We told the ‘shoots’, the drug users: form a queue. Don’t draw attention by making it a bait queue, just come to the car one at a time. Instead, it was like something off The Walking Dead – hands poking through the window, waving damp and tatty fivers, tenners, twenties.
The pebs – £10 deals of crack and heroin, double-wrapped tightly in clingfilm – flew out. The wad of crumpled notes in my boyfriend’s fist grew fatter and fatter, as did the crowd mobbing our car. Enough. My boyfriend wound up the window: “Drive, D!”
This was around 2011, in a middle England tourist town, before County Lines became a thing. We called it ‘going country’, or just ‘OT’ – ‘out there’. Maybe the MET’s Gangs Unit back home in London was starting to wise up, but the rural police didn’t have a clue. With a cute dress, open-toed sandals and my plaits tied in bows, I didn’t fit any of the usual drug dealer stereotypes. I was pushing 18, the most girly, pink drug dealer ever, flying low under the radar.
Growing up in north London, drugs and drug dealers had been part of the wallpaper, from the sweet funk of weed that hung over Carnival, to the ‘nitties’ – the addicts – I’d see slumped against the phone box when I was out shopping with mum.
I knew how the boys with fast, expensive cars earned their money, and by 12-years-old, I was earning, too. I’d started skipping school to chill with a guy who was already old enough to drive. I thought he was my boyfriend. He was actually about 20. The situation was fucked up. It was me holding the bag of weed as we drove around in his BMW making sales. He rewarded me with a £50 note, more money than I’d ever had in my life. I realised: drug dealing was a valid way to make cash. Maybe it could even be my job.
By 17, I was a single mum living in a council flat with my son, just a few months old. I must be a magnet for drug dealers, because now I’d fallen for the leader of the local ‘gang’. If you’ve seen the Netflix series, I suppose he was our neighbourhood’s Top Boy.
I was 100% in love, and when he and his friends asked if they could use my kitchen to cook crack, I said yes. Each time, I earned an easy £200. I didn’t touch the drugs, the kitchen was always left spotless, the fridge filled with food. It felt harmless.
Until one night, dozing on my bed with my baby, when there was a knock at the door. I opened it to a gun pointed at my head. Boys in balaclavas looking for my boyfriend and his mates chilling in my living room.
I ran to my bedroom and cowered under the bed with my son as the hallway boomed with gunfire. I waited, terrified, long after silence fell, before tiptoeing to the living room, expecting carnage. Instead, the place was empty. The boys had fled out the window. Bullet holes riddled my walls.
In the aftermath, my son vanished into the care system – the single worst moment of my life. I filled the void by wrapping pebs with my boyfriend and his mates for hours on end. But my flat was full of memories, photos, baby clothes. I begged the boys to let me join them on the road.
Pretty soon I was making two, sometimes three grand a week. Anyone who thinks dealing is an easy way to make money should try it. It’s gruelling. You’re in a constant state of high-anxiety, often in dangerous situations, stuck in some trap house miles from home. I’d barely eat for days at a time. But it could also be fun. I was on the road with my friends, music blaring, getting my money. I spent it as quickly as I earned it, on Louis bags, designer shoes, hair extensions, Harrods shopping trips, nightclub tables. Anything to plug the gaping hole in my life.
For years, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Didn’t know how to. My boyfriend covered my bills, my car. This ‘gang’ was like family. But then five years in, it was getting embarrassing. Other girls my age had proper jobs, responsibilities. I was a drug dealer, having guns stuck in my face and concealing substances inside my body to mule to country. Yet I couldn’t see an end to it. I knew too much. How could I stop? How could I ever leave?
One day in 2016, we were in our usual spot north of London, making sales, hitting the shots. As we drove around town, I kept clocking this one car. I was certain we had a tail. The boys dismissed it at first, but when the car drove right past us we locked eyes with the three guys inside. It was clear as daylight: they were plain clothes police.
We high-tailed it to the motorway and headed for London, but we’d only gone a few miles when the vehicles behind, in front and beside us lit up with blue lights, boxed us in and forced us to a stop on the hard shoulder. The boys ‘banked’ their drugs – stuck them up their arses – and I shoved the bit of weed in the car console down my knickers before armed police swarmed the car.
The boys walked. I spent a couple of days in a police cell, then was up before the magistrate for the weed. I got probation and a community sentence. Even then, my mentality was still ‘fuck the police’. I couldn’t wait to get back to country.
My probation officer had other ideas. She wanted to see me every other day, at awkward times that made it almost impossible to go OT. And slowly, she got through to me. I could do better. If I was willing to leave it all behind – my flat, most of my possessions, my friends – she could help me make a fresh start.
Over a period of weeks, to avoid suspicion, I started moving carrier bags full of clothes to her office. I felt like a traitor. Then, one morning, out of nowhere, I got the call: “We’re moving you. Right now.”
We’d talked about me going to south London, but instead I was put in a safe house out in Grays, Essex. A total dive with a filthy shared kitchen and discarded drug paraphernalia stuffed under my mattress. The irony. The Gang Exit service was in its infancy then, and I was pretty much left to fend for myself. If I was going to make a proper fresh start, I needed proper money. And I only knew one way to earn: I called a contact in Suffolk and went to work dealing drugs with him.
This time, though, I had a plan. In a few months, I’d made enough to quit dealing and get a flat of my own south of the river. With the help of Gang Exit, I applied for a degree course in youth work, and my lived experience swung it. I was expecting loaded, student arty types, but Instead my class was full of working class girls like me. One had been done for drug importation. Another was escaping domestic violence. Uni was alien and daunting, but we all had fire in our bellies for social work. We’d been there and we cared.
I started volunteering for a charity working with women caught up in the criminal justice system, and eventually landed a job with them as a young person’s key worker. I talked to the police and judiciary, too. Not in a snitchy way – I’m not there to help them catch people. I’m trying to change the mindset so that when they do, they keep an open mind about who this person is and why they’ve committed the crime. Anyone who’s been involved in that life is traumatised in some way. A lot of us have been exploited. The tide is turning in a miniscule way, but especially in dealing with girls I see police taking a more trauma-informed approach.
After graduating with a first, I’m in a new role with a service allied to Rescue and Response – a county lines intervention initiative commissioned by the London Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime. Now I work directly with young girls who’ve been identified as involved in or affiliated to a ‘gang’, some of them as young as 12 or 13. They come to us through referrals from schools or social workers. I hope I can help stop some of them from making the same mistakes I did, but my priority is keeping them safe.
I don’t really care who their friends are – the gang’s not the issue. This idea of a ‘gang’ is a construct. It’s just a group of friends with shared interests. What matters is what the young women in these gangs are being asked to do. Whether they’re being criminally or sexually exploited. Whether they know who to call if something happens to them. Whether they need help, like I did, to get out and move away. Even if it works for one person, that’s good enough for me.
I’m living proof that with the right support, no matter how bad things are you can turn it around.
As told to Robin Eveleigh
Danielle Marin is a pseudonym.