Cost of living crisis increases threat from ‘county lines’ drug dealing

25th January, 2023
Crime image
A frightening but common feature in county lines drug supply is the exploitation of young and vulnerable children, of all ages.

It's a sad fact that residents across Shropshire and Herefordshire are reading stories related to county lines drug dealing with alarming regularity. Inner-city drug gangs dealing heroin, crack cocaine and other Class A drugs are expanding their operations into rural areas at an alarming rate.

Earlier this month, the Shropshire Star reported on three “County Lines lieutenants” in Oswestry receiving a combined 15 years of jail time for drugs offenses. Last year, a joint police operation between West Mercia Police and West Midlands Regional Organised Crime Unit put county lines offenders behind bars for a total of 251 years, reported by the Hereford Times.

But how many fully understand this disturbing trend in criminal activity? And how much of it is driven by the cost of living crisis?

Black and white photo of a teenage girl on public transport

Cost of living crisis and county lines 

The cost of living crisis continues to wreak havoc with most household budgets but families who were already struggling financially perhaps most keenly feel the effects. Rampant, seemingly ever-increasing inflation, coupled with sweeping cuts to youth support and other public services, has created the perfect storm for gangs looking to recruit young and older vulnerable people. County lines gangs will often offer “free gifts” in the form of a new mobile phone or the latest trainers as a way of enticing and entrapping new recruits. 

Sara Cunningham, director of Diversify, a charity running anti-grooming workshops in schools across the UK, recently told The Observer: “You’ve got children whose families can’t afford school meals, and they are outside, hungry and cold. Someone in nice trainers turns up and gets them a burger or a warm coat. That’s often how they are being recruited.”

County lines drug gangs using the cost of living crisis as an opportunity to target vulnerable young people across Shropshire and Herefordshire. Connexus’ young persons services are being proactive in educating staff and young people about this very real risk.
Amanda Pyke, Young Persons Services Manager, Connexus

What are county lines?

The video (below) from It's A Penalty, a charity campaigning against abuse, exploitation, and human trafficking, explains the threat in more detail.

A county lines drug network is where gangs and groups of drug networks supply drugs from urban to suburban areas across the county, including market towns, coastal areas, and rural locations, using dedicated mobile phone lines or “deal lines”. These are referred to as “county lines” as they link one county to another within a drug network. 

Could somebody I know be involved with county lines? Spotting the signs

Many of us will go our whole lives without any contact with criminal activity whatsoever, leaving us with no idea about how somebody we knew might behave if they were to become ensnared by the county lines trap. Catching somebody with a weapon, or taking illegal drugs, would be among the most obvious signs to spot, of course, but there are also some less obvious tells.  

  • Unexplained new clothes, tech, or other "free gifts". Linked to the cost of living crisis and the “free gifts” we learned about earlier, those involved in county lines may appear with money, new clothes and technology that they can’t explain.
  • Increase in phone activity. Suddenly getting an excessive amount of texts and calls on that shiny new iPhone might also be cause for concern.
  • Trips to new places. Similarly, going missing regularly and traveling to places where they don’t seem to have any friends or obvious connection can be a red flag. 

Where to go for help

If you or someone else is in immediate danger, always dial 999. The following organisations offer support and advice related to county lines and other youth exploitation.


If you wish to remain anonymous, you can call Crimestoppers on 0800 555111


Get honest and open information from Frank on their website.


The #knifefree campaign is part of the Home Office’s work to reduce knife crime among young people. There is a dedicated #Knifefree website at which provides advice, signposts support services and highlights activities to empower young people to change their behaviour.

The Mix

The Mix offers support and advice to under-25s on a range of issues. Check out their website here.