County lines: the dark realities of life for teenage drug runners

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Jon Tyson/Unsplash., CC BY

Grace Robinson, Edge Hill University; James Densley, Metropolitan State University , and Robert McLean, Northumbria University, Newcastle

“County lines” is a term used by the police to describe a growing practice among criminal gangs: when demand for drugs fails to meet the supply in major cities, gangs travel to remote rural areas, market towns or coastal locations in search of new customers.

The process – referred to as “going cunch” (country) or “going OT” (out there) by those involved – has initiated ugly forms of exploitation. Children as young as 12 are hired as “runners” to transport and sell illicit drugs, while the homes of vulnerable adults are occupied without permission to create a base to sell from – a practice also known as “cuckooing”.

Tackling county lines is now a national priority: the government has launched a new £3.6m National County Lines Coordination Centre, made up of experts from the National Crime Agency. The centre aims to measure the threat of county lines, focus resources on the most serious offenders and work closely with partners in health, welfare and education to reduce the harms associated with the practice.

For our latest research, published in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, we spoke with members of organised crime groups, police, staff on youth offending teams and young people aged between 14 and 17 involved in drugs gangs in Glasgow, Scotland and Merseyside, England, to find out what leads them to get involved in this practice, and how it affects their lives.

Working the lines

Before gangs started using the county lines model, class A drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine were typically supplied in remote areas by user-dealers who would sell to locals from their own supply. Competition in these areas was low, and violence was kept to a minimum.

Read more:
Not all drug dealers are the same – it’s time to ditch outdated stereotypes

But in recent years, gangs have been using experience gained in the big cities to enter into smaller, satellite areas with high demand, good profit margins and low police presence. They are leveraging violent reputations earned in the big cities to intimidate and dominate existing players in the illegal drugs market. Police in picturesque county towns such as Shrewsbury (a town of about 70,000 people close to the Welsh border in Western England) are now dealing with turf wars and homicides.

A costly mistake. Shutterstock.

During our research, we found that one of the root causes of this problem is how normal it is among teenagers to use cannabis – and the monetary cost of this. Young people in our study began smoking weed recreationally with their friends as young as 13. Perhaps more significant than the psychological and physical effects of cannabis use, which are heightened around the time of puberty, was the fact that weed cost money that these adolescents did not have.

The majority of county lines workers we interviewed in Merseyside owed money to a drug dealer. They accrued debt by having their drugs “on tick” – a slang term for a “buy now, pay later” scheme. When they failed to pay, the indebted were forced into working for their dealers. Working the lines meant being deployed anywhere at any time, answering the phone without delay when their masters (or clients) called, and leaving their post only to meet paying customers.

Debt bondage wasn’t the only way people ended up working the lines. Some of our interviewees in Glasgow entered the trade by their own volition. They were willing to travel and simply asked known drug dealers for a job. Owing to boredom, poverty and a sense of hopelessness about their legitimate job prospects, these young people felt they had no choice but to sell drugs.

The experiences of young people who had made a choice (albeit a constrained one) to “go country” didn’t fully concur with the horror stories about the practice portrayed by the media. During their interviews, some young people recalled their experiences as “funny”, especially when they spoke of the exploitative relationships they had formed with vulnerable drug users.

A user-dealer’s flat is taken over by teenage drug runners. Source, Author provided
Young interviewees in both cities recounted how drug users would be “terrored” or intimidated to pass the time between waiting for the phone to ring and completing drug sales. Young people would entertain themselves by getting users to perform sex acts, eat from ashtrays and “shit off the floor” or undergo “challenges” in exchange for “free” drugs.

Removing root causes

Our findings expose a paradox at the heart of county lines – the exploited and the exploiters are often one and the same. Drug dealers, drug runners and drug users form a hierarchical structure, with the most vulnerable – the users – at the bottom. Drug runners look down on drug addicts to make themselves feel better about their own station.

County lines expose that drug prohibition is not working: current laws neither effectively prevent young people from selling drugs, nor protect the most vulnerable in society from consuming them. Positive initiatives such as the National County Lines Coordination Centre are necessary for sharing intelligence between police and social service providers, but constrained by the folly of existing drug policy.

Our research highlights that a criminal justice approach based on tough enforcement and recovering the proceeds of crime is not enough to dissuade dealers from dealing. Unless we tackle demand for illicit drugs, and the root causes of gang culture – namely social and economic marginalisation – county lines will continue to be drawn.The Conversation

Grace Robinson, PhD Candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant, Edge Hill University; James Densley, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Metropolitan State University , and Robert McLean, Lecturer in Criminology, Northumbria University, Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Young gang members also at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder

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Grace Robinson, Edge Hill University

Until recently, researchers have associated post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with being a victim of trauma. Now, new findings from the US suggest that the act of killing or perpetrating violence could be even more traumatic than being a victim.

A condition often experienced by war veterans, PTSD can cause nightmares, flashbacks and feelings of isolation. But there is another group, which also suffers from high exposure to violence, that up until now has been largely overlooked: gang members.

Gangs and violence go hand-in-hand. For gang members, violence is a necessary evil – it helps them to build status and respect, and to exercise control over illegal drug markets. For young people, being involved in gangs poses a double threat: not only are they more likely to be the victims of violence and crime, they are often made to prove their loyalty to the gang by committing violence against others.

A traumatic youth

Physical, emotional or sexual abuse and neglect are all traumatic events, which increase the risk of developing mental health problems. Experiences of early childhood trauma are common among young people in the Criminal Justice System (CJS). Compared to the general population, children in the CJS are three times more likely to have mental health problems – often anxiety, depression and drug and alcohol dependence.

Trauma breeds trauma. US Marshall’s Service/Flickr., CC BY

There’s a two-way relationship between trauma and being part of a gang. Trauma increases the likelihood of joining a gang, and gang membership increases the risk of being exposed to trauma. Young people who associate with offenders or have issues with substance abuse are especially vulnerable to exploitation by gangs. When a young person joins a gang, they are exposed to the same sort of violence, victimisation and neglect which caused their trauma in the first place.

Like child soldiers in countries such as South Sudan, young people in gangs are often forced or coerced into perpetrating violence against others through initiations, turf wars and ongoing gang activity. Initiations can include sexual assault and being the victim or perpetrator of violence.

A lost generation

In one of the very few British studies to explore the link between gang membership, violence and mental health, Jeremy Coid and colleagues compared non-violent men, violent men (with no involvement in gangs) and gang members. As expected, they found mental disorders such as psychosis, anxiety, depression and drug and alcohol dependence to be much more prevalent among violent men and gang members than among non-violent men.

Gang members also had higher rates of drug dependency (57.4%) and antisocial personality disorder (85.8%) – a psychological condition which includes patterns of manipulation and exploitation of others. One of the criteria for being diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder is being exposed to violence before the age of 15. With many young people involved in gangs before this age, it’s unsurprising that many gang members are plagued by the illness.

Youth violence doesn’t just affect those involved in gangs – an estimated 75% of young people caught carrying knives having no connection to gangs. Figures from the Ministry of Justice suggest that between March 2015 and March 2016, the most common offence committed by young people was Violence Against the Person. This raises huge issues for the future mental states of many young people – not just those involved with gangs.

The ConversationWith the National Health Service already stretched and young people waiting up to 18 months for mental health treatment, the leaders of today need to make tackling youth violence a top priority – or face dealing with future generations who bear deep psychological scars.

Grace Robinson, PhD Candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How gangs are exploiting children to do their dirty work


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Grace Robinson, Edge Hill University

Children as young as 12 have been reported to be doing drug runs in London. Targeting the most vulnerable young people in society – usually looked-after children or those already known to social services – organised crime gangs are using grooming tactics to coerce, manipulate and force young children into criminality to pay off unwanted debts.

Through my ongoing research with Youth Offending Teams, who work with young people in trouble with the law, I’ve found that young people are initially given cannabis, alcohol and cigarettes as a reward for helping with gangs’ dirty work. This can encourage addiction and once addicted, gang members tally up the cost of the drugs, allowing young people to quickly accumulate large debts. Vulnerable young people are becoming trapped in a situation where committing crime is one of very few ways that they can pay off their debt to the gang.

The majority of them fail to realise that they are being manipulated and exploited. My continuing research with staff in youth offending services has found that victims of this new kind of grooming believe that their criminal activity is one of “choice”, and that by complying, gangs will respect them and give them a sense of belonging. Sadly, I’ve heard that this rarely materialises and through the use of violence and intimidation, gangs exert control and a level of ownership over the young person from which it is difficult to escape.

County lines

Though gangs are typically highly territorial, laying claim over an area or postcode, they have expanded by moving into areas outside of major cities. This has resulted in the new phenomenon of “county lines”. This typically involves gangs from urban areas transporting class A drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine to underdeveloped drug markets in small counties and coastal towns. Exploited young people are used as the main transporters of these substances. One man from Peckham, South London, was convicted in January for running a gang supplying drugs in Plymouth.

Criminal exploitation is not, however, restricted to drugs, and there is evidence that some young people are transporters of cash as well as knives and firearms.

A report published in 2016 by the National Crime Agency was the first to acknowledge criminal exploitation in gangs, particularly through the use of county lines. The report detailed how organised crime gangs use mobile phone lines to forge a deal between drug users and drug mules. The phones are kept away from the drug supply and a relay system is put in place where the young person will deliver drugs, pick up cash and return to the urban location to begin the cycle again.

Drug users, addicts and vulnerable girls living in small counties are also exploited to assist with dealing and are commonly forced to use their homes as a base for storing drugs and weapons.

While London gangs are the dominant exporters to county lines, other gangs are reportedly travelling from Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham. One particular gang from Merseyside has reportedly been the supplier of drugs across Lancashire, West Yorkshire, Devon and Cornwall.

Plans to ‘crack down’

In late January, the government announced plans to crack down on the county lines run by gangs. An amendment was tabled to the Digital Economy Bill, currently making its way through parliament, that would force phone providers to disconnect mobiles and SIM cards believed to be connected with drug offences.

Officials have estimated that a single phone line has the ability to generate up to £3,000 per day, and so the number of SIM cards thought to be used for this purpose, an estimated £2m a week.

But with growing demand and increased levels of criminal organisation, it is unlikely that the government’s efforts will disrupt the drugs supply and infiltration of gangs into smaller towns. The removal of one gang will only create a void to be filled by another, which could encourage a vacuum of violence in the process as members fight to get to the top.

The political focus on tackling this kind of child criminal exploitation is clearly welcome. Society once treated those children groomed for sexual exploitation as offenders of “child prostitution”. These attitudes have changed over the past decade due to greater political attention on tackling child sexual exploitation.

We now immediately recognise the victim of child sexual exploitation as a child – and this ought to be the case for those criminally exploited by gangs. Instead, law enforcement agencies are criminalising victims of this exploitation, drawing them into a system of intense scrutiny and powerlessness. Society is now running the risk of criminalising the most vulnerable. There has already been evidence of this through the use of Joint Enterprise, a “lazy law” which has allowed the courts to criminalise gang members for slight association with a gang.

The line between victim and offender has become too blurred to separate. So next time you hear of a young person being branded as a feral gang member, dig a little deeper and look for evidence that challenges your prejudices and assumptions.
The Conversation

Grace Robinson, Graduate Teaching Assistant, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.