Get local news delivered straight to your phone

Taking a leak at the Drug Enforcement Administration headquarters, I am struck suddenly pee-shy by a paranoid vision. Tours of the hulkingly ugly FBI headquarters downtown famously wind up with a light-hearted offer to collect the visitors’ fingerprints. What’s to keep the DEA from offering its visitors a taste of its own preferred form of surveillance? As urine trickles into the bowels of the sleek, low-rise Drug War command post in Arlington, I imagine my most personal fluids being sniffed and sifted by carefully calibrated immunoassay and gas chromatography devices. Should even the most modest traces of illicit molecules be detected, shrill alarms will sound and the armed lobby guards manning the metal detectors just yards away will storm the washroom: “Sir, slowly move your hands away from your penis….”

OK, that’s just a fretful fantasy. Having gone for almost five years without imbibing any flavor of intoxicating substance, I am no longer a chemical criminal under the laws of these United States. No, sir. Here I am at DEA headquarters, just a normal civilian with two other ex-junkie friends, here to check out the brand-new DEA Museum and Visitors Center and its debut exhibit, “Illegal Drugs in America: A Modern History.” We’re here for the official poop—and maybe just a whiff of euphoric recall as we walk a memory lane framed by wall displays.

Touted by outgoing DEA Director Thomas A. Constantine as “the first museum in America which traces the impact that drugs have had on American society and the efforts by federal law enforcement to combat this growing problem,” the display was paid for with $350,000 in congressionally appropriated funds (and not, presumably, greasy cocaine-flecked bills seized from some hapless drug suspect). Thanks to post-Oklahoma City security doctrines, this snug, 2,200-square-foot exhibit space is not likely to be just another casual stop on the Washington tourist circuit; viewings are by appointment only.

An exhibit on the illicit drug culture stocked with artifacts donated by the Association of Former Federal Narcotics Agents might be expected to take the same sort of evenhanded approach to its subject as, say, the Museum of Jewish Culture that the Nazis opened in Berlin in the ’30s. In fact, the DEA Museum, somewhat disappointingly, fails to rise fully to the risibly hysterical extremes to which American anti-dope agitprop so often aspires. Don’t come here looking for Reefer Madness buffoonery.

Predictably, though, the DEA dope show does hew firmly to the proposition that certain plants and chemicals have been deemed illicit and their users branded as criminals simply because these are Very, Very Bad Drugs. That doesn’t make sense on any number of levels, but it’s a rationale that has very practical value to an agency that has seen its budget soar from $280 million to $1.4 billion in just 15 years by dint of flogging the supposedly ever-escalating menace of illicit drugs.

A matched pair of vitrines at the entrance gives physical expression to the grim dichotomy between Good Drugs and Bad Drugs. On the left, we find a rather lame representation of “An American Head Shop, Circa 1970s.” (“We just purchased a peace sign and love beads,” a DEA flack enthuses, “so we’ll be adding to this one.”) This arrangement of tie-dye and Day-Glo, roach clips and coke spoons denotes “the middle-class championing of illegal drugs,” the exhibit text notes, which “was a historic and seismic shift that would have devastating consequences for the whole society.”

On the right, by contrast, is displayed the seemingly innocuous array of products that might be bought off the shelf of “An American Drug Store, Circa 1940s.” “For most Americans,” we are told, “drugs meant a friendly neighborhood drug store. Illegal drugs were a blessedly remote problem.” Tell that to the 20,000 who suffered deformity and paralysis after drinking adulterated Jamaica ginger tonic in the ’30s, or the more than 100 others who died painfully after being dosed with the Massengill Co.’s Elixir Sulfanilamide—in which the antibiotic drug had fatefully been dissolved in diethylene glycol, a sweet-tasting but toxic solvent better known as antifreeze. Out-and-out poisons aside, a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that more than 100,000 Americans die every year from toxic reactions to “correctly prescribed medicines taken properly.” That’s compared with the estimated 15,000 (according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s somewhat inflated estimates) who wind up in body bags every year as a direct or indirect consequence of illicit drugging. And the death toll from illegal drugs shrinks even further beside the 500,000 Americans who shuffle prematurely off this mortal coil every year thanks to overenthusiastic use of tobacco and alcohol.

When it comes to drugs, broadly defined, are the currently illicit substances really “one of our nation’s worst problems,” as the DEA claims? The actuarial statistics Just Say No. Drugs, illegal and legal, addictive and not, can be dangerous. Overuse of any substance is sure to become problematic. And some illicit substances—heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine, especially—are harder not to abuse than some others. But we seem somehow to cope with the ravages of drunk driving and lung cancer without shredding the Constitution, spawning brutal black markets, transforming our cities into armed camps, or choking our prisons with nonviolent offenders. What prevents us from addressing the ills imposed by addictive use of other drugs with a like calm and steadiness of purpose?

You won’t find the answer to that question here, needless to say. Eighy-five years after the passage of the first major federal anti-drug laws, the effort has devolved into a self-perpetuating bureaucratic mechanism that requires no rationalization because the whole enterprise has been cast as an unchallengeable moral and cultural crusade. “There is no middle ground,” a large-type quote from Nancy Reagan pronounces at the museum entrance.

Support City Paper!

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

The archetypal Bad Drug is opium. The exhibit kicks off, logically enough, with a discussion of the mid-19th-century opium wars, when Britain forced its addictive wares on a decaying Chinese empire. “Thus began the modern pleasure drug culture,” the DEA observes. Highlighting the fundamentally authoritarian tenor of the anti-drug jihad, this may be the only federal exhibition in Washington to find a good word for Marxism-Leninism. “Not until the Communists seized power in 1949,” the text continues, “was the scourge of opium ended in China.”

More opiates of all configurations follow in display cases devoted to addictive substances once available over the counter. The DEA won’t like it, but this and this alone is the reason many of the pharmacologically impure among us will be booking tours. Drug aficionados—active or retired, chastened or unrepentant—will find much to ogle in these vitrines. My companions lapse into a wistful, pensive reverie as they ponder an opium-smoking layout here, an antique syringe set there. There’s a half-pound parcel of opium gum, packaged by Bruen, Ritchey Co. of New York in 1896. And just in case you don’t want to chew your way to the next level of consciousness, there are bottles of laudanum and paregoric, Dover’s Powder, Godfrey’s Cordial, Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, and Kopp’s Baby’s Friend—all loaded with lulling doses of opiates. And dig that Wine of Coca bottle and that 25 cent tin of Moscos Catarrh Cure, otherwise known as cocaine hydrochloride. (“For catarrh and all head diseases, snuff very little up the nose five times a day until cured.” Oh well, if you insist, doctor.)

Before the 1906 Food and Drug Act enforced truth in labeling, hundreds of thousands of Americans got strung out on dope without even knowing it. Heroin, after all, was first marketed by the Bayer Co. as a cough cure. This dope fiend’s paradise was nuked by the 1914 Harrison Act, which sharply limited the sale of narcotics and cocaine.

And, beginning in 1930, a new pharmacological world order would be shaped by the DEA’s predecessor, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), whose founding director, Harry J. Anslinger, commanded the Drug War forces all the way up to the early ’60s. It was not a campaign based on reason. The use of narcotics is “an even more severe offense than murder itself,” FDR proclaimed; his quote is highlighted here.

“Every narcotics agent was issued a badge, a Thompson submachine gun, and a pair of hand grenades,” the legend beneath a display of those items explains. The 1936 photo of FBN agents stoking a furnace from a mountainous heap of heroin parcels draws an audible sigh of woe from my retired brethren.

Next up, “Hipsters and the Drug Scene,” is, in many respects, the morally instructive heart of the DEA exhibit. “For many, marijuana was a tragic introduction to the deadly world of drug addiction,” proclaims a label near a clutch of the most clumsily rolled reefers you’ve ever seen. “Drug use was becoming a proud badge of rebelliousness and being hip. And it would wreak enormous havoc.” As a federally certified Bad Drug, following passage of the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, the Demon Weed has absolutely no redeeming characteristics. Thus, beside a photo of Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, the Jazz Age Johnny Pot Seed of high-grade Mexican muggles, we find this dismissive legend: “The jazzmen who smoked marijuana felt it improved the music. Nonusers felt just the opposite.” Some swing and Dixieland fans, it seems, will never forgive the rise of free-form bebop.

That harping on the insidious evils of the counterculture that we hear is the voice of DEA consultant Jill Jonnes, author of Hep-Cats, Narcs, and Pipe Dreams: A History of America’s Romance With Illegal Drugs. Published three years ago, this engaging account of a colorful slice of American history was crippled by a dogmatic insistence on lumping together all illicit drugs and a complete dismissal of the social and racial currents that have played a powerful role in shaping U.S. drug policy over the decades.

Jonnes remounts a favorite hobby horse with a photograph of the late poet Allen Ginsberg, who is denounced here as “an ardent prosletyzer of drugs in the 1960s.” An outspoken proponent of cannabis legalization, Ginsberg actually had a much more nuanced stance than Jonnes is willing to admit. The Beat writer banned all drugs (including alcohol) at his farm to protect his companion, Peter Orlovsky, from temptation. Citing Dharma Lion, Michael Schumacher’s 1992 Ginsberg biography, Jonnes thus charges him in her 1996 screed with “utter hypocrisy.” But Orlovsky’s addiction was to heroin and methamphetamine, and Ginsberg “drew a careful distinction between the use of such addictive drugs as heroin and amphetamines and such nonaddictive drugs as marijuana and LSD,” Schumacher more reliably reports. “In fact, a close look at Ginsberg’s use of and attitudes toward drugs indicates that he was very consistent over the years.” But, then, the battlefield, even in a culture war, is no place for nuance and subtlety.

The rest of the exhibit unfolds pretty much as might be expected. Displays are devoted to the pharmaceutical speeds and downers once diverted in such torrents from legitimate production lines, the many varieties of rolling papers once available before head shops were outlawed in most states and, of course, the savage domestic and foreign cocaine wars that have so occupied the drug warriors over the past few decades. The DEA seems particularly proud of a pair of “gravity defying green platform snakeskin shoes” that one of its undercover agents donned to blend into the Detroit music scene in the ’70s. In the name of protecting their wards from their own baser drives, it seems, no sacrifice is too humiliating for the minions of the nanny state.

Nor are the sacrifices made solely by undercover fashion victims. As our nation’s 12-year experiment with alcohol prohibition should have taught us, lucrative black markets inevitably spawn ruthlessly violent “businessmen” determined to turn a profit by supplying contraband at exorbitant costs. Since President Nixon declared a renewed war on drugs in the early 1970s, no fewer than 56 DEA agents have been killed in the line of duty.

I’m not inclined to mourn the Colombian gangsters or home-grown street-corner thugs killed in their line of duty. But what of the many victims of the anti-drug crusade who are guilty of nothing more than violating what amount to sumptuary laws? The dozens of householders shot dead by police during no-knock forced entries, sometimes at the wrong address? The hundreds of thousands of Americans sentenced under mandatory-minimum laws and serving unconscionably long terms in hellhole prisons for transactions set up by venal informers working for agencies like the DEA? The many more who have had their cash and property seized under civil asset-forfeiture statutes, even though the ostensible drug charges motivating the confiscation were never proved in criminal court? The legions of chronic pain patients whose medicine of choice lies beyond the walls of a one-size-fits-all-menaces drug prohibition?

The collateral damage from the ever-escalating drug war doesn’t come up at the DEA Museum, needless to say. In a better world, visitors to the official dope show might be able to exit directly into another exhibition, “Atrocities of the Drug War,” created in 1995 by a coalition of drug policy reformers. Since published as a book—titled Shattered Lives: Portraits From America’s Drug War—it views the Drug War “in the context of its violation of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the American Bill of Rights.” It’s tough to see how anyone—radical, liberal, conservative, or libertarian, no matter what his tastes in chemical recreation—could flip through this endless litany of needless tragedy and not feel a mounting sense of outrage at the sordid extraconstitutional morass our government has wrought in the name of doing good.

Instead, the DEA exhibit winds up at three interactive video kiosks, locked and loaded with two hours of “information” on the major drug groups, including an archive of those wonderfully heavy-breathing public service announcements sponsored by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. This, I guess, is your brain after touring the DEA Museum. Finally, and charmingly, the Association of Former Federal Narcotics Agents operates a small gift shop that you pass on your way out. Here’s where you can stock up on souvenirs for those friends back home: DEA coffee mugs ($8), DEA T-shirts ($10), and DEA Museum hats ($12). Sorry, Elvis, the “DEA 25th Anniversary Badge in Leather Case” ($49) is for DEA agents only. CP

The DEA Museum and Visitors Center is at 700 Army Navy Drive, across the street from the Pentagon City Metro stop. To book a weekday tour, call (202) 307-3463.

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.