UK Jail Explosion
Tony Thompson, crime correspondent
£15m of notes tainted by drugs are destroyed
More than £15 million worth of banknotes are being destroyed each year because they are so heavily contaminated with cocaine, heroin or ecstasy that they cannot be put back into circulation.
The notes are seized by police and customs officers during raids on the homes of drug-dealers or money-launderers and the contamination occurs because the money is in contact with people who are constantly handling or regularly taking drugs.
In most instances the destruction is merely a precaution, but in several recent cases the levels of contamination have been so high the money has been considered a health hazard.
In one recent raid on the headquarters of a Yardie gang which had moved from selling crack cocaine to heroin, £465,000 in small bills was recovered. The bundles of notes were being stored in the same room that was being used to prepare the heroin and had become so coated with the drug that officers on the raid were advised not approach or touch the bundles with bare hands.
They were eventually removed by a team wearing gear usually used to deal with chemical spills.
Earlier this year a court heard that during Operation Uproar, a customs investigation into the biggest Colombian money-laundering operation ever uncovered in Britain, a million dollars of cash heavily contaminated with cocaine was seized and later destroyed. A raid on the home of the main operator recovered a further £50,000 in sterling which also had to be destroyed.
According to forensic experts, around 80 per cent of all banknotes in circulation are contaminated with drugs, a figure that rises to 99 per cent in the London area. Research by Mass Spec Analytical, the Bristol-based forensics company which analyses banknotes seized by police and customs, shows that cocaine is the most common substance.
Heroin and ecstasy are less common, though in recent years the levels of ecstasy contamination have risen significantly. The £5 and £10 notes were the most heavily contaminated. In Bristol and Manchester, £10 notes were the worst, while in London £20 notes have the highest drug content.
'The paper for Bank of England banknotes is made from a mix of cotton and linen rag and the fibres provide an ideal medium for trapping small crystals, such as those of cocaine,' says Joe Reevy of Mass Spec Analytical. 'Heroin and ecstasy tend to degrade, but cocaine does not. A rolled banknote used to sniff cocaine can have a thousandth of a gram of the drug left on it. In a bank counting machine, one banknote can easily contaminate half a million others.
'Also, once you've taken a snort, the compounds will be in the oils of your skin and will get transferred to the notes you handle. Most of the time you are talking about tiny amounts - less than a millionth of a gram.'
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