Study: 90% of Currency in U.S. Has Traces of Cocaine

It's time to resurrect those motions to suppress based on cocaine traces found on currency. A new study presented Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society found:

In what researchers describe as the largest, most comprehensive analysis to date of cocaine contamination in banknotes, scientists are reporting that cocaine is present in up to 90 percent of paper money in the United States, particularly in large cities such as Baltimore, Boston, and Detroit. The scientists found traces of cocaine in 95 percent of the banknotes analyzed from Washington, D.C., alone.

The study was conducted by Yuegang Zuo, Ph.D., a a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry & the School of Marine Science and Technology at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth in North Dartmouth, Mass.

Time Magazine reports on the study here. Time says in 2007, only 67% of U.S. currency had cocaine residue.( It doesn't mention that studies from the 90's showed a much higher percentage.) [More...]

From Time:

[A]s the prevalence of drug-dusted dollars conveys, it isn't just people snorting and selling cocaine who might have some residue in their wallets. Once a small amount of the substance is introduced, it can spread among bills as they intermix in cash registers, day to day transactions, and bank counting machines, meaning, if you live in a city, you've probably had a laced bill mingling with your money at some point.

The Time article goes on to give this incorrect advice:

Yet, don't worry, you're not likely to face any legal trouble or fail any company drug tests as a result: the amounts of cocaine found on bills ranged from a minuscule .006 micrograms to 1,240 micrograms—an amount comparable in weight to about 50 grains of sand, according to the researchers.

It should have added the caveat: Unless you're charged with a cocaine offense or the Government is seeking to forfeit your property. In that case, you can bet the Government will try to introduce evidence that money in your pocket contained cocaine residue, particularly if a dog sniffed it out.

These studies have been around since the 80's, and despite some courts finding there's no relevance, prosecutors said they'll continue to try and make the connection.

They have, and even in May, 2009, a Maryland court agreed the evidence could come in (Opinion here.)

Because we decline the defendants' invitation to take judicial notice of the fact that nearly all currency contains detectable traces of illegal narcotics, we consider the dog alert evidence as only another piece of evidence tending to show that Carr and Cardona knew that the money involved in the conspiracy was derived from illegal drug trafficking. ... Furthermore, this court has recognized that a district court has discretion to admit a trained dog's alert to currency as evidence of guilt.

The Maryland court quoted a First Circuit case from 1995, that held:

Even though widespread contamination of currency plainly lessens the impact of dog sniff evidence, a trained dog's alert still retains some probative value. Ordinary experience suggests that currency used to purchase narcotics is more likely than other currency to have come into contact with drugs.

(As if the reverse is true, that currency with cocaine is more likely to be used to purchase drugs?)

The Maryland court agreed with the First Circuit case and concluded:

We agree with this analysis, and therefore hold that -- at this point in time -- it cannot be judicially noticed that currency contamination is so widespread as to require the exclusion of canine scan evidence.

The 9th Circuit, even in 1994, had a much better view:

If greater than seventy-five percent of all circulated currency in Los Angeles is contaminated with drug residue, it is extremely likely a narcotics detection dog will positively alert when presented with a large sum of currency from that area. Given this high degree of certainty, the probative value of a positive dog alert in currency forfeiture cases in Los Angeles is significantly diminished and "the continued reliance of courts and law enforcement officers on [such an alert] to separate 'legitimate' currency from 'drug-connected' currency is logically indefensible.

Like I said, time to dust off those motions to suppress.

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    Any drug (none / 0) (#2)
    by Fabian on Tue Aug 18, 2009 at 07:54:14 AM EST
    that is ground into a fine powder is going to get around - as opposed to drugs that are sold as liquids or large solids.  Any drug that tends to be highly soluble will get around, due to being picked up by moist hands.

    It also seems to imply that cocaine users and dealers are pretty sloppy with their product.

    Now, what I really want to know, is how much of our money has traces of tobacco residue on it?  If a fine powder that isn't used by Joe Average ends up on most of our money, then a common and literally filthy drug like tobacco should be on 99% of it.

    Use isn't anymore... (none / 0) (#3)
    by kdog on Tue Aug 18, 2009 at 08:21:12 AM EST
    widespread than normal...I think it has more to do with the dollar still being the currency of choice in the black market drug trade...and thank the sun god for that, if the international black market switches to the Euro our currency is really f*cked.

    Part of this (none / 0) (#4)
    by Abdul Abulbul Amir on Tue Aug 18, 2009 at 08:53:50 AM EST

    Part of this is due to better and better measuring equipment.  Two bills in a cash drawer will exchange trace contaminants with each other.  In bygone times those trace amounts were too small to measure.  Now there are.  

    I don't think that is true (none / 0) (#6)
    by Bemused on Tue Aug 18, 2009 at 09:22:47 AM EST
    between 2007 and 2009 (67% and 90%) respectively.

      but you raise an issue. Is it possible both the 2007 and 2009 studies are less than reliable because the equipment (gas chromatograhy/mass spectrogram?-- the article does not ay) can produce false positives with such tiny trace amounts?

       .006 micriograms is 6 billionths of a gram. Tat isn't much, although if I remember my chemistry it would still be over a billion molecules if cocaine has a molecular weight of 300.


    The real question (none / 0) (#5)
    by Steve M on Tue Aug 18, 2009 at 09:07:07 AM EST
    is what percentage of currency contains enough cocaine for a canine sniff to detect it.  I question whether a dog can detect .006 micrograms of cocaine.

    it is extremely likely (none / 0) (#7)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Tue Aug 18, 2009 at 11:59:23 AM EST
    it is extremely likely a narcotics detection dog will positively alert when presented with a large sum of currency
    ie. .006 micrograms x 1000 $100 bills, or something...

    even that though, with 1000 bills (none / 0) (#8)
    by Bemused on Tue Aug 18, 2009 at 12:12:17 PM EST
     at .006 micrograms per is only 6/1,000,000 of a gram total.

       Consider this:

         If dogs are THAT good and 90% of the paper money contains traces of cocaine and almost every person handles money every day how many people just after paying for a cup of coffee would alert a drug dog?

       I don't buy either the results of this study or the assertion drug dogs are that reliable.


    Agreed. (none / 0) (#10)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Tue Aug 18, 2009 at 12:43:47 PM EST
    It would have to be proven to me that the dogs could pick up the scent of 6 micrograms of coke...however, I can easily believe it.

    For example, the human sensory threshold of hydrogen sulfide (rotten egg smell), a common wine-making fault among other things ;-), is 40-50 micrograms/Liter (μg/L).

    And of course dogs have much greater olfactory senses than us.


    Since currency co-mingles (none / 0) (#9)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Tue Aug 18, 2009 at 12:28:41 PM EST
    thereby spreading coke residue from one bill to another, and since $100 bills are in circulation 2 - 4 x  longer than the other denominations, you would expect the rate of coke-dusted $100 bills to be  2 - 4 x higher than the other denominations.

    iow, it would seem that darn near all $100 bills are dusted.

    Also, regarding comparing the rate of coke-dusted bills between different years, if currency is replaced at different rates in those different years, then that would affect the rate of contamination.

    iow, if currency was being replaced at a higher rate at the time a previous study was made, it would make sense that fewer banknotes would be contaminated then as compared to now.

    It would seem, to me anyway, that drug-contaminated banknotes - by themselves - would not be particulary convincing evidence that the holders of those notes were involved in drug trafficking.

    when she's talking about motions to suppress (none / 0) (#11)
    by Bemused on Tue Aug 18, 2009 at 12:45:49 PM EST

      I think she means, and assumes lawyers understand,  that applies to cases where a drug dog alert was one of the bases for probable cause justifying a search which then resulted in OTHER evidence being found.

       I'm not aware of any case where trace amounts of cocaine on money was used as substantive evidence of possession.

    Off top of my head I'm not even aware of any where it was allowed for the purpose of showing intent, lack of mistake etc. at trial to show intentional possession of other quantities of cocaine (although I wouldn't be totally shocked if there are some of those).

    Ah, thanks. (none / 0) (#12)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Tue Aug 18, 2009 at 12:55:53 PM EST
    My experinnce with cases involving dogs (none / 0) (#13)
    by Bemused on Tue Aug 18, 2009 at 12:58:20 PM EST
    1. Number of cases where cocaine was found and the dog did not alert- ZERO.

    2. Number of cases where the dog alerted but no cocaine was found-- probably about 33%.

    3. number of cases where a dog alerted and cocaine was found -- probably about 67%.

       Conclusions? Dogs can detect cocaine and if it's present they will alert. That dogs sometimes alert when no cocaine is found means one or both of two things --- dogs sometimes give "false positives" or can detect amounts invisible to the human eye. I'm inclined to believe both are true.

      It's also worth considering that the dogs generally are not called in unless the cops suspect drugs will be found. Ocasionally, just by chance a canine unit might make a traffic stop but the majority of cases involve situations where the cops have other reasons to suspect cocaine.

       That would mean that the dogs are likely dealing with a much higher proportion of cases where cocaine is present than would be accounted by random chance. this reality may tend to make looking at raw numbers underrepresent the instances of "false positives."

    Interesting stuff. (none / 0) (#14)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Tue Aug 18, 2009 at 01:10:26 PM EST