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Wednesday
Oct312007

How Dopey is Money?

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Money

that you have right now in your pocket could be contaminated with Cocaine - especially if you live in The United States.

Several American studies have examined bills from around the country using variations on a technique called gas chromatography/mass spectrometry. The process allows researchers to extract a mixture of mystery substances from money, then separate out and identify specific substances from the mix in vanishingly small amounts. They can detect traces of cocaine at nanogram or even subnanogram levels (one nanogram being a billionth of a gram).

A study conducted at the Houston Advanced Research Center in Texas and the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois examined currency (mostly singles, but also fives, tens, and twenties) in Miami, Chicago, and Houston. This study found an overall 70 to 80 percent contamination rate in the three cities, with single dollar bills more commonly contaminated than the higher denominations. Overall, the more worn the bills, the more coke was found in them. In very old bills the contamination rate was closer to 90 percent. A look at money circulating in northern Illinois found even higher rates: close to 93 percent of the sample, and 100 percent of $20 bills, tested positive for cocaine.

In fact, most Americans handle small amounts of cocaine every day, not as packets sold by drug dealers but on the dollar bills that line their pockets.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation Laboratory in Washington, found cocaine on 90 percent of its money samples from Miami, New York, Houston, and San Francisco - cities with high incidences of drug traffic. By law, cash can be seized from people suspected of dealing drugs on the grounds that the money is related to criminal activity. But a 1994 case established that cocaine was so widespread in money that a drug-sniffing dog could detect cocaine in any large stash of cash. So "a drug-dog hit was no longer probable cause to seize money without other credible evidence".

With so much cash contaminated merely finding cocaine on money isn't enough. The question is how much is on it? To stand up as evidence in court, or to justify the money's seizure as ill-gotten gains, cocaine has to be there in much, much higher amounts than the 6 to 10 nanograms found on most currency.

How has moola become so amazingly infested with cocaine? "Well, the reason you traffic in drugs is to get money," comes the deadpan reply from a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration who has worked undercover in narcotics. "Drugs is a cash business. When drugs come into the country, traffickers are going to cut the dope with any number of chemicals. They cut each kilogram to make 2 kilograms to make their profit. Open the bags, mix in the cut, repackage in smaller bags, sell to people who sell on the streets. All the time money's changing hands. It's hard to keep money and drugs apart."

That's not the whole story. Mechanical currency counters are also homogenizing money - one bill brushed through a counting machine in a bank could contaminate a whole stack.

Theories abound to explain the weird affinity between cocaine and money. Is it the paper, the ink, something peculiar to cocaine hydrochloride? "Cocaine is very stable, unlike heroin, which decomposes and goes to tar". "It stays in the bill for the duration, so it accumulates."

When contaminated bills were put under a scanning electron microscope, particles of the drug squashed deep inside the fiber matrix of the bills were seen. Something in paper money seems to be binding to cocaine almost like a biological receptor, and some researchers think that something is ink. When old bills are wiped on white paper the ink comes off. The green pigment never really dries and drugs of abuse get stuck to it. Cocaine dissolves in almost anything - water, alcohol, fat. And it sticks quite nicely to skin.

Does that mean your dear old granny in the Midwest is going to be contaminated by a bill handled by a dope dealer in Chicago? It's not very likely. If money's freshly dusted with cocaine, it will get on you, of course. But once money's been handled and passed through machines, it's too deeply embedded. Simulation studies at Argonne and a "real life" test at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, bear this theory out. For the Creighton study, bank tellers were swabbed after a four-hour shift handling cash. Although cocaine was found on the cash (even in rural Nebraska), none was transferred to the tellers' hands.

How Dopey is Money?

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