- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 25, 2002

DEA museum
both shocks
and informs

The connection between drugs, crime, social problems, culture and terrorism is laid out neatly in the lobby of a Justice Department building across from the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City.

The contents of the Drug Enforcement Administration Museum may inspire college-days nostalgia for some and sorrow for others as they see the impact drugs have had on America. Either way, the 3-year-old museum is worth a visit. Those in the law enforcement field and those who want to show teens or preteens the dangers of drugs will find the small museum particularly worthwhile.

The museum traces drug use in America over the past 150 years and finds a common theme: Drugs have been here all along; they just have affected different people in different ways.

Take the early part of the 1900s, for instance. Opiates were the magic ingredient in remedies from cough syrup to headache powder. Bayer sold over-the-counter heroin. Cocaine was in Coca-Cola. “Elixirs” were advertised mainly to stressed-out housewives, who, not surprisingly, also were the nation's first addicts.

“Today, we think of drug users as lowlifes,” museum spokeswoman Dianne Martin says, “but early on, the biggest addicts were middle-class women.”

The DEA Museum houses lots of campy memorabilia from that era, from ads in women's magazines to placards touting cocaine as “brain food.” The first inkling of the harm drugs can cause can be seen here as well, including a newspaper clipping about a 19-month-old who died after being given an overdose of narcotic-containing “soothing syrup” to aid teething.

The museum traces the rise of drug use among 1920s jazz musicians and, later, 1950s and '60s beatniks. It follows the history of “casual” drug use, such as smoking marijuana, in the '70s. During that era, newer drugs came on the scene, including LSD, and cocaine returned.

The downside of those years is chronicled with the overdose deaths of rock stars such as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix; the rise in the number of detoxification centers; and the high levels of drug abuse among Vietnam War veterans, who had easy and cheap access to heroin while in Vietnam. The 1986 cocaine overdose of former Maryland basketball star Len Bias also is given a large space.

The museum does a good job of tracing the drug trade as crime while offering a look at the DEA, which has grown along with the contraband industry.

What began as a bureau of a few hundred agents pursuing organized crime in America's cities in the 1930s has grown into an organization of 4,500 special agents set on shutting down the drug trade worldwide. The exhibit also shows the evolution of drug laws in America.

The final part of the exhibit is the most disturbing. The 1980s saw the rise in crack cocaine, a cheap and highly addictive form of the drug that, the exhibit points out, “hit poor America like a tidal wave.” During that time, South American cartels grew more popular, guns got bigger, and narcoterrorism such as the Medellin cartel's 1989 bombing of an Avianca airliner carrying two potential informants grew stronger.

Crack has had an undeniable impact in Washington, where the homicide rate soared from 1984 to 1989. Crack raised addiction sixfold nationwide and created 4 million additional hard-core addicts, says Tara Smith, a museum spokeswoman.

The museum's crack-house-door exhibit gives a glimpse into how the drug has changed urban America. Visitors can look through a small opening on the reinforced steel door to see a picture of children sifting through a pile of crack vials in the street.

The museum tour winds up with a look at where drug use is heading, from the return of heroin to new “club drugs” such as Ketamine, known as Special K, and Ecstasy. Touch-screen kiosks show video presentations on the harm drugs can do. Other kiosks show what it takes to be a DEA agent, including the training and special laboratories agents use.

This fall, the museum will expand with a new exhibit that will show the connection between drug trafficking and terrorism around the world. “Target America” will open with images of September 11, then trace the drug-terrorism trade back to Asia's Silk Road, spanning some 2,000 years and 40 countries, Ms. Martin says.

“Many people are not aware of how strong the link is between drugs and terrorism,” she says. “By using drugs, you can very possibly be feeding money to terrorists, who then buy weapons. It is going to be a very powerful exhibit that will make people think twice.”

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