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Filthy Lucre

A Case Involving the Chemical Detection of Cocaine-Contaminated Currency


Ed Acheson
Department of Chemistry
Millikin University


"Tom Brown" is arrested at the airport on his way home for winter break and charged with possession of cocaine when a drug sniffing dog detects traces of the narcotic in his caryy-on bag. Some of the money he is carrying has apparently been contaminated with cocaine. Students are introduced to concepts in experimental design, sampling, the interpretation of scientific data, and the reliability of results as they design an experiment to determine what percentage of paper currency is contaminated with cocaine. The case includes lab work involving the use of GC/MS techniques and instrumentation. The case was designed for a chemistry course for non-science majors.


  • Introduce students to experimental design.
  • Introduce students to the concept of sampling.
  • Allow students to examine and discuss the differences between science and science policy.
  • Allow students to work in the lab on a fun, but meaningful, project.
  • Allow students to gain an understanding of scientific disputes by interpreting data that can be analyzed in a variety of ways.


Experimental design; sampling; cocaine contamination; mass spectrometry; gas chromatography; RICO Act

Topical Areas

Legal issues

Educational Level

High school, Undergraduate lower division



Type / Methods

Dilemma/Decision, Laboratory, Role-Play, Trial



Subject Headings

Chemistry (General)  |   Analytical Chemistry  |  

Date Posted


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