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Three questions on drugs



Beth Mooney, Strategy and Insight Manager

Friday 10 February 2023

As part of a new series of blog posts Crest Advisory is posing some of the big policy questions around crime and justice. The first blog, by Crest Chief Executive Harvey Redgrave, set out the key challenges facing the criminal justice system. Here, Beth Mooney considers three pressing issues connected to ‘county lines’ drug gangs.


Over the past year, Crest Advisory has conducted research, compiled reports and produced recommendations on county lines drug gangs.

We have explored the origin of county lines, the role played by technology and people’s experiences of exploitation and vulnerability. In our report, ‘Cutting the head off the snake’, we showed how the exploitation of children and young people was as fundamental to the model as the mobile phone. In ‘Breaking the Cycle’, we matched local authority and police records to help us understand the life courses of young people involved in county lines and, as far as possible, the realities of the exploitation they experienced.

The more we learn, the more focused we are on the young people at the centre of county lines who have been left traumatised by what they have gone through. For the police service and the government, county lines has become a priority and, by proxy, a marker of policing and political success - but it remains an area not wholly understood. Here are three key questions about county lines and drugs that need addressing.

How are ‘county line’ drug networks changing?

County lines are said to typically revolve around the supply of Class A drugs, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, via a mobile phone ‘line’, across county borders, through the exploitation of vulnerable adults and children (National Crime Agency, 2015). The current government definition now references “illegal drugs” rather than just Class A substances, crack cocaine or heroin.

Definitions and labels serve an important purpose: they help focus attention on an issue and ensure there’s a coordinated response. The phrase ‘county lines’ gained traction in the mainstream media and united practitioners in a number of sectors across the country; that was vital given the cross-border nature of county lines. However, such a term is only helpful if it continues to reflect the lived experience of those involved.

Our research has found that county lines are constantly evolving in different ways across England and Wales. Young people were less likely to take black cabs while moving drugs, and were switching from trains to coaches. More deliveries were being made in order to reduce the volume of drugs being carried at any one time. It all represents a change from 2020, where we identified a more consistent transition towards a system known as the ‘franchise’ model. Under this model, young people from towns and rural areas where the drugs are sold are sent to cities where the county lines gangs are based to collect the drugs. Previously, young people would be sent from cities to sell the drugs in areas they were unfamiliar with.

These findings suggest that our current understanding of county lines is out of date and definitions are not evolving quickly enough. This can cause real problems because, as our research highlighted, although some front-line practitioners understand county lines enough to identify potential victims, they rely on traditional interpretations of it to do so. That’s particularly true for police officers, who spoke about targeting train stations and known trafficking routes in order to spot drug runners.

To identify those being exploited in county lines gangs, further research is needed to establish how the drug dealing networks are changing and where regional variations exist. The aim of the research findings should be to develop a new definition for county lines that can help frontline practitioners. Those working in the field could also share their experiences of how county lines are changing to help identify those at risk.

What are the links between ‘county lines’ and local drug markets?

Our research suggests that the line between county lines and local drug markets is becoming blurred. We found that a range of drugs was now sold by county lines gangs, including powder cocaine, ketamine, cannabis and pills of varying types. There was also a different user profile, suggesting that in some areas county lines were increasingly supplying recreational markets. One expert told us, linked to the ‘franchise model’, ‘sub-lines’ were forming in his local area. Linked to the original county line, they were set up and controlled by runners, who were also operating in nearby towns. There is evidence that, in some parts of the country, county lines are increasingly set up to supply one particular police force area, rather than cross county borders. It means runners are staying closer to home. As a result, they go missing less often and, when they do, are missing for shorter periods of time.

The characteristics which defined ‘county lines’, such as the supply of heroin and crack cocaine and cross-border dealing, are clearly changing. There seems to be an increasing overlap between county lines and local drugs markets. To fully understand county lines and to safeguard those who have been exploited and others who are at risk it is essential to understand that relationship. Indeed, it may be that the near-exclusive focus on county lines has created a blindspot around child exploitation in localised drug dealing.

What’s the best way to support young people caught up in drug dealing gangs?

As part of our research, we examined the lives of 13 young men involved in county lines. The vast majority had experienced domestic abuse and had often been reported missing. Most had committed a number of offences and used illegal drugs or other substances. There is no doubt that they required early intervention. Very few of them received it.

There is an argument that they are victims of circumstance; they experienced vulnerability before the ‘public health approach’ was championed in England and Wales. Under that approach, police, local authorities and other agencies will be required to focus on serious violence through prevention and early intervention for vulnerable young people.

But the cohort of young people in our sample did not benefit from a prevention strategy. They experienced significant trauma and were largely unable to access support. For most of them, the best chance they had was to be diverted away from criminal prosecution and towards their local authority. Even then, the help they received was limited; local authority services were stretched and not designed for dealing with victims of exploitation, let alone county lines.

As a consequence, support for these young people largely falls to the third sector. The social, not-for-profit business Catch22 provides a specialist support and rescue service for young people and their families who are criminally exploited through county lines in London, the West Midlands, Manchester and Merseyside. Covering Scotland and north east England, Action for Children runs a ‘peer mentor’ scheme to support young people caught up in organised crime, including in county lines gangs. Where support is available, funding is often limited to a few years or less, meaning that support is patchy and, for most, insufficient.

As variable as support in this area may be, evaluations of the support are even less consistent. Datasets are often limited and learning is not made publicly available. It is no surprise that even after young people are identified by police or local authorities as being exploited by county lines gangs, or at risk of it, some young people continue to be involved.

We need a step change in research and practice. Pilots need to be funded, evaluated and, where successful, rolled out. Learning from interventions needs to be systematic and made publicly available to ensure other agencies have the opportunity to tailor their support. Serious consideration should be given to creating a dedicated organisation to compile evidence on the latest trends and what works, just as the Centre for Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse was established in 2017. An organisation like that would ensure frontline practitioners are better equipped to identify young people at risk of exploitation.

But the key thing is to conduct further research: the more we understand about county lines, drug markets and organised crime networks, the more opportunity there is to intervene and tackle the problems effectively.


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