In January 2022 a leaked document set out details for a pilot diversion scheme in London for young people caught with small amounts of cannabis. Proposed by the London Lord Mayor, Sadiq Khan, the trial would not prosecute young people aged 18-25 with possession of the drug. While the scheme is nothing radical, similar trials having already been run by Thames Valley Police and other forces with great results, the inevitable headlines had multiple politicians up in arms. A spokesman for the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson was quick to respond, saying the government felt cannabis decriminalisation “would leave organised criminals in control, while risking an increase in drug use, which drives crime and violence which blights our streets”. Even the opposition leader failed to get behind fellow Labour Party member Khan and his scheme. Answering a caller on LBC two weeks after the leak, Sir Kier Starmer claimed that cannabis decriminalisation would encourage “county line drug running” and lead to “dead youngsters on the streets of London”.
The term county lines has become ubiquitous for any drug gang enterprising enough to expand out of tougher, more competitive territory to a suburban outpost in the search of bigger profits. The emerging trend in gangs expanding out of London in search of new customers was first identified in 2013, when police forces across the southeast of England set up monthly meetings in London to share intelligence in cross-county drug dealing. Since then, the term has been appropriated by enthusiastic regional papers and social media savvy coppers, keen to describe any cannabis seizure involving transport as a county lines bust.
However, scratch the surface of the tabloid-friendly moniker, and the evidence shows that true county lines gangs rarely have anything to do with cannabis as a commodity. A national crackdown, carried out by multiple forces across England and Wales in October 2021, led to 1,486 arrests and the seizure of 139 lines. £1.2m in cash was also seized, along with 6kg of crack cocaine, 28.8kg of heroin and 26.8kg of cocaine.
The press release detailing the huge operation published by the National Police Chiefs Council was absent of any mention of cannabis. Similar police published reports on lines notorious enough to have their own name, only mention crack and heroin, other prosecutions have no mention of Class B drugs, no matter how prolific the arrests or large the operations. If cannabis and county lines are so intrinsically linked, surely raids would uncover vast amounts of the drug time after time?
If cannabis and county lines are so intrinsically linked, surely raids would uncover vast amounts of the drug time after time?
Secondary connections between cannabis and county lines gangs do exist. In a 20 page report by the National Crime Agency in 2017, cannabis gets a solitary mention, where the NCA acknowledges that “there is some suggestion that it [cannabis] is supplied by runners as an independent supplementary sideline to generate additional income”. Cannabis, it seems, exposes people to greater criminality by the virtue of its legal status. Could it be that young people are less concerned about being involved in running large amounts of harmful class A drugs simply because they’re already criminals for possessing and selling a much less harmful Class B drug in cannabis?
Cannabis can also be used as a lure by county gangs. In this context, young and vulnerable people may be drawn into criminality with the promise of cannabis, given on tick, accruing a debt for weed which they are then forced to work off, often as a mule or low-level dealer. The very criminalisation of cannabis appears to be a direct cause for exposing people to the dangers of gangs. It’s hard to imagine similar consequences in a regulated market where cannabis can be obtained legally providing health and social conditions are met. After all, there appears to be no mention in studies of people being lured into county lines gangs with alcohol or tobacco.
Max Daly, author of Narcomania and Global Drugs Editor at Vice has previously spoken to young people who have worked for gangs. “There is not much of a connection between cannabis and county lines, apart from the fact the dealers will be smoking it themselves. County lines is all about getting high profits from dominating lucrative local heroin and crack markets. The cannabis trade is rarely connected to dead bodies in the streets in the UK… sometimes gang members may use cannabis as a way of luring young people into the Class A drug trade, but the main currency here is cash, not weed.”
County lines is all about getting high profits from dominating lucrative local heroin and crack markets. The cannabis trade is rarely connected to dead bodies in the streets in the UK.
If anything criminalising individuals for possession of cannabis, especially in deprived areas, creates more recruitment opportunities for county lines gangs. In Lewisham, one of the three London boroughs set to be involved in the proposed pilot scheme, nine out of 10 drug charges are due to possession of cannabis. Young black males in the borough are 2.4 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than white males. Searching, arresting and criminalising these young people leaves them with reduced employment prospects, creating more vulnerable people who can be preyed upon by the gangs to do their bidding.
The idea that decriminalisation of cannabis would open up the floodgates to more crime, gangs and deaths doesn’t appear to be held by Andre Gomes of Release, an NGO working on the front line of drugs since 1967: “Starmer’s suggestion that cannabis decriminalisation would drive county line gang operations conflates issues of organised crime with alternative forms to incarceration. Decriminalisation ensures that we are not irrevocably impacting people’s lives when they are most likely responding to the lack of opportunity and means to improve their economic position. Not everyone involved in drug selling are kingpins hellbent on drugging the nation.
“The allure of drug trafficking will only disappear when the financial incentives of criminal activity are reduced, and local legitimate opportunities appear. The majority of people would prefer working in a licit industry that gives them financial security and means of survival. The current Government has destroyed the welfare system in the exact same areas where county lines drug trafficking is now most prevalent.”
There is no doubt that drug gangs use and exploit vulnerable and young people to move and sell drugs as part of their exploits. The current status quo makes cannabis nothing more than a stepping stone to more serious crime, a route to vulnerability or a means of recruitment for gangs. Removing the criminal aspect from personal possession of cannabis can help protect the young people most at risk, and a legal and regulated market will strip cannabis away from criminal gangs and place it into the realm of public health. Years of criminalisation have only resulted in failure, it’s time politicians accept that changes need to be made.