, demographics and income groups.
The final two Cs relate to increasing levels of exploitation:
4. Coercion – Those who are often prevented from leaving County Lines, this may include via debt bondage, threats and actual violence.
5. Cheated or groomed – Those who fall victim of rewards being advertised to them with an absence of information about how exploitative the business model is.
The 5 C’s portray a reality of five individuals, all performing a function to County Lines, for different reasons and from varying influences. It is an oversimplification to assert that all County Lines workers are tricked into joining and are being threatened not to leave. This view overlooks the complexity and misses the reason why this highly exploitative criminal business model is so successful.
The 5 C’s portray a reality of five individuals, all performing a function to County Lines, for different reasons and from varying influences.
Furthermore, these choices do not exist in a vacuum. Here, it is important to note that individuals can fall into multiple categories of motivation – or motivations can change over time. For participants of county lines, context is particularly important. Some may even join this highly exploitative activity to escape even greater trauma, because it perversely offers them security and a sense of belonging. Others pursue the noble cause of putting food on the family table and clothing their siblings. In some such instances their parents became complicit. Those who chase high rewards and are also risk averse, indeed seeking out the excitement of risk and adventure, also fall fowl. For individuals for whom the recruitment route is via a gang, affiliation with a discernible group can bring purpose and identity, while in other instances a simple lack of healthy attention from family members or carers makes them vulnerable to being complimented by someone offering gifts.
Another potential influence upon young people is having only experienced the efficiency of the digital era. The introduction of the online marketplace has slashed delivery times, bringing high street goods to our doors within days, if not hours. Live streaming and on demand are the new norm for TV and music. ‘Having to wait’ is not a character trait the younger generations have grown up with. Add this to a lack of opportunity (perceived or otherwise) and the frustration at not being able to afford the goods constantly marketed to them via these streams, County Lines may become tantalising.
County Lines is rightly demonised for the trauma and exploitation it represents, but unless we better understand the incentives for those involved, we will fail to end this cycle.
Fundamentally, we must not overlook the agency of young people and their ability to make conscious decisions. This does not deprive them of their victim status but creates a more nuanced and realistic framework for investigating the nature of those choices. This is perhaps more easily recognised when we discuss adult involvement in County Lines. Indeed, there are a range of reasons why County Lines presents an opportunity for many. Some examples include:
- A dependent drug user who permits their premises to be used to store or supply drugs in exchange for daily doses.
- A sex worker who allows their flat to be used as a base, while working, in exchange for drugs which reduce their burden to work to fund them.
- A taxi driver who ferries runners around town under the cover of their business, supplementing family income.
- A person in debt to a ‘loan shark’ who agrees to drive the ‘reload’ runs, replenishing drug supplies or returning cash proceeds, who is now able to make weekly payments thereby reducing the fear of violence.
Conclusion: We Must Understand Agency to Better Tackle the Threat
County Lines is rightly demonised for the trauma and exploitation it represents, but unless we better understand the incentives for those involved, we will fail to end this cycle. County Lines is so successful because it capitalises on a dependent market and offers such a diverse range of opportunities for potential participants.
When presented with opportunity to enter County Lines, many make a conscious decision to take it. The key point of intervention is to then unravel that choice with them and the consequences it created for their life, including an honest and open assessment of how well or mis-informed it was. Without denying the impact of grooming, coercion and exploitation, taking this approach is key to a more effective victim-centric enforcement strategy: by helping to understand the combination of why they thought it was the option for them and what the true reality was. To just assume that all young people were tricked is to misunderstand the opportunities County Lines creates and potentially alienate those we are seeking to rescue.
Tony Saggers is a Threat, Risk and Harm consultant. Find more about Tony here.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution.
Authors' post-publication Annex to the article:
I am grateful for the multiple responses to this article. Following publication, I realised the article failed to include the following important point, which I add here post-script.
In addition to environmental and situation based influences, research informs that the adolescent brain continues to develop during teenage years and into their twenties. A lack of cognitive maturity, for some individuals, may affect their choices, preferences and ultimately vulnerability to County Lines. This developmental stage can also be affected by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE). Examples of this playing out include:
- Risk taking behaviour with a strong focus on the rewards of County Lines, significantly distorting consideration for potential consequences.
- Seeking independence and pushing previously adhered to boundaries, with exposure to new and influential peer groups.
- Susceptibility to believing the indoctrination tactics of County Lines seniors, resulting in the dismissal of views and guidance offered by parents, carers, youth workers and teachers.
Cognitive maturity is a factor in responsible decision making but is not, per se, a barrier to culpability.
Read Part 2 of this series: COVID-19 and County Lines
County Lines is rapidly become the backbone of the British illicit drug trade in heroin and crack cocaine. Part 2 in this series - arriving soon - will explore the impact of COVID-19 on County Lines.
*Editor's note: the original version of this article referred to the term victimhood. This was updated to 'victim status' at the authors' request.