Cocaine on money, drug traces on banknotes

By Anna Sandiford 10/02/2010

I was surprised at a news article in the English MailOnline, which states that Every British bank note is contaminated by cocaine within weeks of entering circulation. I wasn’t surprised about the cocaine issue, but about the fact that the media seemed to think this was new or unusual.

I’ve been working on cases involving drug traces on banknotes since 2002 and even back then 95% of English banknotes were contaminated with traces of cocaine. To my mind, the most comprehensive database dealing with drug traces on banknotes is compiled and maintained by a company in the West Country of England. When I left England in 2008, practically 100% of banknotes in the database were contaminated with cocaine (and not just contaminated but high levels of contamination), less were contaminated with MDMA (from Ecstasy) and amphetamine, and less still with diamorphine (from heroin) and THC (from cannabis).  The company is question is not one of the mainstream prosecution laboratories but a standalone organisation that has developed specific equipment to deal with analysing traces of drugs on all sorts of items including vehicles, clothing, mobile phones and, of course, banknotes.

It should be remembered however that the traces of drugs we’re talking about here are so minute that they can’t be seen with the naked eye.  To put it into perspective, if one took a grain of salt and divided it into 1,000 pieces and then if one took one of those pieces and divided again into 1,000 pieces, this is the level of contamination that the anaytical equipment can detect — it’s teeny, teeny tiny.  The other way to look at is if the total amount of drugs present on one million English banknotes (each contaminated with this small weight) was bulked together it would amount in size to no more than a single grain of salt.

Drug traces on banknotes can be extremely valuable for assisting Police and Customs to determine whether or not seized quantities of money have been involved with the drug trade but cocaine has always been a difficult one to interpret.  Wouldn’t it be great if the technology could be applied in New Zealand, given that there is such a problem with P here?