Cuckoos in the nest

The practice of “cuckooing” – victims’ homes being taken over by gangs as bases for illegal activity – is now estimated to affect thousands of people across the UK. Urban dealers typically befriend vulnerable people in rural and coastal towns, offering drugs to gain their trust. Victims often include those who are addicted, or who have mental-health issues, or both, although elderly people, sex workers, single mothers and those in poverty are also at risk. One common scenario is that a drug user gets into debt, and is forced to let a gang member move in, using their home to store, process and sell drugs.

In 2017, three-quarters of police forces in England and Wales documented evidence of cuckooing related to county lines activity ( see below for explanation) alongside tales of violence and child and sexual exploitation. For those caught up in it the reality can be horrendous: “One chap started taking drugs… then county lines started and his house got taken over,” said Superintendent Caroline Naughton of Dorset police. “In the past four years, he has had his teeth pulled out and been beaten up really badly. It starts as a friendly relationship.” But the “violence” soon follows.  (The Week 13 Feb 2018)

In the United Kingdom, the term “county lines” is a neologism referring to the practice of using children to traffic drugs into rural areas.  A 2019 estimate by the National Crime Agency estimated the total turnover of all county lines activities throughout the UK as about £500 million.

Key facts about illegal drug use in the UK

Drug misuse related hospital admissions (England)

  • There were 7,545 hospital admissions with a primary diagnosis of drug-related mental health and behavioural disorders, 12 per cent higher than 2006/07.
  • There were 14,053 hospital admissions with a primary diagnosis of poisoning by illicit drugs, 40 per cent more than 2006/07.

Deaths related to drug misuse (England and Wales)

  • In 2016 there were 2,593 registered deaths in England and Wales related to drug misuse. This is an increase of 5 per cent on 2015 and 58 per cent higher than 2006. Deaths related to drug misuse are at their highest level since comparable records began in 1993

Drug use among adults (England and Wales)

  • In 2016/17, around 1 in 12 (8.5 per cent) adults aged 16 to 59 in England and Wales had taken an illicit drug in the last year, compared with 10.1 per cent in 2007

Drug use among children (England)

  • In 2016, 24 per cent of pupils reported they had ever taken drugs., compared to 15 per cent in 2014.


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