County lines drug dealing - how violent crime gangs are exploiting children

County lines is a tactic used by organised crime groups to send drugs out to smaller towns (Photo: Shutterstock)County lines is a tactic used by organised crime groups to send drugs out to smaller towns (Photo: Shutterstock)
County lines is a tactic used by organised crime groups to send drugs out to smaller towns (Photo: Shutterstock)

by Michael Drummond

Police have been stepping up their fight against county lines drug dealing, a brutal tactic used by organised crime gangs.

Stories about county lines are appearing in the news across the country, but what exactly is it? How is it different to more traditional drug dealing, and how can you spot the signs?

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What is county lines drug dealing?

County lines is a tactic used by gangs and organised crime groups from big cities like London to send drugs out to smaller towns.

Children and vulnerable adults are often intimidated into carrying out illegal activity on their behalf, under threat of extreme violence.

Drug users in smaller towns call a dedicated drugs ‘deal line’, usually located somewhere in London, and then drugs runners are dispatched to their location.

Gangs exploiting children and vulnerable adults with threats of violence

One particularly harrowing feature of county lines drug dealing is ‘cuckooing’.

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Often violent dealers target the home of a vulnerable person, taking over the property and using it as a base to operate from, according to the National Crime Agency (NCA).

People exploited in this way will quite often be exposed to physical, mental and sexual abuse, and in some instances will be trafficked to areas a long way from home as part of the network's drug dealing business.

Children with clean criminal records will often be groomed and used as drug runners or to transport cash.

According to the NCA, the use of children in county lines operations bears similarities to child sexual exploitation. Children often do not see themselves as victims or realise they have been groomed to get involved in criminality.

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How widespread is county lines drug dealing?

In 2017-2018 there were 720 deal lines in operation in the UK, according to NCA estimates.

The number for 2018-19 is about 2,000 – almost three times as many as the previous year.

Nikki Holland, county lines lead for the NCA, said, “Tackling county lines is a national law enforcement priority.

In 2017-2018 there were 720 deal lines in operation in the UK (Photo: Shutterstock)

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“We know that criminal networks use high levels of violence, exploitation and abuse to ensure compliance from the vulnerable people they employ to do the day-to-day drug supply activity.

“Every organised crime group trafficking drugs is a business which relies on cash flow. County lines is no different. What we will continue to do with our law enforcement partners is disrupt their activity and take away their assets.

“We also need to ensure that those exploited are safeguarded and understand the consequences of their involvement. This is not something law enforcement can tackle alone - the need to work together to disrupt this activity and safeguard vulnerable victims must be the priority for everyone.”

Spot the signs of county lines in your area

If you see any of the following in your community, it could be evidence of county lines:

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An increase in visitors and cars to a house or flatNew faces appearing at the house or flatNew and regularly changing residents (e.g. different accents compared to local accent)Change in a resident's mood and/or demeanour (do they seem secretive/ withdrawn/ aggressive/ emotional?)Substance misuse and/or drug paraphernalia, possibly in an area where this is unsualChanges in the way young people you might know dressUnexplained, sometimes unaffordable new things (e.g clothes, jewellery, cars etc)Residents or young people you know going missing, maybe for long periods of timeYoung people seen in different cars/taxis driven by unknown adultsYoung people seeming unfamiliar with your community or where they areTruancy, exclusion, disengagement from schoolAn increase in anti-social behaviour in the communityUnexplained injuries

How can you report information?

DCI Steve Rayland, Sussex Police’s head of intelligence, said it is crucial that members of the public report concerns.

He said, “Tackling county lines is something that cannot be done by police alone.

“The biggest part for us is if members of the public have concerns around children who are being exploited, they need to contact us because we want to get in there and look after those children.

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“We want to know about that because we need to get in there and make sure their lives are not made a misery by these criminal gangs.”

To report information about county lines, contact police on 101 or report online. In an emergency always call 999.

Information can also be reported anonymously to Crimestoppers. Call 0800 555 111 or visit

This article originally appeared on our sister site, Worthing Herald