August 17: What's Jen Clicking on Between Newscasts?

US Dollars are the Thomas' English Muffins of international currency...

I always kind of thought it was an urban legend, so this thing I just saw about cocaine and money piqued my interest.  A study by the American Chemical Society is making headlines today -- the finding is that a full 90% of US currency carries traces of cocaine.

Here are highlights from the study: 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 scientists tested banknotes from more than 30 cities in five countries, including the U.S., Canada, Brazil, China, and Japan, and found “alarming” evidence of cocaine use in many areas. The U.S. and Canada had the highest levels, with an average contamination rate of between 85 and 90 percent, while China and Japan had the lowest, between 12 and 20 percent contamination. The study is the first report about cocaine contamination in Chinese and Japanese currencies, they say.

“To my surprise, we’re finding more and more cocaine in banknotes,” said study leader Yuegang Zuo, Ph.D., of the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth. Zuo says that the high percentage of contaminated U.S. currency observed in the current study represents nearly a 20 percent jump in comparison to a similar study he conducted two years ago. That earlier study indicated that 67 percent of bills in the U.S. contained traces of cocaine. 

So why don't drug dogs alert on everyone?  And how is that even possible -- is cash contaminated because drug deals require cash (no checks, please) or because cocaine is typically snorted through a rolled-up bill?

"It could be related to the economic downturn, with stressed people turning to cocaine," says Dr. Zuo in the NY Daily News story, which continues: "Bills become drug money when users snort the powder through rolled up notes, or handle bills with powder-coated hands. Grains of cocaine then transfer to clean bills in pockets, wallets and bank counting machines across the country."


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"For the most part, you can't get high by sniffing a regular banknote, unless it was used directly in drug uptake or during a drug exchange," Zuo said in a release from the American Chemical Society.

"It also won't affect your health and is unlikely interfere with blood and urine tests used for drug detection."

Five dollar, $10 and $20 bills tended to be more contaminated than $1 or $100 bills. Fully 95% of the Washington bills sampled had cocaine on them. Of the 17 US cities tested, clean-living Salt Lake City had the lowest levels of contamination.  Los Angeles ranked up there high with with other big cities with drug problems (Detroit, Baltimore, Boston) but cities like Chicago and New York aren't ranked at all because researchers didn't collect any bills from there.  Budget cuts, maybe ...

I ran across an interesting story on the study in ScienceNews, which is one of the few that went beyond the press release that came out of the ACS.  American money may have a sort of cocaine problem of its own:

I asked Zuo if he had examined the relative structure of different nations’ currency. No. But back in the late ‘90s, chemists at Argonne National Laboratory did just such a study and their micrographs showed that cocaine didn’t adhere to the surface of banknotes. Instead, it got wedged into the nooks and crannies of a greenback’s linen fibers. Which means that once inside, they tend to stay put (until some crafty chemist like Zuo applies a solvent to release them)

Indeed, Argonne’s Jack Demirgian had explained, the linen fibers in U.S. greenbacks “look almost like hacksaw blades.” So they can presumably file cocaine crystals into pieces as the currency bends, then pocket the resulting debris. British pounds, by contrast, were made from rounder, less abrasive fibers. Those fibers were also woven too tightly to effectively cage cocaine crystals.

That microscopic image shows a chunk of cocaine stuck in a US dollar bill on the top, as compared to a big nothing trapped in a British pound at the bottom.

I know there's an economic stimulus joke in here somewhere.

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