Pubdate: Sat, 20 Jul 2002
Source: New Scientist (UK)
Copyright: New Scientist, RBI Limited 2002
Author: James Randerson


Into A Drug Dealer's Worst Enemy

IT'S BECOME an essential tool for drug dealers, but the mobile phone could 
also prove their downfall. And wiping incriminating calls from the phone's 
memory won't help. It's the gunk between the buttons the police are after.

The many tiny crevices on a cellphone can harbour drug particles if the 
user has been in regular contact with them. But until recently, no one knew 
if a cellphone could be innocently contaminated with drugs. Since cocaine 
traces are present on 99 per cent of British bank notes, it's possible that 
phones are easily tainted.

Now forensic scientists have shown that the drug contamination on a 
dealer's or a heavy user's cellphone is much higher than you would find by 

Neil Ronan and his colleagues at Mass Spec Analytical in Bristol checked 
out 150 handsets to see how often they harboured traces of drugs. Most were 
old phones ditched by people upgrading to newer models, but some came from 
police drug squad officers.

The researchers used a toothpick to delve into seven parts of each phone, 
including down the side of the most frequently used buttons. Only 5 per 
cent of handsets were positive for cocaine, heroin and ecstasy, while none 
showed traces of cannabis. The phones that were innocently contaminated 
tended to have deposits at only one point, but the phones of people who had 
recently handled drugs typically had traces all over them. This will help 
forensic teams differentiate between likely dealers and innocent people, 
Ronan says.

Compared with other personal items celiphones have lots of nooks and 
crannies, so if the same trace signatures are found all over it, it's 
pretty hard to explain away as chance. "Before, I could just say that drugs 
were there," says Ronan. Now he can say what that means. But such trace 
evidence on its own will not support a conviction. It simply helps build up 
a picture of the defendant, he said at a Royal Society of Chemistry 
forensics conference in Lincoln last week.
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