Ira Glasser, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, took out a large ad in last Friday’s New York Times asking, “Did you know that there’s a three out of four chance that the money you’re carrying could be legally confiscated?” His argument is that 75 percent of American currency is contaminated with cocaine. Since a law–which the ACLU opposes–allows courts to seize “drug-related assets” for almost any reason at all, Glasser concludes that ordinary citizens are at risk of having three-quarters of their cash seized. Is he right?
Glasser is correct that paper money is commonly contaminated with cocaine. Studies published by Argonne National Laboratories, the FBI, and the Journal of Forensic Sciences place the number between 70 and 100 percent. But government is not allowed to seize your wallet just because it contains contaminated money. In 1994, a U.S. Circuit Court held that ordinary money contains enough cocaine to attract a drug-sniffing dog. Accordingly, the court ruled that a drug-dog hit does not count as probable cause to seize money.
Until recently, the prevalence of coke-contaminated money actually checked police power. Some defendants discovered to have coke residue on their hands argued successfully that it came from contaminated bills. Unfortunately for future defendants, however, the 1997 Argonne study found that handling a contaminated bill doesn’t transmit coke to your hands. (That was the apparent rationale for the study.) For one thing, coke molecules are generally embedded in the fibers of a bill, where they won’t rub off on your hands. For another, the average amount of coke on a bill is tiny, perhaps six to 10 nanograms (one billionth of a gram). Other studies estimate there are bigger things to worry about–between seven and 42 percent of bills contain revolting bacteria of all sorts, including fecal bacteria.
Where does the coke come from? A few bills get dusted with the drug when they are used to wrap crack rock, are handled by technicians who cut and package cocaine powder, or are rolled as sniffing straws. The FBI speculates that ATM machines, which are filled with brushes and rollers, distribute the coke through the rest of the money supply.