The United States government's museum displays hash pipes, hookahs, bongs, American-flag rolling papers and several bags of marijuana. It also has grubby old syringes, bent spoons, a pill bottle labeled "heroin," and a grisly photo of a junkie killed by an overdose. Plus a diorama titled "An American Head Shop, Circa 1970s."
It's a museum about dope. And why not? America has museums devoted to just about everything -- the Jesse James Museum, the Liberace Museum, the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum, the Museum of Whiskey History, the Hot Dog Hall of Fame. So it was probably inevitable that somebody would create a museum devoted to two of America's multi-billion-dollar obsessions -- getting wasted and trying to stop people from getting wasted.
It's called the Drug Enforcement Administration Museum and Visitors Center and it can be found at the DEA headquarters in Pentagon City. A modest exhibit, it fills a long, narrow 2,200-square-foot room containing scores of photos and a fair amount of drugs. It set the DEA back $350,000 (in "appropriated funds," not a stack of hundreds stashed in a dealer's sock drawer). The permanent exhibit, "Illegal Drugs in America: A Modern History," is a delightfully graphic reminder that America's intense love-hate relationship with intoxication goes back further than we realize.
"By 1900, when one in 200 Americans was addicted," reads one wall panel, "the typical addict was a white middle-class female hooked through medical treatment."
That was "the golden age of patent medicines" -- unregulated elixirs that promised cures for just about everything and that frequently contained "whopping doses of opiates or cocaine."
The exhibit is a 150-year chronological tour that proves drug abuse to be as American as, well, alcohol abuse. As far back as the Civil War, high-powered opiates were routinely used as home remedies. One display quotes Mary Chesnut, the famous Confederate diarist, writing about her casual use of narcotics for the relief of wartime woes: "I relieved the tedium by taking laudanum."
It was the Civil War, not Vietnam, that produced the first addicted veterans -- so many wounded soldiers got hooked on morphine that addiction was nicknamed "the soldier's disease" or "Army disease."
By the turn of the century, Americans were guzzling all sorts of magical cure-alls. The museum displays bottles of Godfrey's Cordial, Grove's Baby Bowel Formula and Greene's Syrup of Tar -- all of which contained opium. There's also an ad for a teething remedy called Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup, which shows two happy little tots snuggling in bed with Mom. It's a homey scene and you'd never guess that what's soothing these kids is a dollop of morphine.
Displayed nearby is a 1906 coroner's report from Mankato, Minn., revealing that a 19-month-old girl named Mary Veigel died of "poisoning from soothing syrups."
The American genius for hype is evident in the advertisements for these potions. An ad for Cocaine Toothache Drops shows two cute little tykes crossing a bucolic stream. The slogan: "Instantaneous Cure!" An ad for Coca-Cola, which actually contained cocaine until 1903, promised that it would "ease the tired brain, soothe the rattled nerves and restore wasted energy to both Mind and Body."
Meanwhile, Bayer was touting its new product -- "Heroin" -- as "highly effective against coughs," and Parke-Davis promised that its cocaine remedy would "make the coward brave, the silent eloquent [and] free victims of alcohol and opium habits from their bondage." The company did not reveal that cocaine itself was highly addictive.
In addition to teaching visitors about the history of drug abuse, the museum is also designed, says curator Jill Jonnes, to chronicle the history of the DEA and its predecessors. In 1906 the government began regulating drugs and in 1930 it established the Bureau of Narcotics, the bureaucratic grandfather of the DEA. "Every narcotics agent was issued a badge, a Thompson submachine gun and a pair of hand grenades," reads the sign beside a case displaying, yes, a Tommy gun, a couple of grenades and a slew of badges. Apparently, the grenade-toting narcs were successful: "By World War II, American addicts were a diminishing cohort of aging white males."
By then, though, the Bureau had found a new target -- young black males who played jazz and smoked marijuana, which was banned by federal law in 1937. "Jazz rebels in revolt against 'square' America took up marijuana as part of their stance as 'hepsters,' " reads the introduction to a series of photos of jazz hepsters, including Red Rodney, Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker -- all of whom later became heroin addicts. Not pictured is Louis Armstrong, who, according to his biographers, avidly smoked pot for 40 years while assiduously avoiding anything stronger.
"Marihuana--Weed With Roots in Hell," reads a poster for a 1930s anti-pot movie that features "Weird Orgies, Wild Parties, Unleashed Passions." Perhaps the producer should have hired one of those "hepsters" as a consultant. The poster shows a man sticking a syringe into a woman's arm.
Of course, as everyone knows, marijuana is not injected. It is actually dissolved in maple syrup and poured on flapjacks.
Jazz musicians are not the only artists attacked in the exhibit for advocating drugs. So are "Beat literary types." Their photos identify them -- Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs. "Popular culture glorified the benefits of drugs while ignoring the tragedy and despair they caused," the wall says. Nearby is a quote from Burroughs on his junkie days: "I had not taken a bath in a year or changed my clothes or removed them except to stick a needle every hour in the fibrous grey wooden flesh of terminal addiction."
That seems like an odd form of glorification. But the exhibit is too heavy-handed to acknowledge any such distinctions.
Baby boomers of a certain age may experience some nostalgia -- and quite a bit of embarrassment -- when viewing a display titled "The Rise of the Modern Drug Culture: 1960s to 1970s." There are chocolate-flavored rolling papers, a hideously garish psychedelic poster of Jimi Hendrix and a water pipe made out of a Kraft Imitation Mayonnaise jar and four rubber tubes.
Worst of all: a pair of mint-green snakeskin shoes with platform soles two inches high. It was used by a DEA agent who infiltrated the Detroit music scene in the '70s and is quoted as saying: "I paid $150 for these shoes and I'd wear them with my bellbottoms and this wild rayon shirt."
The green shoes, the bell-bottoms, the wild rayon shirt--that unholy trinity should permanently refute the theory that drugs enhance the aesthetic senses.
As the museum reveals, drugs have a way of spawning theories that later prove embarrassingly naive. In 1975, the White House -- the Ford White House -- issued a drug report theorizing that cocaine "usually does not result in serious social consequences, such as crime, hospital emergency rooms admissions or death."
A decade later, the crack cocaine epidemic resulted in very serious social consequences, including unprecedented levels of crime, emergency rooms filled with overdoses and gunshot cases, and many, many deaths.
The display that covers that era features pictures of the bloody corpses of various coke dealers -- including Pablo Escobar, the Colombian cartel jefe -- who have been gunned down. There's also a lime-green surfboard that was hollowed out and filled with dope by smugglers. And a beautiful red Harley-Davidson confiscated from a dope-dealing Hell's Angel. Not to mention a lot of powerful guns, including a diamond-studded Colt .45 seized from a Colombian dealer.
The exhibit ends on a surprisingly pessimistic note: "Today, America confronts large and powerful drug syndicates headquartered in Colombia and Mexico, worldwide criminal organizations far more ruthless, corrupting and sophisticated that anything seen heretofore in this country."
That's not the kind of upbeat conclusion likely to send visitors rushing to the gift shop to pay $20 for a DEA sweat shirt or $65 for a "DEA 25th Anniversary Badge in Lucite." But it is no doubt appropriate for a museum depicting a war that has not yet been -- and may never be -- won.
As long as some people crave chemical oblivion and others are willing to sell them the chemicals, the DEA is likely to remain very busy. Fortunately, the museum's designers have left space for future expansion. They may need it.
-- Peter Carlson