Article: That Other Epidemic: A Review of Simon Harding’s County Lines

Author: John Pitts | Tags: , , , ,

John Pitts reviews Simon Harding's book 'County Lines: Exploitation and Drug Dealing among Urban Street Gangs', due to be published in May 2020. Pitts presents Harding's findings alongside other emerging County Lines research and data. He suggests the need to better understand emerging trends in light of the Coronavirus pandemic, where the supply and demand for drugs is likely to increase.

‘County Lines: Exploitation and Drug Dealing among Urban Street Gangs’, by Simon Harding, published May 2020 by Bristol University Press, ISBN 978-1529203080

Some Foe to Man

Has breath’d on ev’ry Breast Contagious Fury,

And Epidemick Madness.

Nicholas Rowe, The Fair Penitent (1703)

The County Lines phenomenon has spawned several recent publications which have explored this pernicious trade. In his latest book, based on extensive fieldwork with young people involved in county lines and the professionals who are endeavouring to stop them, Simon Harding synthesises and contextualises this literature, while adding an important new perspective. Coincidentally, County Lines arrives at the same time as Dame Carol Black’s Independent Review of Drugs (Home Office 2020) and together they offer a comprehensive and worrying picture of the current state of play in the illicit drug market in the UK. Carol Black notes that The illegal drugs market has never caused greater harm, observing that the 4,359 illicit drug-related deaths in England and Wales in 2018, a rise of 16% on the previous year, were the highest on record. While most of these deaths were linked to heroin use there has also been a five-fold increase in cocaine deaths since 2011. Moreover, the report points to: 

Huge geographical and socioeconomic inequalities (which) lie beneath these trends, with entrenched drug use and premature deaths occurring disproportionately in deprived areas and in the north of the country. (Black, 2020:1)

In 2016, the North East had the highest rate of deaths from drug use in England and Wales, with 77.4 deaths per one million of the population. The lowest rate was in the East Midlands with 29.1 deaths per million. The Office for National Statistics report (2017) noted a “significant increase” in both crack and powder cocaine purity. Figures released by the Office for National Statistics in 2019, indicate that between 2016 and 2018 drug-related deaths in Leeds set a new record and that Yorkshire had seen a 25% rise in drug deaths in the preceding five years reaching a record high of 1,272. However, as is the case in the rest of the country, most of those who died bought their drugs from street dealers and, not infrequently, paid for with the proceeds from petty theft or state benefits.

“Sensible Recreational Drug Use”

The market for illicit drugs in the UK is segmented in terms of social class, spending power and impact (Seddon, 2010). The rising death rate amongst the sub-‘just about managing’ users is paralleled by a remarkably low death rate amongst so-called ‘recreational drug users’. This is because they normally use drugs differently and tend to buy them from more reliable sources – often from the internet (Glenny & Lang, 2019).

Dream Market, a site on the ‘dark web’ until February 2019, when it was taken down by a government ‘botnet’ (a network of zombie computers), was the world’s biggest and most reliable supplier of narcotics. At its peak, Dream Market enjoyed an almost complete monopoly of the online market with between one and two million customers, mainly in the UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands and the USA; many of them young professionals or university students. Dream Market employed experts to test the drugs and provided information on how to take them safely. It supplied MDMA, cocaine, marijuana, heroin, Xanax, ketamine and LSD; delivered through the letterbox by Royal Mail within days of placing an order (Glenny & Lang, 2019).

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (2019) estimates that UK-based Organised Crime Groups generate more money from selling illegal drugs on the dark web than those in any other European country (£24m. with a total weight of 2,825kg in 2017-18). And it is estimated that the number of people in England who buy drugs on the dark web has more than doubled since 2014.

A relatively safe alternative to internet vendors are urban Full Service Party Suppliers. Glenny and Lang (2019) write:

Fallowfield in Manchester, Hyde Park in Leeds, and Camden Town in London: three places where you might be handed a smart business card indicating that full service is available … Their well-off, well-educated clients can afford to be more discerning than County Lines users and if they aren’t satisfied they will turn to the dark web instead. So full service means offering quality products at competitive prices with a decent guarantee of security from arrest.

The menu of drugs is posted on WhatsApp or Snapchat and having placed an order the customer can pick up their ‘quality assured’ purchases at an agreed rendezvous within an hour. The drugs are delivered by ‘nicely turned out’ young people driving reassuringly expensive Mercedes or Audis.

Although these two sources of supply account for a sizeable chunk of the illicit drugs trade in the UK they receive far less media coverage, or indeed police attention, than the drug dealing at the other end of the social structure. There are four possible reasons for this:

As Howard Parker (et al, 2002) have observed, ‘sensible’ recreational drug use is becoming increasingly accommodated into the social lives of conventional young adults, they write:

Most young people, even clubbers (Measham et al., 2000), obtain their drugs through social networks and friends of-friends chains (Parker et al., 2001) connected to small dealers. Because most recreational drug users are otherwise fairly law-abiding, ‘sorting’ each other acts as a filter or social device which allows them to obtain drugs without venturing into the world of dodgy dealers and so risk apprehension or trouble. That probably half of young Britons have breached the Misuse of Drugs Act in terms of possession and perhaps a quarter have acquired and distributed drugs in a way which makes them arrestable for ‘intent to supply’ is a key measure of normalization. (Parker et. al., 2002:944)

Moreover, this type of illicit drug use is also tacitly accepted by some politicians, who may have enjoyed a ‘snort’ or two in their youth, pro-decriminalisation pressure groups, much of the media and enforcement agencies. Whereas the estimated yield from ‘normalised’ drug use, via the Dark Net, Full Service Party Suppliers and, non-scruffy, User-Dealers, is estimated to be between £24 and £30 million p.a., the yield from County Lines drug trafficking is thought to be around £500 million (Glenny, 2019)Furthermore, unlike County Lines, this form of drug dealing, at the point of sale at least, is non-violent and does not involve the direct exploitation and abuse of vulnerable children and young people.

County Lines

A County Line is, characteristically, run by a metropolitan criminal group (although not necessarily a gang) that establishes a link between an urban hub and an out-of-town drug market, via which drugs (primarily heroin and crack cocaine) are trafficked. The runners, or ‘Youngers’, travel between the urban hub and the out-of-town location by train, taxi, or in a hired car, to replenish stock and to transport the profits back to base. A mobile phone line in the metropolis receives requests from customers in the out-of-town location. The runners are then contacted by phone and told where to deliver the drugs and how much to charge for them. The drugs are often stashed in a ‘cuckooed’ dwelling, taken over from vulnerable drug users in the out-of-town location (Robinson et. al., 2018).

If an epidemic is ‘the sudden, widespread, occurrence of an undesirable phenomenon’ (OED, passim) then the exponential growth of County Lines drug dealing in the second decade of the 21st century is an epidemic. Nikki Holland, the National Crime Agency (NCA) county lines lead, notes that whereas in 2015 only seven of the UKs 44 police forces were reporting county lines activity. By 2016 31 forces were reporting “established” County Lines activity with a further 3 reporting an “emerging picture.” By 2017, 38 forces were reporting County Lines activity while in 2018 all 44 forces reported the presence of County Lines (Grierson, 2019).

Statistics produced by the Ministry of Justice (2017) indicate that during this period (between 2012 and 2016) convictions of young people aged 10 to 17 for Class A (e.g., heroin and crack cocaine) drug production and ‘possession with intent to supply’ increased by 77%. This was three times the increase among adult offenders. And as Robinson et. al. (2019:14) observe:

While some of these young people are “user dealers”, or individual entrepreneurs working “solo”, many others are embedded within gangs and organised criminal networks.

Meanwhile, the numbers of young people under 20 admitted to hospital for drug-related poisoning in England and Wales rose by 16% between 2012/13 and 2017/18. Moreover, the number of deaths in 2018/19 were 46% higher than in 2008/9. In its 2019 report on Drug Use Among Young People, NHS Digital notes that not only had poisoning by drug misuse risen but that admissions were around five times more likely to occur in the most socially deprived areas compared with the least deprived areas.

As to the numbers of County Lines, in November 2017 the NCA estimated that there were at least 720 operating in England and Wales. By October 2018 this estimate was revised upwards to 1000+, and by 2020 this was again revised upward to 2,000+, with at least 283 lines originating in London (National Crime Agency (NCA 2017, 2018, 2019).

Research undertaken by the Mayor of London’s office found that between January 2018 and April 2019, 4,013 young people were involved with the County Lines emanating from London. The largest group were teenagers aged between 15 and 19 (46 per cent), followed by 20 to 25-year-olds (29 per cent) (Busby, 2019). These young people were involved in lines that reached 41 counties in the UK but mostly Norfolk, Hampshire, Essex, Sussex and the Thames Valley. Within London, the Boroughs with most young people linked to county lines were Lambeth, Newham and Croydon (Busby, 2019).

This exponential growth of County Lines has been attributed variously to cuts in police numbers, cuts to youth services, cuts to drug recovery services, increased child poverty, increased school exclusions and the availability of purer, cheaper, drugs. However, as Simon Harding observes, while these factors may have accelerated the development of County, Lines they were not critical factors in their emergence.

The Great Escape

In the first decade of the 21st century, illicit drug markets operated by street gangs in London were concentrated in, or adjacent to, gang affected neighbourhoods or nearby transport hubs (Pitts, 2008, Harding, 2014, Densley, 2014, Andell, 2019, Whittaker, et. al. 2017). The street gang was the retailer, supplied by wholesalers with no obvious affiliation to the gang. There were two main types of distribution; street-based ‘open markets’ to which customers would travel and ‘closed markets’ in which retailers would supply a limited number of trusted clients who placed their orders by ‘phone or text (Pitts, 2008). These orders would then be delivered by gang ‘Youngers’, often using ‘pushbikes’ or mopeds.

However, as Simon Harding argues, from 2010, because of the policies of austerity introduced by the Cameron administration, legitimate routes out of poverty for many young people in the poorest parts of the inner city vanished. In consequence some of them drifted towards the ‘informal economy’ to try their hand at illegitimate alternatives, the most lucrative of which was drug dealing. Harding writes of a deepening ‘pool of availability’, into which more and more young people were prepared to dive. He notes that:

It is important to view this from the perspective of the actors involved. A central feature of county lines drug supply networks is what it offers both young people and those willing to enter it – employability. County lines is compelling for many young people, notably those with limited or zero work experience other than having their CV rejected and their applications unanswered. This offer is essentially unmatched elsewhere in the current economy. It offers tax-free profits and working hours to suit yourself (once reaching the higher ranks). Mirroring the gig economy in structure, it is familiar to young people and permits travel outside estate boundaries or gang turf. (Harding, 2020:270)

But this flight into drug dealing meant that urban drug markets soon became overcrowded. And this in turn led to an intensification of violence between rival gangs as they fought for ‘market share’, with a concomitant rise in homicides, serious injury, arrests and incarceration (Windle & Briggs, 2015, Pitts, 2016, Whittaker, et. al. 2017, Andell & Pitts, 2018, Andell, 2019). Harding writes:

In consequence, the USG (Urban Street Gang) social field now becomes more crowded than before, meaning it is more difficult to achieve distinction (Bourdieu, 1984; Harding, 2014). Achieving status and hierarchical advancement within the USG is now more challenging and certainly much more competitive. Ultimately it alters the normative social values of what is a credible action within the social field (for example the throwing of acid), creating a myriad of unsafe spaces through which gang-affiliated young people and non-gang-affiliated young people must navigate. Both gang affiliated and non-gang-affiliated youth want out of this violent landscape. (Harding, 2020:34)

While ‘Going Country’ had been a minor sideline for drug-dealing street gangs in London from early in the 21st century (Pitts, 2008, Harding, 2014), it now appeared to offer a solution to what had become a very serious problem. The ‘Country’ option was attractive for several reasons. Gang ‘Elders’, correctly, anticipated less resistance from the police and local dealers in the ‘Country’ (Shapiro & Daly, 2017). Most of the dealers and runners, while known to the police in the metropolis, were not on the radar of provincial forces. Moreover, successful police operations against local dealers in out-of-town locations had created a gap in the market which urban street gangs were all too ready to fill (McSweeny, 2008).

Another factor was the structure of many London street gangs. In other parts of the country street-level drug dealing was conducted by adult members of local organised crime groups (c.f. Kennedy, 2019) or independent adult dealers (c.f. Qasim, 2018). In many parts of London, however, most illicit drug distribution mirrored the modus operandi of the Jamaican gangsters who pioneered the crack cocaine business in the USA in the 1990s and relocated to London at the turn of the century (Pitts, 2008). These ‘gangstas’ utilised ‘crews’ of poorly rewarded runners (AKA ‘Youngers’ or ‘Soldiers’) to service and protect the market because, when apprehended, they would attract lesser penalties than the ‘Elders’ who ran the business. Meanwhile the Elders maintained a safe distance and a low profile. Moreover, advances in mobile phone technology meant that by the 2010s the organisers of ‘County Lines’ in the UK were able maintain their anonymity while orchestrating the dealing from the comfort of their own homes; ‘keeping tabs’ on their runners via the Find My Phone App.

One might have thought that joining a drug-dealing gang where one was exposed to significant risks to life, limb and imprisonment for meagre rewards, while the Elders luxuriated in the wealth derived from the business, was a thoroughly bad idea. But, of course, joining a County Line isn’t just about employment because becoming a ‘gangsta’ is not simply about reward, it is also about achieving recognition as a competent human being; a ‘somebody’ (Young, 1999). Harding writes:

County lines, however, takes strategic advancement to a different level, offering a holistic sub-world of possibilities where one can endlessly build street capital and rise through the hierarchy of the social field, generating reputation, status and income. In this way agentic involvement in CLs far outstrips selling weed on street corners as it offers routes to power, wealth and status that previously took years to accumulate. This then is a ‘fast-stream’ approach to building street capital and distinction. (Harding, 2020:275)

The usual accounts of how young people join a County Line suggest that it is fairly straightforward. But, as Harding explains, their recruitment, and decisions about the roles they will occupy, is a complex process. Contact is initially:

… informal; based on links to local networks, friendships and family.(But) latent processes are detectable via informal, hidden, individual assessment involving USG Elders/Olders/CL managers adjudicating on suitable candidacy. This assessment of street capital bears resemblance to credit score checks by financial companies with key criteria including:

  • availability pool
  • attitude to making money
  • aspiration to advance
  • aptitude and ability – street capital
  • authenticity
  • allegiance and assurance (trust)
  • adrenaline

(Harding, 2020:73)

He continues:

Any youth seeking to be ‘put on’ a crew will be known to them. Assessments include peer-group opinions, and peer nominations means quick co-opting. Others simply offer their services. Candidacy assessments occur informally over months as Olders spot those ‘with potential’. Junior runner/dealers (considered disposable cannon fodder) have this recruitment process condensed into quick assessments. For some this process might be unrecognisable. Where those ‘vouched for’ gain entry, that is, where a known street-name confers credit, the new candidate will owe a favour to the street-name who introduced him. (Harding, 2020:74)

The recruiters are looking for what Harding terms ‘authenticity’; they want to know if the aspirant is ‘the real deal’:

Authenticity concurrently confers a passport to act within the social field of the gang, conferring both permission and authority. Once designated and conferred it removes questions of legitimacy and deems all actions ‘credible’. It supports and reinforces the doxa and illusio (Bourdieu, 1991). In this way authenticity becomes a kite-mark of gang habitus, both designating and verifying ‘realness’. (Harding, 2020:273)

While Harding’s study underlines much of what we think we already know about the involvement of young people in County Lines it also adds significant new knowledge. For example, he challenges the notion that the young people involved are necessarily exploited, suggesting that many seem perfectly happy with their involvement, seeing it as an asset. This was illustrated in a recent interview I conducted with a youth worker at a Premier League football club in London. He said:

These kids live in a bubble. It’s the only thing they know. It’s been like this all their lives and long before, so they think it always will be like that. That it always must be like that…

They are eleven, maybe twelve years old and thinking “This guy’s like an icon, a hero to me, I want to be like him”, and then the boy agrees to do something for him. So now, he’s ‘looked after’, like he’s almost untouchable because now he’s one of their boys. And you can see who commands respect because of their affiliation to someone, whether it be a brother or a cousin. You see how they’re maybe getting dropped at sessions in, like, a Range Rover. So for some, gang affiliation is a protective factor not a risk factor. (Pitts, forthcoming, p.11)

While some commentators suggest that young crack dealers are also crack users, Harding believes that this is unusual. As to the question of whether urban street gangs are morphing into organised criminal networks, while U.S. scholars argue that because of their volatility and lack of organisational structure, street gangs are unlikely to mutate in this way (Decker, 2006, Decker & Pyrooz, 2014) Harding, believes that this mutation is already well advanced in the UK, because the exponential growth of County Lines has led to a professionalisation of upper echelon gang crime and that the boundaries between low profile Organised Crime Groups (OCGs) and street gangs, the ‘middle market’, is now far more permeable. In a similar vein, Paul Andell (2019) has suggested that groups that started out as metropolitan street gangs are now supplying both drugs and ‘muscle’ to local street gangs and ‘family firms’ which now constitute the new sort of  ‘middle market’ and are, in effect, local ‘organised crime groups’. Even so, as with all organised crime, the growing sophistication of the operation at ‘board room’ level is all too often paralleled out on the street by ‘foot soldiers’ who are:

… using acid and corrosive liquids as weapons, the extended reach of a knife or sword, ability to ‘mob up’ quickly using social media (which) all increase competitive advantage. Individually, interpretations of this imperative include ‘strike first, ask questions later’; overpowering rivals with frenzied attacks; ‘trust no one’; develop a reputation for overwhelming. Once acquired, these advantages cannot be allowed to slide. If in doubt, ‘Take the player out the Game’, ‘Kill the Competition!’ (Harding, 2020:264)

Nonetheless, however pervasive the County Lines investigated by Harding become, their initial model of drug distribution was restricted by supplying to a necessarily limited client base of immiserated addicts. And this prompted further innovation.

County Lines Mark II

Mohammed Qasim (2018) is interviewing Ahmed, Ali and Bash, young, independent, drug dealers in Bradford. Ahmed is bemoaning the collapse of heroin sales to addicts.

There’s no money left in drugs, there’s too many dealers out there. You know back in the days there used to be loads of smack heads and only a  few dealers in each area, but fuck me (now) there’s loads of dealers. (Ahmed, cited in Qasim, 2018:74)

… I met a guy the other day; he uses crack and he showed me a big list of numbers he had for so many different drug dealers. (Ali, cited in Qasim, 2018:74)

They have therefore, diversified, into a broader range of drugs and a different clientele:

I only sell to people who got jobs and look after themselves. I got good customers. I got a probation officer who buys off me … I ain’t stupid. I’m not gonna sell to the scruffy junkies (addicts) – you fucking asking to get locked up if you sell to them. Five-O (Police) is always on their case, all they got to do is follow them and when they meet to score off you, they bust you. (Bash, cited in Qasim, 2018:77)

The early prohibitions with Muslim dealers selling only to the ‘ungodly’ went into abeyance as the market became more crowded and their profits diminished.

Back in the day there were only one or two apnas (Pakistanis) on maal (heroin) there were some apna (Pakistani) dealers who wouldn’t sell to them cuz they knew their family and, like, used to feel for them. But things are different now. You got dealers round here who only sell to apnas (Pakistanis/ their own people) cuz there’s loads of them on maal. And the other thing is that when you sell to people you know, there’s less chance of getting caught. (Ali, cited in Qasim, 2018:75)

Similarly, in the case of county lines, increasing competition, and the consequent falling rate of profit, precipitated a switch from a demand- to a supply-led business model. Now, County Lines organisers are utilising the knowledge of local young people and co-opted user-dealers, because they are in day-to-day contact with many more potential clients, thus extending significantly their ‘market reach’. Moreover, many of these local ‘runner’s are white, and therefore far less susceptible to detection by the police in the predominantly White towns they target. Youth Offending Team professionals consulted by the Home Office Violence and Vulnerability Unit in 2018 reported that the young people they were dealing with for drug-related offending were no longer the ‘usual suspects’, but children and young people with no previous links to child welfare or youth justice services (Home Office, 2018).

And the new customers are buying a broader range of products; Crack Cocaine, Heroin, Fentanyl (a Synthetic Opioid 30 times more powerful than Heroin) and Xanax (designed to alleviate anxiety, but highly dangerous in larger doses). In its 2018 report, the Violence and Vulnerability Unit observed that, increasingly these drugs were being bought by both young people and their parents in out-of-town locations (Home Office, 2018).

The Black report (2020) tells us about the dimensions of the UK’s worsening illicit drug problem. Simon Harding’s County Lines tells us, in detail, about the structure, logistics, modus operandi, mutations and impact of this form of drug dealing. But Harding’s observations about the proliferation of County Lines are ominous:

As USGs Urban Street Gangs) and drug dealing crews expand across the UK via CLs (County Lines), the gang social field always expands. As Bourdieu tells us, the social field is not bounded physically but relationally. Thus it is not so much the physical expansion of CL operatives that matters here but the expansion of the rules and codes of the gang social field such that they become familiar and normalised by wider groups of society and those never previously exposed to them. This is already underway via social media. Soon it will be possible to affiliate to the Woolwich Boys of London but live in Coventry or Edinburgh. (Harding, 2020:278)

If he is right, it is hard to see, particularly in the wake of the economic havoc wrought by the Coronavirus, how this situation could easily be ameliorated through government intervention. Moreover, it is likely that in the post-pandemic world, what Harding calls the ‘pool of availability’ will grow as the formal economy contracts and the informal economy expands. As to demand, it is one of the paradoxes of the illicit drugs business that the demand for narcotics tends to grow in tandem with the worsening social and economic predicament of those who choose to use them.

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Last Updated: 4 May 2020


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John Pitts is Vauxhall Professor of Socio-legal Studies at the University of Bedfordshire, He has worked as a school teacher; a street and club-based youth worker; a group worker in a Young Offender Institution and as a consultant on youth crime and youth justice to the police, youth justice and legal professionals in the UK, mainland Europe, the Russian Federation and China. In the past decade he has undertaken studies of violent youth gangs and drug markets in London, Manchester and West Yorkshire, some of the findings of which are recounted in his book Reluctant Gangsters (Routledge, 2008).

Simon Harding is Professor of Criminology at University of West London and Director of the National Centre for Gang Research. His career experience includes 30 years of researching and working on crime and community safety in policy, practice and academia.