In October 2017 my then 12-year-old son and I were idly flicking through our local Walthamstow newspaper when I spotted a missing person’s appeal for a north London schoolboy, aged 15. I sighed, “poor kid, wonder if he’s dead or alive”. But my son said: “I know where he is, look…”
He showed me a Snapchat post on his phone. The missing boy’s friend had reproduced the police mugshot, but typed above it was “MAN’S GONE CUNCH!!!”, alongside a short video of the missing kid waving a wad of bank notes in a flat in Norwich.
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Two months later a social media appeal for another missing north London boy, aged 14, eventually found him “doing cunch” 100 miles away on a council estate in Boston, Lincolnshire.
“Cunch” refers to “going country”, the phenomenon where gangs from Britain’s major cities, empowered by mobile phones and plentiful drug supplies, are sending young runners out into the sticks to sell crack and heroin to a sprawling provincial customer base of addicted hard drug users.
The police and media have labelled this “county lines” and County Lines is the name of a visceral new film depicting the horrors of a job thousands of inner-city teenagers are doing right now in rural towns, cities and coastal resorts across the UK. Instead of sitting in school classrooms, children as young as 11 and 12 — in the film it’s 14-year-old Tyler — are taking on a job that makes Fagin’s pickpocketing racket in Oliver Twist look rather quaint.
And this is what County Lines, written and directed by the former youth worker Henry Blake, portrays in such shocking reality, featuring a boy from a poor, broken family groomed into selling drugs in a nameless coastal town and experiencing things no one his age should ever have to.
“Going country” might appear a good option for teenagers with no money and no hope who yearn for £120 trainers, respect and all its trappings, but it’s not a role for the squeamish. If you get caught with the stash there will be little sympathy from your boss or the courts, which is why kids like Tyler have to get their stash cling-filmed, smeared in Vaseline and “plugged” up their backsides.
Where do they go to when they get to these towns or cities they’ve only heard about from the lower league football results? To add a layer of security against the police and rival gangs, county lines crews ‘cuckoo’ the homes of entrenched heroin and crack addicts, using these often dingy council flats as “trap houses” — a base from which to sell, in return for throwing tenants free scraps from their stash.
Days and nights are spent “on call” on burner phones dishing out deals, in stinking flats, lashing rain and in dark alleys and dog shit parks, in Britain’s bleakest corners, from faceless commuter towns to the gentrified coast, from Oxford and Cambridge to the Cotswolds. One 15-year-old county lines dealer told me about the Devon flat he worked in 300 miles away from his home in Liverpool: “There was mould up the walls. I pulled out a plant that was growing out of the fucking wall! I had to do all the cleaning myself. I had to burn weed to take the smell of crack smoke away.”
Forgotten kids serving up pockets of psychoactive escapism to a neglected army of the addicted.
Not all these teenage dealers are being coerced into selling hard drugs in the middle of nowhere. In the bigger scheme of things they are all being exploited, by those above them in the drug pyramid who are far less likely to get stabbed or jailed. But they aren’t all innocent victims forced into slavery. Some of them can’t wait to get involved, and that’s the most worrying part.
Some, bullied and abused for most of their lives, take it all out on their customers with taunts and violence. In return, they get mugged or even killed for their stash by drug users or rival gangs, or arrested and jailed, further entrapped by a drug supply rap and the criminal fraternity of the convicted.
The money is better than McDonald’s, but the future is not as peachy as the underground music videos make out.
“I did have empathy for these boys: they were kids, but they never talked about normal teenage things,” a sex worker who allowed a London gang to sell drugs from her home in Southend recently told me. “They were mentally drained. They used to lie on my settee and sleep with the phone by their head, working 22 hours a day. A couple of times they would have a treat, like buying a new pair of trainers. They were putting on an act, trying to pretend they were the big boys, but they were young kids.”
Some of them, usually the clever ones with an eye for business and an adeptness for second-guessing others, will avoid the bear traps and slowly rise to the top, finally being able to afford the BMW, the diamonds, the girls and the glances they always dreamed of. Others — maybe helped by a parent or youth worker — will escape. But most end up on the scrap heap, even further locked out of the mainstream economy than they were at the start.
Crucially for those outside the drug game, the county lines phenomenon does not just impact young urban drug sellers. It is transforming the parts of Britain where they have set up shop.
Sleepy provincial drug scenes have been injected with fresh, cheap, reliable supplies, which means more petty crime to find the money for drugs, more addiction and more fatal overdoses. Across the country, local train stations, housing estates, church graveyards and high streets have seen a rising presence of city drug gangs and open air drug markets. Local police forces, who previously might have had to deal with doped up “user-dealers”, have had to direct already sparse resources to fighting a new, well-oiled, professionalised threat and a conveyor belt of recruits arriving from the big cities.
As well as cuckooing homes, city gangs protect themselves by employing the natives to do their dirty work — whether it is local teenagers to help sell drugs or addicted customers to rent out dealing cars and drive them from spot to spot. It’s the franchise that cannot stop expanding.
County lines is now a media buzz phrase. To the newspapers, every person convicted of drug dealing, even if it’s some old coot selling weed out of his back window, is now a ‘county lines’ dealer. Yet while the phrase has become some kind of clickbait, very little is known about why, in one of the richest countries in the world, selling crack and heroin miles away from home has become a regular job for thousands of teenagers who should be in school learning about osmosis and Martin Luther King.
If you believed senior criminal justice officials, MPs and the mainstream media, the finger of blame points squarely at two culprits: evil drug barons and middle-class coke-snorters, especially those who have dinner parties, drink fair trade coffee and are vegan. One entraps and exploits the workers, the other enables the trade with their thoughtless, hypocritical indulgence.
But blame is often deflection. This stuff about cocaine snorters — of whom most these days are working class, but politicians don’t like telling off builders — fuelling county lines profits sounds intuitive. Yet it’s bollocks, because the powder cocaine and county lines markets are not connected. Even if every British person stopped snorting cocaine, the crack cocaine and heroin market — which accounts for half the sales of the entire UK drugs market — would carry on regardless. Cocaine-snorters are not harming young British drug runners, but in a world where prohibition hands the drug trade into the hands of organised crime, they are partly responsible for the drugs war bloodshed in Latin America.
In terms of the evil drug bosses, of course, there are some nasty people involved in the highly-profitable crack and heroin business. As Top Boy and The Wire did before, County Lines does a good job of portraying their cold cruelty and the ultimate expendability — or “acceptable loss” as the film calls it — of the young drug trade recruits who are jailed or killed. That being said, Britain’s drug trade is not as deadly as the authorities make it out to be. The number of homicides caused by actual drug turf wars in the UK is proportionally tiny compared with the highly lethal nature of America’s business.
What really lies at the root of the county lines phenomenon is why British children are so desperate to do this job. Luckily, the ‘why’ is something that those who’ve actually done this job have been happy to relay to me. And it does nor reflect the simplistic, black-and-white world being painted by the authorities.
County lines teenagers I’ve spoken to don’t mention evil drug bosses or middle-class coke buyers; instead they talk about two competing drives: the desire to be someone and the shutting down of that opportunity.
Never has there been a time when everything you can’t have is incessantly shoved in front of your face 24/7. The poorer you are, the more potent this is; it’s 1980s rampant consumerism projected 100-fold through a social media prism. It’s all about quick fixes, appearance, power and money. If you don’t have it, you need it.
Though there are exceptions, which the media loves to go on about, most of the children working county lines come from impoverished backgrounds, from communities set adrift by a thousand austerity cuts. These kids might be unloved but they are not stupid: selling drugs offers a way out of the trap, an escape from a bad education, racism, claustrophobic living and hopelessness.
In her excellent report into drugs and violence published last month, Dame Carol Black rightly turned the spotlight on the Government for the rise of county lines. “There are strong associations between young people being drawn into county lines and increases in child poverty,” she wrote: “the numbers of children in care and school exclusions… against a backdrop of falling local government budgets…and cuts to young people’s services.”
County lines, whose origins I traced back to a line running from Brixton to Brighton in 1999, is the latest successful business model in the ever-entrepreneurial drug trade. But its currency is the social conditions created by successive governments, which have not only delivered a customer base of 300,000 addicted heroin and crack users, but a willing workforce of children who serve them up, who reason that the best way they can get ahead in life is to risk their life selling drugs to a queue of lost Gen Xers out of a shithole flat in the middle of nowhere.
I’m hoping that the overriding message people take home from County Lines is not about how profit obsessed and exploitative the drug gang leaders are, because this is no surprise, but how profit-obsessed and exploitative governments have led us to this unique situation. Charles Dickens would be gutted. Because County Lines is a reflection of a fucked-up country, a manifestation of widespread neglect that Britain thought it could get away with, except it’s come back to bite back us where it hurts most, in Middle England’s own back yard.
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