Your Money Is Covered With Cocaine

Can our tainted bills be used to track drug use?

What can the cocaine on cash tell us about drug prevalence?

More than 90 percent of U.S. currency is contaminated with cocaine, according to a study presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society. The study’s lead author told reporters that the rate had been 67 percent two years ago and that the increase may be due to a rise in consumption of the drug spurred by the economic downturn. Can dirty money really be used to track cocaine use?

Yes—at least in Europe. National drug surveys, drug-confiscation statistics, and reported enrollment in rehabilitation programs provide a spotty picture of actual drug use, so scientists have tried to broaden their methods. In Nuremberg, Germany; Valencia, Spain; and Dublin, Ireland, projects are under way to correlate the rate of contamination of newly introduced euro bills with cocaine use statistics across Europe. (Cocaine is an especially good candidate for this type of study. The drug is often taken by snorting it through rolled-up bills, and its crystals happen to fit snugly between a bill’s fibers.) After collecting more than 13,000 notes in eight years, the German team found that the most contaminated euro bills come from Spain—which makes perfect sense, since that country serves as the gateway for South American cocaine imports and has the highest reported rate of cocaine use in Europe (PDF). (An estimated 3 percent of Spaniards use the drug, compared with 2.3 percent for the United States.) In contrast, Spain’s next-door neighbor Portugal has some of the least contaminated currency on the Continent—and one of the lowest rates of cocaine use by conventional estimates. This correlation could prove useful, since currency tests are cheaper and faster to conduct than national drug-use surveys.

Still, contaminated cash may not be much help when it comes to indentifying drug use trends over time in the United States. Surveys show that the rate of cocaine use here has declined or remained steady since 1993. But studies of U.S. cash dating back as far as 1989 have reported a growing degree of contamination. One problem is methodological: The U.S. studies have not been consistent with one another on what denomination of bills were used, how many were analyzed, and from what location they came. (Epidemiologists working in Europe caught a lucky break when a completely new, “clean” currency was introduced in 12 countries in 2002. * That gave them the opportunity to study fresh contamination with a discrete starting point and a fairly stable methodology.)

Even if we can’t use currency to measure how the rate of cocaine use has changed over the years, it might still be useful for comparing rates from one region to another, as in the European studies. The new study is the first large-scale effort to examine rates of contamination nationwide, instead of focusing on bills from particular cities or states. Sure enough, the most contaminated bills in the sample came from large urban areas like Detroit, Boston, and Washington, where surveys indicate higher-than-average rates of cocaine use. But these more specific findings are based on small sample sizes (only 234 bills were used), so further testing will be necessary for confirmation.

There are other ways to estimate cocaine use using environmental variables. Another paper presented at the American Chemical Society last weekend outlined a new way to screen sewage for cocaine contamination byproducts. It has long been known that people who take cocaine release in their urine a chemical, benzoylecgonine, that would not otherwise be found there. The United States has toyed with small-scale sewage evaluations since 2001, although the first large-scale effort didn’t take place until 2008. The results both here and abroad seem promising and perhaps even more useful than the currency tests, since they can screen for more than one drug at a time.

Bonus Explainer: Can you get busted for having contaminated cash? Maybe. By determining a baseline level of currency contamination, scientists have been able to determine whether money seized from suspected drug dealers is dirtier than usual. Since most bills contain fewer than 1,240 micrograms of cocaine, anything more could indicate direct contact with the drug. According to one study, this method was 89 percent effective at differentiating between money that’s just dirty and money that’s got a bit of a drug problem. In the United Kingdom, at least, these sorts of comparisons are used in court.

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Explainer thanks Bradford Stone at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Studies Administration, Fritz Sörgel of the Institute for Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Research, and Yuegang Zuo of the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.

Correction, Aug. 24, 2009: The original version said that the euro was introduced in 2000 instead of 2002. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)