Two years ago, here at ITV News, we revealed grave concern at the Home Office about older drug dealers forcing children to carry their drugs around the country. At the time, the Home Office's report was being shelved but after our revelations, the government started to listen.
The process of taking the drugs from our big cities to smaller towns is known by officials as county lines but the young people involved call it “going country”, “out there” or abbreviated to “OT”.
Back then, when we rang police forces and social workers, many had not heard of it. But we had a Home Office report showing it was spreading across Britain.
Now, two years on, it has raced up the agenda. The Government now believe it to be driving the serious violence we are seeing around the country – this year more than 1,000 people have been stabbed or shot, with knife crime up more than 20% and gun crime 10%. It's a huge number.
We’ve returned to the issue for an ITV Tonight documentary. We have spoken to the young drug dealers selling the drugs themselves; and to the older drug dealers who direct these younger drug mules. We speak to the mothers of those caught up in county lines and who we have followed as they describe, watching in slow motion - helpless - as their children end up being stabbed. We also hear from the professionals struggling to deal with it.
We have also obtained an exclusive Home Office document showing 4,000 frontline professionals dealing with county lines children believe they do not have the legal powers to intervene and protect them.
One night in May, on the outskirts of London, a go-between trusted by the Tonight team introduced us to a group of young men who make their living selling drugs. They are young gangsters, or YGs.
All of them started when young, one of them as young as 10. “There was no father role” he said. “Where I live, I was literally, the age of eight and chilling with 24, 25-year-olds.”
How much money was he making? “Too much for a 10-year-old.”
They described the different clients they have. Ranging from "cats" (junkies) through to businessmen. When I asked them how busy their work is they said sometimes the line rings so much that when they finish at the end of the day “it’s still ringing in your brain”.
When I asked them all if they have ever felt in danger, they said they felt in danger all the time. One of them showed me the knife they had brought out that night. “Just a small one,” he said.
While there was much bravado, they were also aware their life is not glamorous. The places where they sell their drugs are called trap houses. One said of them: “Some of them can be quite nice but most of them are all like broken, stinking and ****** ** furniture”.
After an hour talking with them, I came away thinking things were worse than I realised. Yes, they were cogent and intelligent enough to understand economic concepts of supply and demand in drugs. But at very young ages they had made huge amounts of money – amounts it would take years to work up to if they weren’t running drugs.
And they had also become desensitised to violence. They were not casual about the idea of stabbing or shooting someone - but they were numb to it. It is a feature of their life they just accept.
When I asked them about the serious violence we are seeing not just in our big cities but in rural and shire areas too, and that that serious violence is down to them, one said: “It’s got to stop but at the same time, you’ve got to survive out here, you’re got to live, you’ve got to put food on the table.”