“By 1900, when 1 in 200 Americans was addicted, the typical addict was a white, middle-class female hooked through medical treatment. But there was also a rapidly growing new group of young, urban pleasure users.”
And it is these users who will likely enjoy the DEA Museum the most.
Located just one block north of the Pentagon City stop on DC Metro’s Yellow Line, the Drug Enforcement Administration Museum & Visitors Center greets you with the friendly checkpoint security you’ve come to expect at DC’s museums, i.e., empty your pockets and step through the metal detector. (Note to stoners: We know that subtlety is not your forte, but that was your hint on what not to bring on your visit to the DEA Museum.)
The DEA Museum literally showcases its successes in the brief history of drug enforcement in the United States while inadvertently highlighting its many failures in the futile war on drugs. The combination makes for a delightful cocktail of fear and yearning.
From opium smoking in China, whence “began the modern drug pleasure culture,” to pill-popping pharm parties with the kids in suburbia, the DEA Museum has it all. The illicit drug-use story begins with the Opium Wars of 1840 and 1860, which Britain won, thereby forcing China to make opium legal. (Kudos to the Western World for once again starting something that it would spend endless years and dollars to stop.)
The narco narrative then moves to the U.S., with an array of plexiglass displays that hint at a nostalgia for the good ol’ days, when Americans used Schedule 1 and 2 drugs to alleviate every ailment known to man, woman and child – from the morphine-laced Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup for teething children to Bayer Heroin, a seductive sedative for that nasty cough.
The all-ages party begins to wind down in 1914 with the Harrison Narcotic Act, a law that dictated the orderly marketing of drugs in small quantities and the physician’s right to prescribe in larger quantities. Johnny Law took this to mean that a doc could not prescribe dope to an addict to maintain his addiction. Drug addicts took this to mean no more over-the-counter highs. Lines were drawn, and the honorable tradition of federal drug law enforcement was born. In a nod to the true motive behind this governmental oversight, the first enforcement agency was the Bureau of Internal Revenue, the precursor to the IRS. It was the U.S. Treasury that would enforce the Harrison Act, and it intended to make its presence on the streets known. Every narcotics agent was issued a badge, a Thompson machine gun and a pair of hand grenades. The war on drugs had begun.**
You didn’t see no kids selling or using drugs. If a kid came around … they’d chase him away. They’d say, ‘What do you want? Get out of here! You want a lollipop or something? The kids definitely were not involved [in drugs] in the Thirties and Forties.” – New York addict, 1970s
This campaign to make our children safer against heroin tablets and cocaine toothache drops was more than just taking candy away from a baby; it was taking away baby’s narcotics. Decades would pass before kids again had such easy access to drugs.
The Drug Enforcement Administration didn’t appear until nearly 60 years after the Harrison Act, when it was created in 1973 as part of the Department of Justice. Although it was a direct offshoot of the DOJ’s Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (1968-73), its ancestors include numerous agencies created in the first half of the 20th century: Treasury’s Bureau of Internal Revenue, the Bureau of Prohibition, the Bureau of Narcotics and the Bureau of Drug Abuse Control in the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Each of these drug enforcement predecessors had a touch of seizure fever. Although they were all opposed to people taking drugs, none had any qualms about forcefully taking away people’s drugs – and anything else they found next to or in the same house or in the general vicinity of those drugs. Confiscated treasures on display at the DEA Museum range from a homemade honey bear bong to a full-size marijuana vending machine to the diamond-encrusted Colt .45 of drug kingpin Rafael Caro-Quintero
The DEA has even managed to obtain for display a box of twisted steel and concrete chunks from the World Trade Center. What’s the connection to drugs? Here’s your answer: Poppies grow in Afghanistan; poppies are used to make heroin; heroin production fuels terrorism; and terrorists attacked the World Trade Center. Seems straightforward, right? (NOTE: None of the 9-11 terrorists were Afghani nationals, and opium production has been on the rise in Afghanistan since the U.S. occupation began in 2001.)
Growing drugs isn’t always a profession of choice, but taking them usually is. Many have tried to enhance their personalities by devouring dope, but drug use typically doesn’t enhance your career – unless you’re an athlete, or a former DEA agent, or a musician. The intertwined story of drugs and music is much like the chicken or the egg causality dilemma: Although we don’t know which came first, there’s a long history of taking drugs to make music to take drugs to. The DEA Museum graciously provides some pleasant side effects of that medicinal medley. Here are some of the high notes:
- “Marijuana enthusiasts of the 1920s called themselves ‘Vipers.’ Jazz music with lyrics about marijuana, known as viper music, was often played in basement clubs known as ‘tea pads.’ To listen to the Rosetta Howard & the Harlem Hamfats version of “If You’re a Viper,” click here.
- “Milton ‘Mezz’ Mezzrow was the jazz musician who introduced marijuana to Harlem in 1929 when the drug was still legal.” He became so well known for selling weed to the jazz cats that “mezz” became slang for marijuana, a reference that is used in “If You’re a Viper.” He was also known as the “Muggles King” – “muggles” being another slang term for marijuana.
- Kurt Cobain makes an appearance in heavy eyeliner, included in the gallery because he “shot and killed himself while high on heroin.”
- Perhaps the greatest song featured in the museum is one created by the Partnership for a Drug Free America. Check out the video below.
Don’t forget to the visit the DEA Museum gift shop before you leave!
**According to the DEA, the “war on drugs” began during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, with increased penalties for even first-time drug offenders and expanded DEA powers. By the 1990s, more than half of federal prisoners were incarcerated for federal drug violations.