The DEA Is Worried Sick About Touching Contaminated Drug Money
Officials are so concerned that drug-laced cash seized in narcotics busts could seriously harm—even kill—its agents, it’s looking for ways to decontaminate the money.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is so concerned that drug-laced cash seized in narcotics busts could seriously injure—even kill—its agents, it has begun reaching out to potential industry partners about decontaminating confiscated currency, The Daily Beast has learned.
“Some of the substances on the currency may be extremely harmful to human health and potentially result in death,” says a DEA solicitation posted late last week on a U.S. government procurement portal.
“It is expected that most of the substances on the contaminated currency will be controlled substances including, but not limited to, narcotics (fentanyl, fentanyl analogues, heroin), cannabinoids (marijuana, THC, JWH compounds), stimulants (amphetamines, cathinones), hallucinogens (LSD, PCP, NBOMes), depressants (benzodiazepines, barbiturates),” the solicitation continues. “Precursor chemicals used to make these substances and other unknown harmful chemicals may also be present on the currency.”
The nascent currency decontamination initiative has not been previously reported, and DEA is looking for a vendor who can service to all of its 222 domestic offices. The agency has put out an RFI, or Request For Information, from vendors with experience in decontamination; the next step would be an RFP, or Request For Proposals. Shenika Butler, the Department of Justice contracting officer overseeing the RFI, declined to comment. A DEA spokesman said he was unfamiliar with the plan.
If the program becomes operational it would be an apparent first in American policing, and the DEA seems to be spooked enough about the idea of toxic money that it “will not count the contaminated currency (due to inherent safety issues) prior to packaging the contaminated currency, but will have a general indication of the amount that has been packaged for the vendor,” last week’s solicitation reads.
However, longtime law enforcement veterans tell The Daily Beast that “poisonous” drug money is not a concept they’ve ever heard of before.
Special Agent Dennis Franks spent 22-plus years with the FBI, which included a stretch at the helm of a multi-agency drug trafficking task force.
It’s standard for agents to wear latex gloves when they handle drug money, but that’s always been about the extent of it, said Franks. And although it has long been common knowledge that a majority of U.S. currency bears trace levels of cocaine residue, the amounts are far too minute to elicit any sort of biological response. (An esoteric industrial process using heated, pressurized CO2 to clean soiled notes has been marketed to central banks in recent years as a way to remove built-up sebum and grime on the surface of bills, thus keep them looking fresher and circulating for longer.)
The idea of decontaminating drug money is also a brand-new notion to former NYPD Detective Sergeant Joseph Giacalone, now a professor at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
He points to fentanyl as the primary catalyst for any extra safety precautions cops are taking nowadays.
“There’s some pretty scary stuff going on,” said Giacalone. “There was always some inherent risk to police work but in 2018, with these designer drugs, it’s become even worse.”
Fentanyl and its analogue carfentanil are 50-100 times more powerful than morphine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accidental exposure can be potentially life-threatening in certain instances, which include “inhalation, mucous membrane contact, ingestion, and percutaneous exposure (e.g., needlestick).”
A fact sheet distributed by the DEA to law enforcement further advises cops about “coming in contact with fentanyl on the streets during the course of enforcement, such as a buy-walk, or buy-bust operation.”
“Just touching fentanyl… can result in absorption through the skin,” it cautions.
But experts say this isn’t true.
“I find this notion to be absurd at best and inducing panic/hysteria at worst,” forensic toxicologist Kevin Shanks told The Daily Beast in an email. “The pursuit of such a program to ‘decontaminate money’ for ‘safety’ is ludicrous and not a wise use of time and effort.
“Ordinary use of currency that is contaminated with a substance will not and cannot harm and definitely not kill a person,” he said, adding that “eating the dollar bill is not considered ordinary use.”
Opioids, of which fentanyl is one, as well as LSD, cocaine, THC, and methamphetamine, are not easily absorbed through the skin, which Shanks described as “a terrific barrier.” A substance like fentanyl has to get into the bloodstream to be dangerous.
Decontaminating bills seems “quite odd, given the lack of scientific support in the public literature,” said Stefan Kertesz, M.D., an addiction specialist and professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine.
“Unless the DEA has special nonpublic information about new chemical agents, and we cannot rule that out, it seems like they are barking up a rather strange tree,” Kertesz told The Daily Beast.
If both hands were covered with fentanyl patches, it would take approximately 14 minutes to receive a therapeutic-level dose of the drug, according to a position paper from the American College of Medical Toxicology (PDF).
This means that “even high dose administration of transdermal fentanyl cannot rapidly deliver a high enough dose for toxicity,” said Shanks. “As a forensic toxicologist and chemist, I would recommend [that] if a person was to get powder on his/her skin, then go to a sink and wash it off with soap and water.”
Some of the symptoms described by cops and other first responders after touching fentanyl sound like more like panic attacks than accidental overdoses, ER doctor and toxicologist Andrew Stolbach told STAT’s Casey Ross last year. After a Washington Township, Pennsylvania, police officer said he inadvertently came into contact with fentanyl last May during a car stop, he said he “noticed a burning feeling in his chest and developed a rapid heartbeat.”
But, said Stolbach, “If anything, people with opioid poisoning would have a slow heart rate.”
Regardless, the DEA isn’t taking any chances, warning companies that respond to their latest RFI: “The vendor shall be responsible for any liability or injuries associated with the currency decontamination process. DEA is disclosing that the contaminated currency may contain harmful and dangerous substances that may result in unconsciousness or death. In some cases, the substances may be explosive in nature.”