What are county lines gangs? New arrests made by police

County lines drug gangs are still being dismantled quickly throughout England and Wales, according to fresh statistics released yesterday (March 9).

The most recent National County Lines Intensification Week, which targets drug traffickers who often recruit children and vulnerable adults to supply drugs across the country, runs from Monday, March 6 to Sunday, March 13. All forces in England and Wales engage in operations to crack down on county lines.

According to recent statistics, police have shut down 3,588 drug lines since the Government's County Lines Programme was introduced in 2019. With almost 1,000 lines already cut in the past year alone, the Government is on track to surpass its goal of closing 2,000 lines over the course of three years.

As part of this statewide week of aggressive activity, police forces around the nation have already detained 1,658 more criminals, found 31kg of Class A drugs, and 404 deadly weapons. Added to this, 276 drug lines were identified and seized, 68 per cent more than the previous Intensification Week, with more than £2 million in cash seized, as well as 404 confiscated, including 288 bladed weapons and firearms, such as handguns and shotguns.

What is the meaning of the term ‘county lines’ gangs?

According to the National Crime Agency, county lines refers to the practice of moving illegal substances across police and local authority lines, frequently using minors or other vulnerable individuals who have been forced into it by gangs. The ‘county line’ is the mobile phone line used to take orders for illegal drugs.

Why are county lines such a risk?

County-line gangs have contributed to the proliferation of firearms and drugs in urban areas. Fatal stabbings have increased due to these gangs, contributing to the highest levels since records began.

Certain children, young people, and adults are vulnerable and more at risk of being drawn into county lines, such as looked-after children (children in care), children not known to services (lockdown led to an increase of children being taken out of school), missing children, vulnerable adults, and others who may be threatened with violence or by exploited through their addiction to drugs.

How common is drug trafficking in the UK?

According to official statistics from 2022, approximately one in 11 adults aged 16 to 59 years and approximately one in five adults aged 16 to 24 years reported using illegal drugs in the year ending June 2022; there was no change compared with the year ending March 2020.

Many forms of illegal drugs originate overseas and are trafficked into the UK via various routes, including:

  • Container shipping

  • Yachts and small boats

  • Light aircraft

  • Vehicle traffic from continental Europe

  • Airline passengers

  • The post and fast parcels

According to the National Crime Agency, profits are high at all stages of drug trafficking, but particularly for those who can access the drugs in their source country. Criminals from the Balkans dominate the cannabis and cocaine market, but British traffickers remain a significant threat.

What is being done to stop risks?

The Government has a 10-year plan to combat illegal drugs, which includes:

1. Restricting upstream flow – preventing drugs from reaching the country

2. Securing the border – a ring of steel to stop drugs entering the UK

3. Targeting the ‘middle market’ – breaking the ability of gangs to supply drugs wholesale to neighbourhood dealers

4. Going after the money – disrupting drug-gang operations and seizing their cash

5. Rolling up county lines – bringing perpetrators to justice, safeguarding and supporting victims, and reducing violence and homicide

6. Tackling the retail market – so that the police are better able to target local drug gangs and street dealing

7. Restricting the supply of drugs into prisons – technology and skills to improve security and detection

The strategy has received almost £900 million of additional funding for the next three years. It is hoping to deliver 54,500 more treatment places, prevent nearly 1,000 deaths, and close over 2,000 more county lines.