This is part of a series by HuffPost UK about county lines drug dealing in Britain.
Drugs are at the heart of county lines activity. The narcotics market is worth an estimated £9.4bn a year in the UK. About three million people took drugs in England and Wales in 2019, with around 300,000 in England taking the most harmful: opiates and/or crack cocaine.
In the first three months of lockdown alone, drug offences rose by 27% across England and Wales despite total recorded crime dropping by a quarter.
Sadia Ali is the founder of grassroots north London charity Minority Matters, supporting families whose children are trafficked by county lines gangs.
Through Minority Matters, HuffPost UK is telling the stories of families torn apart by county lines and the charity’s campaign for stronger, more targeted action by the authorities.
“It’s been a tough nine months,” Ali told HuffPost UK. “The number of young people who are being imprisoned as a result of the drugs market – it is unprecedented.”
So what are the drugs that drive county lines, and how are they moved around the country? Here’s what you need to know.
The customers are mainly rich or middle-class white people
“Young people are caught with heroin and cocaine which they’re selling to middle-class users who consume it just as they would have a glass of wine on a Friday night,” said Ali.
“I wonder whether they know how it got to them – how much the young person delivering has been abused to provide their fix. Is there any consciousness?”
London mayor Sadiq Khan has blasted people who take cocaine at “middle-class parties” believing it to be a victimless crime. MP David Lammy and Met Police chief Cressida Dick have expressed similar views.
London-based substance misuse worker Adam Johnson* told HuffPost UK the county lines’ target market is “older white guys”. He said: “These days crack and heroin isn’t taken by young people because they don’t want to become a ‘nitty’ – that’s why at the moment we have an epidemic of deaths within the drug-taking population.”
The drug of choice for young dealers, he said, is often weed. It seems to be a myth that dealers don’t touch drugs themselves: many of the mothers we spoke to for this series spoke of their sons smoking weed, for instance.
“The Class A population are these guys in their 30s and 40s who started in the 1980s and ’90s and never stopped,” Johnson added. “They get to the age of 40 or 50 and can’t take this any more, then just die off.”
One young drug dealer who Johnson works with told of how a county line near Essex is known as “Treasure Island” because the typically white, rich, male buyers pay cash and there’s “no hassle”.
How do they get the drugs in the first place?
In the UK, getting high is as easy as ordering a takeaway.
In fact, evidence suggests this is exactly how customers have been accessing drugs during lockdown – through dealers posing as Deliveroo staff, as well as couriers and nurses, to carry out illegal activity undetected by authorities. Similar stories have been told by police chiefs across the UK including Scotland Yard commissioner Cressida Dick.
“Larger drug organisations are weathering the Covid-19 storm,” said Niko Vorobyov – the author of the book Dopeworld on the global war on drugs, and a former drug dealer. “Massive coke shipments are still coming through the major European ports from South America, hidden in boxes of fruit; after all, you can still buy bananas.”
What’s the impact?
Drug deaths have reached an all-time high and the market has become much more violent. Taking the health harms, costs of crime and wider impacts on society together, the government estimates the total cost of drugs to society are over £19bn, which is more than twice the value of the market itself.
But there’s an enormous human impact for those caught up in the trade, too, as our reports of broken families and missing children make all too clear.
Nick Titchener, director at leading London criminal defence solicitors Lawtons, said young people thrust onto the front line of drug dealing operations often become addicted to drugs themselves or end up in court facing prosecution for a conviction.
For those at the head of organised crime groups, it is not uncommon that sentences can be in the region of nine or 10 years in prison, he added, while the “runners” who are responsible for moving the drugs over and within the county lines, depending on their seniority and circumstances, often face sentencing ranging from two to five years’ imprisonment.
“Where the ‘runner’ is particularly vulnerable or young, the court is obliged to consider that level of exploitation as a factor that can properly reduce the sentence, and there are occasions when there is evidence of human trafficking,” Titchener told Huffpost UK.
“There has been a noted historical imbalance in the justice system for those caught up in such activity – research from the Sentencing Council on cases between 2012 and 2015 found that Black and ethnic minority people are more likely to be imprisoned for drug offences than white defendants who had committed similar crimes.
“Our key aim with these cases is to work with the young people who are often ultimately the victims in these operations to provide a fair outcome for each case, regardless of their ethnicity.”
What drugs are sold and what do they cost?
Drugs usually come in one of three forms: raw plants (such as cannabis), refined plants (like heroin or cocaine) and synthetic substances (like ecstasy).
Heroin, also known as brown
This imported substance is typically sold as a white or brownish powder from around £20 per bag. It’s made from morphine which is taken from the seed pod of the opium poppy plants grown in Asia, Mexico, and Colombia. It is grown in around 50 countries and usually reaches the UK from places including Turkey and Iran.
MDMA, also known as molly or ecstasy
This man-made substance is usually imported too from countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands. Widely regarded as a “party drug”, it often comes in the form of powder and pills, sold for as little as £10 per capsule.
Cocaine (crack and powder), also known as white
People often buy powder cocaine alongside other recreational drugs such as ecstasy and amphetamines. It comes in the form of powder or “rocks”, which are processed with ammonia or baking soda plus water, then heated. It is imported from countries such as Colombia and Peru. On the UK streets, a rock of crack cocaine is priced from upwards of £10, and a gram of powder cocaine for upwards of £30.
Amphetamines or speed
This normally comes in the form of a white powder and sells for upwards of £5 a gram. It is imported from countries such as Morocco and Spain.
Thousands of Vietnamese children are trafficked into the UK and forced to work for criminal gangs running cannabis factories on our doorsteps. These drugs are then distributed and sold. This fuels a black market in cannabis that is worth £2.6bn, according to a report from the Institute of Economic Affairs. It is sold from £20 per quarter ounce upwards.
A specific strain of weed, known as “skunk”, is most prevalent in the UK. This is a strong form of cannabis specifically grown to have high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the chemical that provides the high.
“In natural cannabis, THC is about 4%. In street cannabis – skunk – it’s about 30%. So it’s the difference between a bottle of vodka and a bottle of beer,” Johnson said.
Spice is a plant-based mix laced with synthetic chemicals. It is usually produced in the UK. The prices for this vary depending on what city you’re in, from £20 for 3.5g in Manchester to £30 to £60 for the same amount in London.
Are dealers loaded, then?
Despite the multi-million-pound industry of illegal drug sales, it’s not as though all the young people selling the substances and getting arrested actually make lots of money. They’re enticed into the activity with the promise of a lucrative lifestyle, then often set up by the line leaders in staged “robberies” of drugs, and told to work for free indefinitely to pay off this “debt”.
It is not uncommon for line leaders to force vulnerable trafficked dealers into performing sex acts, video them, and use the footage to blackmail them into continuing to sell illegal substances.
When did the industry start?
Johnson said: “Drugs have always been there – it’s just that the different types of drugs change and the laws change. Queen Victoria used to take bloody cocaine and cannabis but in those days because it was in the rich population it wasn’t an issue. It’s only when the poor population starts getting involved, or taking the same drugs, that becomes an issue.”
David Thompson*, a 50-year-old white man from Northamptonshire, told HuffPost UK of his drug dealing exploits in the 1990s when ecstasy pills and speed – or “whizz” – was consumed “like M&Ms”.
“I was around 20 years old at the time,” he said. “I started dealing in the illegal rave scene like so many others then after five years I gave up, then dabbled again for a while then gave up again and so it went on.
“Coke was too expensive back then so it didn’t get sold much; I only sold to mates to make a few quid.”
What’s the solution?
Referring to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 as “a shit piece of legislation”, Johnson is calling for the legalisation of all drugs.
“If you look at it in an intelligent way like Portugal – if you legalise personal use of drugs you can then treat addiction as a medical issue rather than locking people away; if you lock someone away with a cannabis problem then they come out with a crack problem. If you prohibit use of cannabis, the only thing you get on road is the really strong stuff which creates mental health issues and physical dependencies.”
Vorobyov, who’s also a former drug dealer, echoes this call.
He said: “When someone like me says drugs should be legal, we don’t mean all drugs, all the time. I don’t think scoring crystal meth from your local corner shop is a good idea.
“First of all, all drugs should be decriminalised. When police say they’re trying to help you, in most cases that means they’re trying to help you to a cell. Ultimately, that helps no one.
“The police waste time they could be solving rapes and robberies. Young people get profiled and picked on and then we’re surprised when the riots kick off. And hardcore addicts – well, why do you think a pair of handcuffs will stop them if they face life-threatening overdoses every day?
“Add to that, prohibition provides a motive for addicts to shoplift, and Mexican narco kingpins to dissolve their enemies in tubs of acid. People get poisoned with poor-quality product. The whole thing’s just a fucking mess. If the war on drugs wasn’t meant to keep us safe but make it wildly more dangerous, it’s succeeded admirably.
“Cannabis should be sold in special shops or dispensaries like Amsterdam or California. Heroin should be given on prescription, like it is in Switzerland and other European countries. Something like cocaine is a bit more tricky because it really is toxic, but you know, back when Sigmund Freud was sniffing it, it was legal, and society didn’t collapse, even if he did say some weird things about his mum.”