Ruthless city drug dealers who exploit vulnerable users and children are spreading their heroin and crack cocaine distribution lines across north Worcestershire.
Towns across Wyre Forest, Redditch and Bromsgrove are being caught up in the web of so-called ‘county lines’ drug operations, run by dealers based in Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol and other cities.
In a forthright interview, Inspector Jake Wright, in charge of Wyre Forest community policing, said it was one of the biggest criminal challenges facing his officers.
“We have evidence that the issue of ‘county lines’ is in our communities and we are doing our utmost to disrupt and curb the activity. This is a national issue which we have largely avoided but it is now becoming clear that county lines are operating in our area and bringing in more drugs than ever before.
“We need help from the public to flag up unusual behaviour or unfamiliar characters moving into local properties, particularly those who appear to befriend known drug users.”
The activity of ‘county lines dealing’ was singled out last year by the National Crime Agency as a national criminal movement spearheaded by drug dealers seeking new markets outside of the major cities.
In a briefing document in November, the NCA revealed that gangs were taking over the homes of vulnerable users and elderly people to use as bases for dealing drugs.
Using a ‘hotline’ to a single mobile phone, the dealers send in their operatives to flood the market with high quality heroin and crack cocaine at knockdown prices so they can corner the market.
They often “cuckoo” a local property by identifying a vulnerable local user and giving them free drugs in exchange for use of their premises.
They then seek to extend the number of users and boost their operations, often also leading to rising numbers of thefts, shoplifting and other crimes.
In Kidderminster, Stourport, Redditch and Bromsgrove, police believe, based on intelligence, that a number of separate ‘county lines’ are currently operating.
In Wyre Forest alone, police have raided seven local properties since January in operations aiming to disrupt the lines.
At one premises, police found two boys aged 15 and 16, from Birmingham, in possession of around 300 wraps of class A drugs. Exploited by dealers and sent out under orders and threats of violence, the boys are currently being supported by agencies seeking to pull them out of the drugs world.
Said Insp Wright: “This is a huge challenge, not just here but nationally. Fortunately we have not seen any evidence of turf wars, nor have we yet witnessed excessive violence, but we know that other communities across the country have experienced this and we want to nip this in the bud before it takes a hold.”
Across north Worcestershire in the past 12 months, the number of reported shoplifting crimes has gone up from 700 incidents to nearly 900. Reports of car break-ins and thefts are also increasing. Often these categories of crimes are linked to drug habits.
Residents have also become increasingly worried and angry about overt drug use, particularly in parks and streets around Kidderminster.
Families complained to police earlier this month after seeing drug users injecting on a park bench near St George’s Church while children were walking to school, while drug taking in the town’s main cemetery and other public locations is causing huge concern.
Insp Wright said police would continue to work hard to meet community concerns and ensure the menace of drugs was not having an unnecessary impact on families.
“The public and police share the same desire, which is to get drugs off the streets and improve wraparound support services to get these people off their addictions.”
But it’s clear the issue of drug use and abuse is complex, and so is finding the best solutions to solve it.
Take a single strand of the drugs issue – the safe distribution of clean needles to addicts. In Kidderminster, new sharps bins were installed near St George’s Church after concerns were raised about drug users discarding needles on the floor and in hedges around the graveyard and play area.
Now residents want them removed, claiming the presence of the bins is a magnet for drug users and signals that drug use is tolerated. As a result the bins are likely to be taken out.
There are also calls for needle distribution to users to be curtailed; yet this too was a measure introduced by health agencies to try to reduce the risks to users from dirty and shared needles.
“We all wish drug abuse wasn’t happening, but unfortunately it is with us and, while drugs remain illegal, it is difficult to create safe spaces for users to get their fix,” added Insp Wright.
“We understand the community’s concerns and we are doing our very best to disrupt drug dealing and use, using stop-and-search powers and taking enforcement action as much as we can within the limits of our resources,” he added.
The district has seen a dramatic rise in the incidence of deaths from misuse of heroin and morphine in the last two years. As exclusively revealed by www.wyrelife.co.uk last month, the death rate in Wyre Forest is now the highest in the West Midlands.
The figures, provided to the Office of National Statistics by the county Coroner’s Office, show that the heroin and morphine misuse death rate is now 3.7 per 100,000 – compared to a national average of 1.7. It is now the deadliest place for drug users in the West Midlands, including Birmingham.
At the same time spending on treatment services in Worcestershire has halved in the past four years.
It has seen the biggest drop in the country, according to data analysed by the BBC’s Shared Data Unit.
A spokeswoman added: “The number of drug-related deaths is increasing nationally, partly due to a rise in the availability and purity of heroin and an aging population of heroin users.”
The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs linked an increase in heroin misuse deaths to the “deepening socio-economic deprivation since the financial crisis of 2008” in its publication Reducing Opioid-Related Deaths in the UK.
The county’s drugs strategy is developed by Worcestershire County Council, in partnership with a range of agencies. The contract for delivery of drug and alcohol recovery services currently rests with Swanswell.