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What is county lines drug dealing?

County lines drug dealing describes organised crime groups (OCGs) who supply drugs to suburban areas including market and coastal towns. County lines drug dealers use dedicated mobile phones or “deal lines” to assist in the transport of drugs.

This type of drug dealing is strongly associated with the coercion of children and vulnerable people. The dealers uses children and vulnerable people to move drugs, money and sometimes weapons between their hometown and the costal and market towns they are dealing in. In 2020 the NCA said exploitation in county lines drug dealing was “the most frequently identified form of coerced criminality, with children representing the vast majority of victims”. In 2021 they said that “at least 14.5%” of modern slavery referrals were related to county lines activity.

The NCA says “violence at street level is often linked to drugs supply” and “continues to be associated” with county lines drug dealing. The Government has concluded that “changes to the drugs market, like the (emergence of the) county lines model of exploitation, is partly fuelling” serious violence.

Government response

The Government has been tackling county lines by investing in enforcement activities and early interventions to prevent at risk youth from becoming involved in county lines drug dealing and serious violence. It has invested:

  • £65 million in county lines enforcement. This money has been used by police forces in the areas county lines dealers export from set up dedicated taskforces to pursue deal line holders.
  • £28 million in a joint service approach to responding to drug misuse in places badly affected by county lines importing (known as Project ADDER).
  • £105.5 million to set up eighteen Violence Reduction Units to coordinate early intervention work in areas worst affected by serious violence.
  • £200 million in a ten-year programme to fund early intervention projects (known as the Youth Endowment Fund).
  • £17 million in a programme to intervene with young victims of violence in A&E.
  • £45 million in early intervention programmes in schools.

Alongside this significant investment the Government has also introduced legislative changes it says will help frontline workers combat county lines:

  • The Offensive Weapons Act 2019 introduced new offences associated with the possession of flick/ gravity knives. OWA provisions not yet in force will also place restrictions on the online sale of knives and introduce Knife Crime Prevention Orders (KCPOs) which will allow the courts to apply “positive requirements” to steer young people away from knife crime.
  • The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (PCSC Bill) would introduce new legal duties on local actors to work together to combat serious violence. It would also require local services conduct a review following a homicide involving an offensive weapon. The PCSC Bill would also introduce Serious Violence Reduction Orders (SVROs). The courts would be able to apply an SVRO to offenders whose offence involved an offensive weapon.

The Government’s Beating Crime Plan (PDF, July 2021) outlines its strategy for cutting homicide, serious violence and neighbourhood crime. It provides more details on the above polices.


The Government says county lines enforcement action since 2019 has resulted in “more than 1,100 lines closed, over 6,300 arrests, and more than 1,900 vulnerable adults and children safeguarded”. The number of operational county lines deal lines reported has reduced (from 2,000 in 2019 to 600 in 2021). The National Crime Agency says the reduction can be attributed to better reporting and increased operational activity.

The police themselves say they have made “huge inroads” in tackling county lines. They say this has been possible “due to the enormous efforts across policing, the regions, the NCA and partner agencies”.

The police response to county lines has also been praised by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS). It says the police have benefited from a…

…clearer focus, better funding, a relentless pursuit of perpetrators and a clear sense that these are urgent national policing priorities.

HMICFRS has called on the police and Government to model their response to violence against women and girls on the success disrupting county lines drug dealing.

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