Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Coca-Cola contained cocaine until the 1940s, when in fact it was until 1904. We regret the error.
This is the seventh in a series of weekly guides to museums you might not have discovered.
Beyond the DARE program, cheesy after-school specials, and Nancy Reagan imploring the masses to “Just Say No,” some of us grow up learning very little about the breadth and depth of global drug abuse. Illegal drug use dates as far back as the Opium Wars of the early 1800s, and the Drug Enforcement Administration Museum in Arlington uses those conflicts as a jumping off point to explore drug abuse in the United States. Documenting 150 years of illegal drug use in America, the DEA museum covers the history of drug use and the science of how drugs affect the human body.
Show me what you’re made of You probably know that until 1904, a bottle of Coca-Cola contained cocaine. But Coke wasn’t the only product laced with a lethal substance. In 1888, Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Cough Syrup, marketed for children, was opiate-based. Babies died when parents accidentally overdosed their children. Dangerous drugs were so commonplace that in 1902 you could order a hypodermic syringe kit from the Sears Roebuck catalogue, complete with an opiate-based drug as a sample. Bayer advertised aspirin and heroin side by side in 1900.
The high-water mark Illegal drug use peaked in America in 1979. One in nine Americans used drugs “regularly,” which was defined as at least once a month.
More money, more problems The first hard-core drug addicts in America were middle-class white women, who had access to doctors and the means to acquire patent medicine. Later, powder cocaine became a problem among wealthy white men who used the drug as a status symbol. The trend was such an open secret that Time magazine’s July 6, 1981, cover showed a big martini glass filled with cocaine, topped with a straw and an olive. The headline: “High on Cocaine: A drug with status — and menace.”
Suiting up The DEA wasn’t established officially until 1973. Narcotic agents in 1915 were issued a badge, a Thompson submachine gun and a pair of hand grenades. There were only 100 agents for the entire country.
All that glitters Rafael Caro Quintero, now in prison for his part in the murder of DEA agent Enrique ‘Kiki’ Camarena in 1985, bought a Colt .45 with a pearl handle and had the pearl swapped out for diamonds. His gold-and-diamond-trimmed gun is on display at the museum, alongside an exhibit about drug cartels in Mexico.
I don’t need a doctor The “Good Medicine, Bad Behavior” exhibit was installed in response to the rise of prescription drug abuse in the United States. A giant model of a medicine cabinet opens the gallery, displaying oversize bottles of the top 10 most-abused prescription drugs in America. Many of the names are familiar: Vicodin, Ritalin, Valium, Adderall. The installation describes the proper use of these medications and the negative effects of abusing them.
D.I.Y. Before federal limitations were imposed on how much Sudafed a person could buy at one time in 2006, anyone with access to a pharmacy, a Home Depot and some scientific know-how could set up a meth lab at home.
Goodbye to all that The substance abuse timeline includes some of the gone-too-soon writers and musicians you’ve heard about before: Kerouac, Hendrix, Joplin. But the end of the “Good Medicine, Bad Behavior” exhibit is perhaps even sadder and more haunting. Projected on the wall as you exit is a slide show of ordinary people, many in their teens or 20s, who overdosed on prescription drugs and died. Smiling yearbook pictures, the subjects’ ages underneath, light up the wall for a few seconds before fading out, only to be replaced by other faces. Visitors are welcome to contribute photographs and biographies of loved ones to the slide show.
Badge of honor Becoming a DEA officer is a grueling process, but anyone can pick up some law enforcement-themed swag at the gift shop. Wannabe officers can score DEA keychains, honor coins and T-shirts, or they can just promote the “Just Say No” cause with a “Keep off the grass” bumper sticker.
700 Army Navy Drive, Arlington. 202-307-3463, www.deamuseum. org. Free admission. Hours: Tuesday– Friday, 10 a.m.– 4 p.m.
8To see more stories in The Exhibitionist series, visit washingtonpost.com/museums.