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No Cash Please

It’s an odd situation. Drug dealing has always been a cash and carry business. We are used to seeing, along with piles of marijuana or bags of white powder, a stack of cash – every drug bust story includes a mandatory “dollar-amount seized.” Well, the arrest of thirty in a drug sweep last month brought up a new wrinkle – a “cashless” drug dealing economy.

Some of the dealers caught in “Operation Crackdown” were taking Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) cards instead. These are the cards that work like credit cards at food stores, sometimes called Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, or referred to by the old name, “food stamps.” The reason? Cash can be tracked by police and used in court later on.

In a typical undercover drug buy, police record the serial numbers of the cash they use (commonly just scanning all the bills) and then, after a warrant and search, the cash is then identified, allowing police to link higher-ups to sales on the street. With an EBT card, drug purchases can’t be tracked in the same way.

There are a few additional benefits for drug dealers as well. By accepting EBT cards, they can reach funds that addicts might otherwise not be able to buy drugs with. Since the benefits are state issued plastic instead of cash, addicts were stuck using them in grocery stores before dealers started accepting them as “illegal tender.” Another reason for the shift is that the profit margin is actually better with an EBT card. Dealers don’t give one-for-one value. Instead, to buy $50 worth of drugs, you’d have to use $100 worth of EBT credit.

It’s a bit more inconvenient to use this method, since dealers (or their minions) have to buy groceries with the cards and then convert those into cash (or eat them). But, there are also unscrupulous retailers who will, for a piece of the action, give out cash instead.

The Superior Telegram, reporting on Operation Crackdown said a confidential police informant purchased a cartload of beef, bread, eggs and other groceries and traded it to a dealer for crack cocaine.

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