What's On Your Banknotes?

Posted by Allison on 4 April 2009, 10:02

If you were to take a banknote out of your pocket, wallet or purse, it would no doubt look much like all the other banknotes you've ever handled.  The design might change from time to time but that's pretty much it.

You certainly wouldn't expect it to have cocaine on it, would you?

But in truth there is a very high chance that it will have.  The percentage varies between countries but whatever the final figure might be it is always a very high one – generally in the ninety per cent and above region.

A survey back in 1999 found that ninety nine per cent of a sample of British banknotes in circulation in the capital had cocaine on them in various levels.  The Euro banknotes have also suffered the same fate, which could be seen to be even more alarming given the fact that the currency has only been around for some six years.

Travel across the pond to the United States and it's much the same story.  Come back to Britain via Ireland and you'll find the same there (one test revealed that every single note the researchers looked at had cocaine traces on it).  Banknotes and cocaine seem to go together hand in glove.

So what is going on here?  Why is it that so much of our paper currency is tainted with this drug?

Firstly there is no need to unduly panic and think that your banknotes should all be washed and cleaned thoroughly because you're coming into contact with cocaine every single day.  You are, but the amounts in question here are extremely small and not able to cause any effects to the people handling them innocently, without realising what is on them.

But the reasons the stuff is getting on there in the first place are mixed.  Firstly it is widely known that people who snort cocaine use rolled up banknotes to do it.  Those banknotes that have been found to contain the highest trace levels of cocaine are widely believed to have been used in this way.

It's also obvious that dealers handle a lot of money in return for handing out the drug, and they are also responsible for handing out banknotes which are contaminated with the drug that they have had on their hands.  The further you get up the ladder to the people who control vast amounts of the stuff and deal with millions of pounds worth of cash as a result, the more likely it is that plenty of banknotes will be handled and contaminated in the process.

Now you might be thinking that there are billions of banknotes in use all around the world, and it can't be possible that cocaine comes into direct contact with such a high percentage of them.  And in truth you would be right.

Imagine this scenario.  Let's say you have half a dozen banknotes in your pocket, all folded up together.  When you next pay for something you hand over a ten pound note and receive a five pound note back as part of your change.  That five pound note (unbeknown to you) is contaminated with cocaine.

Now what do you do with that note?  Simple – you put it in your pocket with all those other notes, and that's how so many banknotes can be found to have traces of cocaine on them.  It's not always the case that they have come into direct contact with the drug, although obviously this does happen, but rather that they have come into contact with another banknote which has got traces of the drug on it.

All this talk of what is on our banknotes certainly makes you look at them in a whole new light.  Most of us don't really stop to consider how many other people could have handled a note before we get our own hands on it, or how many more will use it after it has left our own hands.  But if something like cocaine can get left on the notes (albeit in small amounts) what else can get left behind?  Are we carrying other things in our wallets and purses that we're not aware of?

Another drug was behind the mystery of the disappearing Euro banknotes a couple of years ago.  It was reported that some people who took Euros out of cashpoints in Germany found that they literally fell to bits some time afterwards.  Apparently crystal methamphetamine was present on the notes, causing them to crumble due to a chemical reaction which occurred as soon as people got them in their hands.

This examination of banknotes in different countries reveals how the humble note can provide a picture of which drugs are particularly prevalent in any one country.  It certainly seems that cocaine is the biggest problem, since the vast majority of notes are contaminated with it to some degree.  Heroin, however, has been found to be present on only about five per cent of our British banknotes, making it a much less popular drug.

It might seem strange that you can check out the types of drug most used in a country simply by looking at the banknotes, but it's a real indicator of the times we live in.  It certainly doesn't take long for a brand new banknote hot off the presses to come into contact with a tainted note elsewhere in the system.

Once you start exploring down this particular avenue you start to find all kinds of things on banknotes that you never even knew were there.  In fact there are also companies who have designed and created equipment that is capable of detecting all kinds of things on objects such as banknotes; in more than one case minute amounts of explosives have been found on banknotes that were used as evidence in criminal court cases.

If you have ever seen any of the CSI television series you'll know that experts can lift all kinds of fingerprints from banknotes, proving that certain people handled them at some point.  Our paper money isn't just a vehicle for buying and selling goods and services; it also carries part of us with it and that can still be detected through the trace elements such as sweat and oils that we leave on the notes after they have left our possession.

You would think that with the amount of drug residue on pretty much all the notes in circulation, the police couldn't hope to use any seized notes as evidence to help them convict a suspect – but you would be wrong. 

It's not so much whether the drug is on the notes or not, but the amount which is present that is relevant.  And of course there is the matter of fingerprints which can prove that the suspect touched the notes.

It's all quite an eye opener.  If you take out those notes in your pocket again now, I guarantee you will be looking at them in a totally different way than you did earlier.  They don't look quite so innocent anymore do they?  It certainly makes you wonder who else handled them before they got to you – and indeed, where they will be going next.