Look closely at the paper money in your wallet or purse. You can't see what lies just beneath the surface. But under a scanning electron microscope, there could be a surprise.
Tiny flecks of cocaine.
While it was known previously that some paper money contained cocaine, studies have now shown that its presence is surprisingly widespread.
The Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Ill., recently sampled money taken from public places in Miami, Houston, and Chicago, and found that an average of 78 percent of the bills were "contaminated" with the microscopic crystals. Money from both Miami and Houston tended to have higher amounts.
Law-abiding citizens need not be concerned with the minuscule amount of the drug found on most bills. But the study findings do pose a challenge to current methods used in prosecuting drug cases, where officials are allowed to seize money used in drug transactions.
The presence of the cocaine in so much money is partly a reflection of the penetration of cocaine use into American society. It is also the result of how easily cocaine breaks down and into the fibers of bills and can be transferred to other money.
"The paper used for US money actually has a saw-toothed fiber with spaces between the fibers," says Jack Dermirgian, an Argonne chemist who conducted the experiments.
"And if any particle of cocaine lands on the surface," he says, "the movement of saw-toothed fibers [when money is folded or wrinkled] can break the crystal, and the pieces become locked inside the money," says Mr. Dermirgian.
Part of the contamination occurs because the exchange of money for cocaine often occurs in close proximity. "Heavy cocaine users have crystals on their skin," says Dermirgian, "and contaminate everything."
Cocaine use is also more widespread than many Americans may imagine. In l996, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, the United States had 2.6 million occasional users - people using cocaine fewer than 12 times a year.
An estimated 608,000 cocaine users ingest the drug more than 51 days a year.
The National Clearing House for Alcohol and Drug Information says that a staggering 41,000 people try cocaine for the first time each month in the United States.
The powdery, illicit substance, as residue in a pocket or snorted through a rolled bill, can easily spread to other money, which changes hands quickly. In moist weather, cocaine seeps into clothing and paper.
The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has reported that money sorted at the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago with a cocaine-contaminated belt sorter was spreading cocaine to other bills. ATM machines can do the same.
Dermirgian's findings, coupled with previous findings in other cities by Lee Hearn, chief toxicologist for the Medical Examiner's Office for Dade County in Florida, are challenging drug-prosecution policies involving the forfeiture of money suspected of being used in drug transactions.
DEA policy states that no property or money is forfeited unless it is determined to have been used as a tool for, or the proceeds of, illegal activities such as drug trafficking. In 1995, the DEA seized assets of more than $645 million.
Mr. Hearn says government agencies have abused the seizure of assets and forfeiture laws. "This has happened to the point that innocent people have been deprived of their possessions and money without a good enough legal basis," he says. His findings some six years ago established that even money drawn from a bank was contaminated.
Because cocaine-contaminated money is now so common, Dermirgian says only money with "100 times greater" contamination than what is found in normal circulation would be significant.
"Forfeitures of money at the 100-times level of contamination would still be justified," Dermirgian says.
Lawyers for many drug dealers asserted that cocaine on money is so common that it rubbed off on anyone's hands. They have claimed that cocaine on their clients' hands came from innocently handling money, and not from drug deals. But Dermirgian says that cocaine in old or new money does not rub off. "We have proved that the money does not leave cocaine on people's hands," he says.
An agent who works on drug detection for the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington says Dermirgian's study contains "valuable data," but that the low level of cocaine residue in money might be the same in "any kind of porous material."
The agent, who wanted to be anonymous says, "How long money stays in circulation might also be a factor." Older bills in the study contained higher levels of contamination than newer bills.