You want to tackle the fentanyl crisis? Print smaller bills

Oliver Bullough



There is an interesting case in Wales (where I’m from), in which a drug smuggling gang used the crypto exchange Coinbase to launder their profits. This provides further evidence for the commonly expressed concern about the role that cryptocurrencies play in helping criminals to hide their profits.

  • “In an attempt to hide the substantial amounts of money from law enforcement, friends and family were recruited to move crypto currency from account to account,” said Millie Davies of the Crown Prosecution Service.

Meanwhile, over in the United States, Senator Elizabeth Warren has called for stricter regulation on crypto exchanges to prevent fentanyl smugglers from using them to launder their illegal revenues. She quoted a report published last month by Elliptic and another one by Chainalysis, which concluded that tens of millions of dollars’ worth of fentanyl or precursor chemicals appear to have been paid for with cryptocurrencies — an impressive piece of investigation. Considering the damage that fentanyl is doing to the U.S., it’s unsurprising that Warren should be focusing on this challenge.

However, I’d like to keep things in perspective. Analyses of the U.S. drug market suggest it is worth $150 billion a year to the criminal gangs. Therefore — with the best will in the world — interrupting the laundering of a few million dollars’ worth of crypto is neither here nor there, in the grand scheme of things.

So what is important? As of last month, there were $2.34 trillion worth of U.S. banknotes in circulation — a sum that has nearly doubled over the past decade, just as it had, more or less, doubled in each of the previous two decades. At a time when the use of cash in everyday, legitimate transactions is in steep decline, there can only be one explanation for why demand for paper money is so healthy. It remains ever more central to the gray and black economies, particularly since more than 80% of it exists in the form of $100 bills. The inescapable conclusion is that the U.S. Federal Reserve is merrily printing out the money that allows criminals to circumvent other agencies in the U.S. government, thus indirectly helping to contribute to the 100,000 American deaths resulting from fentanyl overdoses last year alone.

The overprinting of banknotes is not solely a U.S. problem. In June, 1.56 trillion euros worth of banknotes were in circulation: This is slightly below the peak for 2022, but it’s still a spectacular volume of cash to be floating out there somewhere, particularly since so much of it is — you guessed it — in the form of 100 and 200 euro bills. But the problem is more pressing in the U.S. than elsewhere, thanks to the unique international role the dollar plays. 

Therefore, I would like to suggest, with the greatest respect, that Elizabeth Warren and her colleagues look a little closer in their own backyard if they wish to target criminals’ assets. Crypto may be shiny and new, but when it comes to money laundering, cash is king. If you want to make a serious dent in the profits of fentanyl smugglers, the Fed needs to be much less enthusiastic about how many $100 bills it prints. If the gangs had to move their proceeds in twenties, they would need to move five times as much paper around, which would make it five times easier for the authorities to see what they’re up to. Big bills are the problem and always have been.


There’s a Carl Hiaasen book in which a journalist is trying to work out which Florida politicians are corrupt by tabulating how they vote on real estate redevelopments, on the principle that, if they’re on the take, you’ll be able to see their criminal relationships by seeing which developers they help out. (If you don’t read Carl Hiaasen, by the way, then I recommend that you start, with “Bad Monkey.”)

Hiaasen is a wickedly funny writer and, in this case, the joke is that all the politicians are crooked, and they deliberately take turns voting for or against various deals, in various combinations, precisely to prevent anyone working out what they’re up to.

There is a similarly vertiginous feel to this remarkable article in the Economist’s 1843 magazine by Nicolas Pelham, recounting a colossal Iraqi bank heist.

  • “Withdrawing $2.5bn in cash in less than a year would be a logistical challenge in any country, let alone one whose highest-value banknote – the 50,000 dinar bill – was equivalent to about $35. If all the stolen notes were stacked on top of each other, the pile would rise higher than Mount Kilimanjaro. Trucks had to be used to ferry the heist money about,” Pelham writes. 

Iraq has two broad geopolitically aligned power blocs, pro-Iran and pro-U.S., as well as multiple factions, all of whom jostle for control of various government entities and their financial flows. The article begins with attempts to understand which factions, and from which bloc, are responsible for this remarkable heist but gradually dissolves into a realization that perhaps everyone’s involved.

I have thought for a long time that we need a new vocabulary for how we talk about corruption, since the word has to cover everything from state capture to the tiniest of bribes. Imagine that doctors only had the word “cancer” to describe everything from leukemia to melanoma, and all points in between. That would severely impede their ability to precisely understand what was happening, and the imprecision of the word “corruption” has a similarly limiting effect. In fact, the word “corruption” may be worse, since it suggests that governments are inherently honest until they are corrupted by bad people: in the same way that fruit is corrupted by mold or data is corrupted by a hardware error.

In reality, honest governance is the exception rather than the rule. The kind of complex networks of family, friendship and obligation revealed in this article — which cut across institutional structures and state borders — are pretty standard in much of the world. If we don’t understand that, we’ll never understand how to push for more honesty in public life.


James Ibori was the governor of Nigeria’s Delta State from 1999 to 2007, and in that period he oversaw the looting of its oil wealth in spectacular quantities. Dubai extradited him to the U.K. in 2011, and he was sentenced to 13 years in prison for fraud and money laundering a year later. He served half of that sentence and returned home, and finally we have a confiscation order, after a four-week trial in London, of the sterling equivalent of $130 million.

  • “The judge has determined that Ibori has at least 101,514,315.21 pounds [in] available assets and has made a Confiscation Order in that amount, noting that a failure to pay that order in full will result in him being subject to an additional eight years in prison.”

In a separate but related case, Ibori’s U.K.-based lawyer (who was also convicted of money laundering in 2010) was ordered to pay 28,191,787.15 pounds. Here’s an irrelevant but interesting question: Why are the court orders so curiously specific? If anyone knows why they are given to the penny, rather than rounded up at least to the nearest pound, could you let me know?

Ibori continues to argue that he did nothing wrong.

  • “The next steps will be to take my fight for justice to the highest courts in the UK,” he said in a statement.

I have two points to make here. The first is to give credit to the U.K., which — quite rightly — gets severely criticized for its feeble efforts to keep dirty money out of the economy. The investigators and prosecutors in the Ibori investigation did a good job, considering these are complex and laborious cases to lay out in court. The second point is to note the mismatch between the baddies and the goodies. Corruption is quick and easy, requiring just connections, chutzpah and perhaps a truck to carry the cash in. But honesty takes time, money and effort, even in relatively well-resourced jurisdictions like Great Britain or the United States.

Whenever I feel like I’m forgetting this, I look up Pavlo Lazarenko to see what he’s up to. Lazarenko was the prime minister of Ukraine from 1996 to 1997, fled to the United States in 1999, was arrested, prosecuted and jailed for extortion, money laundering and wire fraud, was released in 2012 and indicted in Ukraine shortly afterwards. But, after decades of legal effort, the United States has still not been able to confiscate his assets. He stole perhaps $200 million in a short-lived but extravagant spree in the mid-1990s and — more than two decades later — lawyers are still arguing over how best to confiscate the funds. (There was a court ruling on one tiny branch of this monstrous legal tree as recently as this June, and others will surely follow.) The case has now gone on so long that he and his lawyer have had several children together.

This is the case I always think about when I hear politicians speak confidently about confiscating Russian oligarchs’ frozen property and sending it to Ukraine. Lazarenko was, in wealth terms, a minnow compared to some of his Russian counterparts, and he was stupid enough to fly to one of the only countries likely to prosecute him for his corruption. Yet his wealth has still not been returned to the people it was stolen from.

This is why it is so important to build strong institutions, robust regulations and an honest culture so that money doesn’t get stolen in the first place. And this is also why we shouldn’t be satisfied with governments sanctioning oligarchs and freezing their wealth. If a fortune has been stolen, that means damage has already been done. It would be far better to prevent the damage from being inflicted in the first place.

There is a lot of detail about what precisely that damage looks like in this excellent report from the National Endowment for Democracy on the role of Russian and Chinese kleptocratic networks in Central Africa. It describes how Russia’s Wagner Group undermines the rule of law in the countries where it operates in order to make theft easier and prop up its political allies.

  • “Systemic change will require rolling back long-standing practices in democratic societies such as golden visas, anonymous shell companies, flags of convenience, shadow banks, and jurisdictions that provide a safe haven for kleptocrats – and it will likely mean disrupting relationships with illiberal allies,” the report concludes.

British authorities are saying that Ibori’s stolen wealth will be returned to Nigeria and “reinvested into public services,” which is, of course, very welcome. But I doubt anyone (except his lawyers) will see a penny of it for many years. The same is almost certainly true of the Russian oligarchs’ assets. 


There’s something about sports that gets people spending money and suspending judgment. I can remember very clearly the surge in goodwill toward Roman Abramovich among ordinary Muscovites when he bought Chelsea Football Club, and it was amply returned by the Brits when his wealth transformed the team into a colossus. Since then, the amount of money in sports has only grown, and the oligarchic competition has only gotten more intense, leading inevitably to an interesting geopolitical edge to the competition for top players.

Lionel Messi went to Miami, where his stardust is benefiting the whole U.S. league, no doubt disappointing the Saudis, who bought Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo took a swipe at his old rival by saying that the Saudi league is better than its U.S. counterpart, but I think the real test will be where Kylian Mbappé ends up. He’s still in his prime and will want to win more trophies before he cashes in completely. Money has been upending football for decades, allowing European clubs to eclipse the South Americans, then allowing English clubs to eclipse everyone else, thus making the Premier League into a true international tournament in which oligarchs can square off against each other like one of those mash-up movies (“Alien vs. Predator,” “Godzilla vs. Kong,” hedge fund boss vs. petrobaron, private equity vs. sovereign wealth fund).

But if money is in charge, why should it stop there? Can Saudi money capsize football as it did golf? You’d be a fool to bet against it. Personally, I find this stuff far more interesting than watching 22 men chasing a ball. But then I prefer rugby anyway.