Saturday, March 25News For London

Why are drug gangs hiding behind students?

A recent article published by the Times, talks about how county line drug gangs are infiltrating universities as a convenient spot to carry out their operations. But why have these drug gangs targeted universities? Let’s find out.

Picture Credit: The Statesmen

What does County lines mean?

County lines are organised illegal drug-dealing networks that are usually controlled by a single person.  Drug dealers set up a network between city and county locations to supply drugs controlling a network of runners by mobile phones, also known as ‘deal lines’. The line is controlled by an anonymous dealer based in a city who has complete control over what is sold. These drug runners use vulnerable people’s homes as a base for dealing, a practice known as cuckooing.

Young recruits travel to and from the urban hub to restock supplies and deliver cash.  These runners are often young children or vulnerable adults who are forced into transporting the drugs.

Video Credit: Cynera Rodricks

When you’re studying in a university how would you be able to distinguish between a regular student and a drug dealer who has enrolled as a student? No one would really suspect a student to be dealing drugs. Dealers who infiltrate campuses by enrolling on courses use this very student status to set up operations in the university’s halls of residence. Their student occupation gives them a reason to be in the smaller towns that county lines networks operate in, and makes it easier to avoid arrest and suspicion. 

It’s not hard to get into university – universities will take people through clearing. They won’t actually go to university to study, it’s just a reason to be in a particular place. The dealers now have to have an alibi as to why they’re moving 200 miles from one place to another.

Dr Mohammed Qasim of the London School of Economics, Criminology Expert.

It also allows them to recruit other students as new members, coercing or threatening them to operate as drug runners on campus and beyond. They usually hunt for students who they refer to as “clean skins” i.e. students who had no previous convictions and could be signed up for the drugs trade. The shift to selling drugs to students is a new tactic and looks like it has worked very well for them. “The information we get is that county lines have so much money that they can afford the false IDs and false backgrounds,” said Kevin Child, Swansea university’s director of student services. 

As per a recent report by The Times suggested that, previously isolated incidents of gangs operating on campuses accelerated during lockdown when students were often confined to halls of residence and seen as a “captive market”. Senior figures in the sector told The Times they were aware of students being intimidated into “cuckooing” — allowing their rooms to be used for storing and dealing drugs. These gangs also organised lockdown parties in student accommodation blocks to begin offering recreational drugs to students.

Messages sent by drug dealers to students.

Video Credit: Cynera Rodricks

This brings us to their second tactic of marketing their business. Now these gangs no longer wait for people to come and approach them. Carly Jones, PSALT says: “They have become a marketing machine almost. They almost have ad campaigns whereby they knock down doors and send out text messages.” In a video interview on BBC, students from South Wales said that when they lived in the university halls, students had contacts to get drugs and they take it before they go out. They were also shocked these dealers approached them first, instead of you going out to find these people. That is the scary thing with social media, it is very easy for these dealers to contact you because all your information is out there. The confidence of these drug dealers have skyrocketed over the years. Almost anybody would know where to get it now.

hese drug dealers ask young runners to swallow the drugs to transport around the county as it is more difficult for officers to carry out internal searches on children. “That’s partly to make the police response more difficult as we don’t want to be keeping young people in detention longer than necessary,” said Det Insp Paul Stanley of British Transport Police. “And partly to reduce the risk of them being located.”

Which universities have been targeted?

The problem, and the phenomenon of county lines, is particularly prevalent in Wales where authorities believe that there are more than 100 county lines gangs operating across the country. Cocaine deaths in Wales are now over four times higher than five years ago.

According to the National Crime Agency, the drug bosses pull their strings mainly from London, Birmingham and Liverpool. Bangor University is one of the targeted Welsh universities where activity is overseen by drug gangs in Liverpool. The police force in North Wales are working alongside the university to educate students on the dangers of county lines operations.

Experts also said that Brighton is a prime target for expanding county lines into university territory. In “some areas like Brighton, the move into university and student accommodations is an obvious one,” Junior Smart, founder of the SOS Gangs Project, told the Guardian. Smart said dealers would pay for someone to go to university, but expect access to the halls in return.

Kent University is another target of drug gangs. A student at Kent University was jailed for two years after being found guilty of running a county lines operation from his uni room. Police found £3,460 worth of heroin and cocaine in psychotherapy student Seif Hashim’s room.

Other universities that have been infiltrated by these gangs are LSE, Swansea, University Leeds and many others. 

Widely used drugs in the UK

In the year 2019/2021 cannabis is regarded as the most consumed drug followed by cocaine by the office of health and disparities (i.e. 20 per cent and 12 per cent respectively. Dame Carol Black, who conducted a drugs review for the government in 2020, said she had encountered speculation about what was happening on campus but struggled to get information from universities. Her report cited anecdotal evidence of gangs dealing cocaine and crack cocaine to students.

Joe Caluori, a county lines expert at the crime and justice consultancy Crest, said the scale of activity in university towns was not properly understood. “Although crack and heroin remain the core products in university towns where county lines gangs operate, there have been reports of dealing MDMA, ketamine and powder cocaine to recreational drug users,” he said.

What’s the demographic?

For years’ politicians and police have lamented “middle-class drug users” but this is no longer the cocaine demographic. “Coke wasn’t a working-class drug, speed was the working-class drug — now coke is for everyone and it’s everywhere,” says Dean, who started selling it in the 1990s. “It’s routine among football crowds — you get people snorting it quite openly. They don’t even try to hide it.

The National Crime Agency (NCA), which leads the fight against organised crime, is in broad agreement. “Cocaine is the stimulant drug of choice in the UK,” said Keith Rawson, head of drugs threat at the NCA. “There’s a strong demand for high-purity cocaine in the UK.”

The NCA believes usage is on the increase across all age groups (with the exception of the over-50s), social classes and regions. The 2020-21 independent drugs review, commissioned by the government, put the number of cocaine users in England and Wales at just under one million and estimated annual consumption at 117 tonnes in a £2 billion market.

What can you and universities do?

Dr Qasim believes that not enough is being done by the universities themselves: ‘I don’t think the universities are really focusing their energy on this. I think it is not being looked at as closely as it should and of course universities would say they have their reasons for not pursuing this given that they are reputable places trying to attract students from across the word’.

  • Jon Aspinall of North Wales Polices believes that cooperation is the best tactic: ‘We are a close-knit community and have a good working relationship with the university, so we have an information-sharing agreement that helps us safeguard people’
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Picture Credit: Cynera Rodricks