Video report by ITV News National Editor Allegra Stratton
The exploitation of children and vulnerable adults by drug dealing networks is increasing, according to new police figures.
'County lines', the use of children to deal drugs across boroughs and counties, have more than doubled in the last year, with the number of lines rising from 720 at the beginning of 2018 to around 2,000 as of January this year, according to the annual National Crime Agency (NCA) assessment of county lines.
As part of police efforts to crack down on the drug dealing networks, there were 600 arrests across the country in the last week in connection with county lines.
More than 140 weapons, including guns, axes and swords, were seized in the targeted raids, along with more than £200,000 in cash and stashes of heroin and cocaine, the NCA said.
In one raid, a missing 15-year-old from Liverpool was found at a property in Aberdeen, along with almost 100 wraps of crack cocaine and of heroin.
Police footage of an arrest this week in connection with county lines
The National County Lines Coordination Centre (NCLCC) was launched in September 2018 as a response to the increased use of the drug dealing model by criminals, which means safeguarding those who are exploited as well as tackling organised crime.
County lines is a complicated problem that targets the most vulnerable in society and is linked with other criminal activity, such as human trafficking and modern slavery.
Children, both boys and girls, aged between 15-17, make up the bulk of the vulnerable people involved in county lines. They are often made to travel across counties and use dedicated mobile phones 'lines' to supply drugs.
Many are groomed by organised crime networks using methods similar to what has been seen in child sexual exploitation and abuse cases. Many of those exploited may be flattered by the attention and gifts they receive and are often reluctant to talk to police.
Nikki Holland, Director of Investigations at the NCA and County Lines lead, said targeting county lines was a "law enforcement priority", but not one police could tackle on their own.
She said: "“Every organised crime group trafficking drugs is a business which relies on cash flow. County lines is no different. What we will continue to do with our law enforcement partners is disrupt their activity and take away their assets.
“We also need to ensure that those exploited are safeguarded and understand the consequences of their involvement. This is not something law enforcement can tackle alone - the need to work together to disrupt this activity and safeguard vulnerable victims must be the priority for everyone.”
But Criminal Defence and Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery lawyer Philippa Southwell told ITV News police "still don't understand the complexities" of county lines and were still "prosecuting victims of modern slavery when they should be protecting them".
She said specialised trained officers were needed to recognise cases.
"Law enforcement are still getting it wrong. We do have specialised trained police forces which is excellent," Ms Southwell told ITV News.
"However it is not those officers who are making the on-street arrests in relation to drug running county lines. We're not acknowledging that these are potentially exploitation cases. It's a very important stage, the police station arrest stage, because it enables to potentially divert that young person away from the criminal justice system.
"Once they enter into it, there is a domino effect and that has serious ramifications for that young person."