"Going country" has gone national. Selling crack and heroin in rural and coastal towns is now a career taken up each year by thousands of school-age children from the three major UK drug hubs of London, Liverpool and Birmingham.
Today, the National Crime Agency (NCA) publishes its third report on the growing phenomenon the police call "county lines", better known to its workers as "going cunch" or "OT" (out there). As VICE documented last month, there are now a growing number of young people employed by city gangs to sell drugs in towns across the UK. The report emphasises the major issue for police is not one around drug selling itself, but instead the public protection of vulnerable adults and groomed children involved in this highly lucrative and violent cottage industry.
The "county lines" phenomenon has now been covered extensively by national media and TV; there's even a film being developed on the subject. But what's missing from these depictions is a three-dimensional picture of what it's actually like for the young people doing this job; much of the conversation paints them as either helpless exploited victims or masked London thugs with knives and bags of crack cocaine.
Many of these children are officially classed as missing, exist off the radar of social services and their own families. Rarely are their voices heard, which is why I decided to meet with and interview two young men who have done this job. To protect them from harm we are masking their identities.
"Ellis" is a white teenager from Liverpool who has just turned 16. He's been selling drugs 300 miles away, in Devon, for the last two years. In an attempt to stop his involvement in county lines, the council relocated Ellis's family four weeks ago. But like many other young people who have been relocated to extract them from the county lines drug trade, it appears not to have worked. Ellis got back from his last five-day stint in Plymouth two weeks ago.
"Ade" is a 21-year-old black African from a church-going family in east London. He sold drugs on-and-off from the age of 14 to 17 in a city in the east of England. Since being busted for class A supply there a week before his 18th birthday, Ade has become a life coach for children at risk of joining the estimated 4,000 young people from London involved in the county lines industry.
Both agreed to speak to VICE about their experiences because they want the public to know what the job is really like. They want to warn others that once you're in, it’s hard to get yourself out.
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Ellis's father is an immigrant from the Balkans who came to Britain in the late-90s. His mother died three years ago, and he has a younger brother. He’s got an angelic face and is heavily built: from the age of five he’s had a reputation for being a fighter who never gives up. He was always getting into trouble at school for smoking, arguing with teachers and fighting. Passed between several colleges and specialist educational units, he's not been in mainstream education since he was 11. Despite all this, Ellis comes across as polite, intelligent and charming.
His dad works as a chef, but the family has never had much money, which is why Ellis was keen to find his own. He started working on a weed phone aged 11. Two years later, the local drug selling gang asked him if he wanted to "make some proper dough". Bunking school and putting in nine-hour shifts, he made £50 to £100 a day selling crack and heroin on the streets of Liverpool.
At 14, he was sent by the gang to sell crack and heroin 60 miles away, in Stoke, with a friend of his. Their base was the dingy flat of a middle-aged woman who was addicted to crack and heroin. "It was shit, it stunk, it was scruffy as fuck," says Ellis. "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. I asked the dealer to get us another place it was so bad." However, business was good, and because they were using a long-established phone line to sell from and earning 10 percent commission, they sometimes made £1,000 a week. Ellis spent most of his money on weed, cigarettes, alcohol, cocaine, clothes and trainers.
Why does he do it? "I've no money, and I want some trainers on my feet and I want a coat on my back. My family haven't got a lot of money, so I need to earn some, and selling drugs OT is the best way to do it."
I ask him what it’s like doing this job. "You’ve got to be ready for it. Stand your ground, not get too paranoid. You’ve got to be proper on it, be aware of the police, make sure you don’t lose money. You have to be aware at all times, in case a crackhead or rival dealer tries to stab you. Always under pressure, always crackheads trying to rob you. I'm always armed, either a screwdriver, a brick, a flick knife between my cheeks. It’s them or you. I’ve scared a few crackheads with my blade and I had to stab one in the bum cheeks. I told him, 'Don’t fuck with Scousers, you’ll get stabbed.'
"My boss only puts the pressure on me if I start taking the piss, like sometimes when it’s 3AM I can’t be arsed to go out [and] he gets annoyed. He went mad and threatened to smash my head in. I got robbed once – was walking back to the house and three crackheads grabbed me from behind. They stuck a blade to my neck and took the wraps in my pockets, but they didn’t get the drugs up my arse. My mate got robbed of £3,000 and stabbed in the belly."
Now a trusted drug vendor, Ellis started selling class A drugs in Devon, a drug-selling outpost to which Liverpool gangs have been sending older drug market "managers" and an endless supply of young sellers for more than a decade. This time, Ellis stayed in relative luxury, at the house of a girlfriend of one the older dealers.
"The worst part about the job is having to carry around a weapon the whole time and having to stab people."
"It was a really nice place – I had my own room and I could get a proper night's sleep," says Ellis, who sold from a moped that he had paid a drug user to steal for him. He was driven there for two-week stints, selling drugs hand over fist, offering bulk deals, sometimes making the gang up to £5,000 on a busy day. In Plymouth, where he recently returned from, he made £1,800 for five days work. He stayed in a crack user’s flat, paying them three rocks of crack every 24 hours for the "rent" of their home.
For Ellis, the best thing about the job "is coming back home from OT and jumping in a hot shower, having some of my dad’s home-cooked food and a nice smoke". The worst part, he says, is "having to carry around a weapon the whole time and having to stab people".
His dad isn’t pleased about Ellis’s career path: he thinks he's being exploited – but Ellis disagrees.
Earlier this year, a group of dealers linked to Ellis kicked down his front door, saying he owed them money. They put a knife to his dad's throat – the first time he understood how deeply involved his son had become in the criminal world. Ellis says they were rival dealers, but the incident prompted the council to relocate the family in a bid to extricate Ellis from involvement in county lines. But it has plainly not worked, and there's nothing Ellis's father can do about it.
Ellis says his time going OT will only end "when I get caught", adding that he wants to be an architect, but that the real alternatives are working at a car wash or a chippy – or perhaps "doing cannabis and cocaine grafting".
When he does get convicted, isn’t he scared of jail? "I’ve been arrested many times, but never been to prison. I’m a lucky guy – I think I must have a guardian angel, because I should be in jail. Going to jail does not worry me – I’d be comfy there."
Ade got involved in county lines drug selling for similar reasons to Ellis: a bad education and claustrophobic poverty. He started shoplifting and robbing when he was 12, in order to eat. He remembers sneaking some change from his aunt’s coat when she came to visit. His strict Christian parents were both unemployed, and banned him from playing football because they thought it would lead to him hanging out with the wrong kids.
"I was confused, miserable and depressed, but very restless," he says. "I was depressed because I didn't have the stuff everyone else had, because they didn’t let me. My parents were trying to hide me from the real world, but it didn’t work because I just did it anyway."
At 13, Ade was introduced to some older teenagers, who eventually became like big brothers to him. He’d never smoked weed, so they forced him to get stoned, which he didn’t like. They asked him if he wanted to make money and he started selling weed for them, convinced into working long hours even if it meant getting told off for missing his parents' 9PM curfew. Then he started selling heroin and crack – drugs he’d never heard of – in suburban London. A year later, trusted by his handlers, he was on a train to go OT.
He met a female member of the gang at the other end. "She showed me the roads and the yard I was staying in," says Ade. It was a council flat in the centre of the city, home to a 35-year-old man addicted to crack and heroin, who Ade fed with class As in the morning and at night in return for the use of his flat.
Ade sold in the streets in the day and from the flat at night. Sometimes he paid drug users in crack and heroin so they would act as his driver as he dropped drugs around the city. When he ran out of stash, it would be replenished by the woman. He told his parents he was off on football trips and staying with friends, when he was really working 15-hour days, making between £300 to £1,000 a week.
"My 'boss' was strict – I got some beatings for making mistakes or for being a bit mouthy – but he was friendly," says Ade. "He knew how to deal with people. He told me if my parents were nagging me that 'your family will be happy with the fact you are earning some money'. I was only 14, so it was hectic trying to do this job without making mistakes. You had to focus, otherwise you lost money, and that was taken from my wages."
"One night my addict flatmate kept on asking me for drugs so much I had to sleep outside in the graveyard. It was scary – I was only 14."
What was the job really like? "It was a nightmare, but I had to do it. I was excited because I was making money. The job itself was easy – just get a call, make a drop off. The worst thing was the paranoia and the fear. I felt uncomfortable. I just tried to see the money, not the bad side."
Did he like his flatmate? "We didn't get on at all. He was always greedy for more drugs, always trying to steal them from me. He was like a zombie – a weird fella. I kept a machete stashed near the flat, just in case. One night he kept on asking me for drugs so much I had to sleep outside in the graveyard. It was scary – I was only 14. At the back of my mind, though, I was worried about what my family would think."
The constant threat of violence was part of the job. Ade has been robbed and stabbed twice for drugs, and confronted by a gang armed with Samurai swords. He carried a flick knife between his buttocks for protection. One day, while picking up a fresh batch from his female accomplice's home, they were raided by a rival gang, beaten and threatened with knives and bats, before the gang walked out with £3,000 in cash and drugs. Ade said it was like being in a gangster film. He had to pay for this loss out of the savings he had made.
Ade worked OT for over a year, doing alternate fortnights in London and the city in the east of England. At one point, his parents and his school were worried enough to register him as a missing person. Eventually, Ade was arrested, pounced on by undercover police as he made a relatively small deal, and given a nine-month sentence for class A drug supply.
This is where Ade’s story diverges from the vast majority of young people caught selling on county lines, who carry on where they left off as soon as they are back on the streets. With the support of his youth offending team worker, Ade was allowed to do voluntary work at a football club as part of his community order, and now has a coaching job with young teenagers at risk of joining gangs.
"I’m lucky. I was given a chance," he says. "It helped that my parents were always nagging at me, because some people don’t have that. I was tired of getting robbed and threatened."
Preventing people from getting involved in drug selling on county lines is key, because – he says – it’s "almost impossible" to pull people out. Between the ages of 11 to 15 is the right time to try to help young people, before they get too deeply involved. "There’s a lot of peer pressure to hang out with the cool kids and not the goody two-shoes kids at school," says Ade. "It’s about finding the balance between being cool and still doing well."
Ade says it’s not all about poverty: some of the kids have well-off parents, but are attracted to the perceived glamour of earning money by selling drugs. Some are not loved, so when an older person says they'll look out for them, they're attracted to that. "You have to find out what is good for them individually, and school's not good at doing that," he says. "If kids are too challenging they're put to one side."
In his view, the best way to drag young people out of a county lines life is to "work with them, show them routes out [...] They need to be shown they can use the mind they have in different ways and different areas. Most of these people working county lines are very intelligent – they're entrepreneurial. Their minds can be put to use in other ways.
"For me, what worked is I realised there are different ways of earning money. I moved from my area, I cut off some of the people I talked to and I did my own thing."