When Lily woke up in a police cell one morning in March last year after a big Friday night out, she couldn’t initially remember what she was doing there. The custody sergeant told her she had been caught with seven grams of cocaine and a burner phone.
She was actually relieved. Since her sister died in 2018, with nowhere to go for help, she had been on a roller coaster ride of heavy partying and increasingly problematic drug use, including MDMA, cocaine and heroin. To fund it all, Lily, now 32, had got involved in dealing large amounts of Class A drugs around the south west of England and had already been busted a few times.
“Within a short space of time, my life went from doing MDMA under the stars at music festivals to smoking heroin – midweek – at house parties. And that’s an expensive lifestyle to maintain, so I was soon selling anything I could make money from. Powder cocaine, crack, whatever was around,” said Lily, a university student who has just started a three-month rehab linked to a community sentence for drug supply.
Unfortunately, Lily’s experience is becoming more common. Data from the UK Ministry of Justice shows that there has been a steep rise in the number of women getting involved in selling cocaine and crack, drugs that have seen a surge in popularity in the last decade. Interviews with offenders carried out by VICE World News reveal that many are getting involved in the drug trade as a route out of poverty or to fund their own addiction.
In 2013 there were 145 women convicted for dealing either cocaine or crack in England and Wales. By 2019 this had increased by more than 80 percent to 270, of which 179 cases involved powder cocaine and 91 involved selling crack. Of the 270 women convicted of cocaine or crack supply, more than a third were aged under 25. The number of women convicted for possession of these drugs has also risen, from 331 in 2013 to 424 in 2019.
There is evidence women are moving up the UK’s cocaine supply chain too. They are not just user-dealers, supplying their mates before a night out, or opportunists banking coke to sell inside a summer festival. Instead, they’re moving kilos of high-purity drugs across the country, like former medical student and beauty salon manager Stephanie Nelson, 32, jailed for 10 years in October last year after she was caught with £1.5 million of cocaine in the back of her car. Women have also been caught washing drug cash in legitimate businesses, including beauty supply stores and tanning salons.
But with the average sentence length for cocaine supply increasing in length by three months since 2013, why are so many women taking such a huge risk for cash?
Over the last six months, VICE World News spoke to 12 women involved with the transportation, storage and sale of cocaine in the UK to find out more about this growing trend. Most of them were motivated by economic need, often citing financial pressures – such as insecure employment in the gig economy or struggling to make Universal Credit welfare payments cover the bills – as the trigger for their involvement in the industry.
Prior to their offence, the vast majority of these women were just about managing to cover their living expenses and survive. But typically, an unexpected event, or series of events, had triggered a need for immediate financial support that felt inaccessible through any other means but crime.
For most of the women interviewed, this inability to earn enough money was closely tied to their self-esteem and overall mental health, with feelings of guilt and shame commonplace. These feelings, and their need for a financial life raft, led them to take the risk and sell large amounts of drugs or become involved in other elements of the drug trade such as laundering cash.
Maya, 27, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, lives in a coastal town in Cornwall. Until summer 2019, she worked in two low-paid retail roles just to clock up enough hours to afford her rent.
“When I lost my managerial job at a local shop it was impossible to find another role. After weeks of looking for work, I only came across MLM [multi-level marketing] schemes like Avon, doTerra or Utility Warehouse. I was terrified of losing my flatshare and becoming homeless,” she said.
Out of desperation, Maya started selling coke to her mates for a small profit. She bought it from a county lines worker, who had moved to the area to sell heroin and crack. It was meant to be a low-key side hustle, but she was soon averaging £1500 a month in profit with almost no effort. The [re-pressed] coke cost less than £20 a gram, and I sold it for at least £50 or £60. “It’s easy to understand how people end up getting in too deep. Before I realised what was happening, I’d got to a stage where regular customers bought entire ounces, and my flatmate and her mates were delivering it for me.”
And while Maya’s economic struggles had been ignored by the authorities, her drug dealing had not. The local police spotted her pulling a wrap of coke out of her Michael Kors handbag and exchanging it for cash in the town centre. A few days later police linked her to a stash of cocaine, cannabis and steroids. They seized her iPhone, with forensic analysis showing she had sold drugs to 37 different customers in the previous month. This meant she was charged with supplying class A and B drugs, and is currently on bail.
In November 2020, as part of an ongoing investigation, two of Maya’s female friends were convicted over the largest class A drug importation in the island of Guernsey in 17 years. They caught the ferry from Southampton across the English Channel to the island’s capital, St Peter Port, with a kilo and a half of cocaine hidden inside their car door panel. However, a police drug detection dog happened to be at the ferry port that day, and the women’s money-making endeavour went downhill from there
Despite admitting to addiction issues fuelled by psychosis and PTSD, the driver received an 11 and a half year jail sentence, while her passenger was given eight and a half years in prison. Both women held precarious employment in the form of zero hour contracts, with little work available during the winter. And faced by low wages, no job security or labour rights, it’s easy to see why they were attracted to the rumoured £10 k netted by a single car trip.
Women frequently get involved in selling drugs to fund addictions and as an emergency response to financial difficulties, according to Dr Gareth Addidle, a senior lecturer in policing at Teesside University. “Women are more likely to offend as a way of resolving practical difficulties in their lives, from funding drug addiction to paying off debt. They’re less likely than men to offend as a way to gain status or as part of a thrill seeking lifestyle.”
In many instances, female offending is associated with longer-term poverty. A total of 61 percent of women who received a prison sentence or caution in 2019 also received free school meals when in education. This compares to 54 percent of male offenders, and just 17 percent of the general population.
These practical difficulties have been exacerbated by government cuts, including significant reductions in funding for drug treatment services, while austerity has impacted on access to stabilising factors such as work, housing and education. The move from legacy benefits across to Universal Credit has left many primary caregivers, predominantly women, receiving hundreds of pounds a month less than previously.
For many people living in Britain’s hard-hit rural and coastal communities, there is little opportunity to earn extra cash during winter and some county lines gangs are actively recruiting young women in order to deflect police attention.
Professor Ross Coomber, a researcher in illicit drug markets at the University of Liverpool, said although there are relatively small numbers of women and girls involved in county lines drug dealing, there are signs it’s on the rise. “While difficult to pinpoint exact causes, it’s possible that much of the increase in crack supply could be linked to county lines. There are small numbers of women and girls involved, but I think there has been a relative increase in female representation nonetheless.”
The University of West London’s Professor Simon Harding said this increase could be linked to the rapidly changing nature of county lines tactics. He has identified seven models of county lines dealing, including one where dealers have diversified from just selling crack and heroin, to having sidelines in other drugs such as cocaine and Xanax. This, suggests Harding, would result in a rise in women involved in cocaine supply in rural and coastal communities.
Harding also referred to a concept known as the “survival narrative” whereby an unexpected change in circumstance leads women, and men, to engage in behaviours they may not previously have considered. Whether it’s a partner in jail, losing a job, or the ongoing impact of austerity, it’s possible that these women felt the need to sell powder cocaine or crack in order to survive. Given the rise in female cocaine use, it’s logical that will end up supplying it.
Although women seem to be taking on more senior roles in the cocaine trade, one male cocaine importer from the south west of England told VICE World News: “Most well-established firms are unwilling to work with women. It’s a risky industry where things have the potential to go dramatically wrong, whether it’s getting busted by police or rare instances of extreme violence over unpaid debts. That’s not nice for anyone, so there’s an unwritten rule that you don’t do business with females.”
Unless the government addresses the wider structural causes of drug dealing, it’s likely that this rise in female cocaine supply convictions will become more noticeable. And we could even see more women taking the leading role in an industry typically dominated by men.