Between gang talk and prohibition: The transfer of blame for County Lines

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The drug supply model termed ‘County Lines’ has generated extensive attention over recent years in the UK. Associated street violence, the involvement of young people and exploitation have been the source of intense concern. However, little discussion has sought to situate this drug market ‘phenomenon’ in relation to recent austerity policies and intensifying social exclusion. Drawing on Douglas’ (1995) conceptualisation of scapegoating as a process of blame transfer, this paper provides a critical analysis of the ways that attention has been diverted from the social conditions that are arguably fundamental to driving involvement in this supply model and its associated harms.

A critical discourse analysis was undertaken on publicly available content on the subject of County Lines. Sources included newspaper articles, other media outputs, official publications and parliamentary debates. These were analysed to identify scapegoating discourses. Once established, these were theoretically developed by drawing on a range of extant perspectives.

Three forms of scapegoating related to County Lines were identified. A familiar process was found in the form of ‘gang talk’, with County Lines reduced as a product of these ‘evil’ groups. A notably less familiar outlet of blame was identified in the form of middle class cocaine users, with a range of powerful actors attempting to denounce this ‘imagined’ population as fuelling the market. A final form was identified in relation to drug legalisation campaigns, with an unwavering focus on prohibition also arguably serving to obfuscate underlying structural drivers.

Scapegoating for the issue of County Lines has taken multiple forms. The role of these discourses in diverting attention away from the social conditions that drive these market harms should be recognised and challenged. In their place, political economy and addressing social exclusion should be at the fore of policy discussions.
Original languageEnglish
Article number102667
Number of pages8
JournalInternational Journal of Drug Policy
Early online date17 Jan 2020
Publication statusPublished - 31 Jan 2021


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