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    Why the DEA Stopped Testing Cash for Coke

    Written by

    Brian Anderson

    Features Editor

    Photo via Flickr/CC.

    A trace analysis of US currency that was being carried out by the Drug Enforcement Administration's senior forensic chemist turned up cocaine-stained $50 and $100 bills with such frequency that the agency found the forensic utility of such a trace study as being "limited at best." In the end, the DEA had no choice but to cut the project entirely.

    That's according to FOIA documents obtained by MuckRock, which detail the five-phase analysis. The idea was to check an often-cited, if "old, long buried" 1985 DEA paper that analyzed reports of cocaine traces on US currency in circulation. The media ran with the study then as it's still prone to do nowadays. And yet shifts in "asset forfeiture laws and the increase[d] use of these procedures by state and local law enforcement," the DEA's new report states, "has cause[d] wide speculation and interpretation as to the contents" of the orignal report.

    The DEA turned, quite naturally, to what's perhaps the epicenter of coke-y cash: Chicago, where ruthless Mexican drug cartels continue worming their way into the Midwest's most active commercial hub. Of the 21 shredded samples of $50 and $100 bills from the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank that were included in the analysis, seven bore trace amounts (between 2.4 and 12.3 nanorams per bill) of the white stuff. That's 33 percent—enough to confirm "traces of cocaine of general circulation US currency". 

    It gets better. Where is the blow coming from? Not directly from the streets, per se. The results point to the fact that:

    ...the Federal Reserve Bank itself may be contaminating the curreny through the normal procedures used by the bank. The belts are replaced as a set and must initially be contaminated by the currency, then in the turn the belts will contaminate 'clean' currency as it is sorted.

    To hear the DEA tell it, that the belts tested positive for cocaine at an estimated 200 nanograms far outweighs the fact that one third of their samples contained traces of cocaine.

    "The forensic chemist can identify the presence of cocaine of currency, however, in light of this study the chemist can not provide relevant information as to the source of the contamination," the agency's FOIA response adds. 

    So not only is cocaine stronger, cheaper and easier to score than ever before. The DEA's aborted trace analysis suggests that the precentage of coke-y paper currency is still on the up and up in the US. How's that for blowing one's wad?