The Straight Dope

The new DEA museum examines America's drug culture, from turn-of-the-century ladies addicted to toothache drops to the brutality of Latin American cartels.

April 28, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- What's on display hints that this is no ordinary museum: Rolling papers, the kind used to smoke joints. Turn-of-the-century pill bottles labeled "Heroin." And a chrome-plated Harley Davidson, once the ride of a dope-trafficking biker gang in New England.

It is the federal government's newest stab at drug education.

Set to open next month in Arlington, Va., the Drug Enforcement Administration Museum explores America's drug culture and how segments of the population became addicted as early as the turn of the century -- before federal drug laws -- and why, after painful lessons were learned then, millions are obsessed with illegal drugs today.

At once, the museum documents the history of illegal drugs and the evolution of anti-drug policy and enforcement. The exhibits are disparate, taking visitors from the snakeskin platform shoes worn by undercover DEA agents schmoozing with the music-industry crowd in Detroit, to evidence bags full of real marijuana (in tightly secured display cases), to the gruesome photo of two high school-age traffickers too involved in Washington, D.C.'s drug war a decade ago, their hands duct-taped together and their heads shot through with bullets.

"The most basic history of this topic, people just don't know," says curator Jill Jonnes. "And it's not like other histories, where you say, `Oh, it's so different now than then.' Drugs have pretty much the same effect on people they've always had."

Jonnes, 47, lives in Baltimore and wrote both a dissertation at Johns Hopkins University and a 1996 book, "Hep-Cats, Narcs and Pipe Dreams," about the history of drugs in America. A free-lance journalist, Jonnes fell upon the subject accidentally while writing stories about the South Bronx during her time as a journalism graduate student at Columbia University. She was hired by the museum two years ago, when funding for the $349,000 venture became available, bringing to life a dream that has percolated at the DEA since 1976.

The 2,200-square-foot museum is small, occupying converted office space on the first floor of DEA headquarters. But its goals are lofty: to convey to Americans that the use of illegal substances has been a problem in the nation for more than 100 years and to convince them that law enforcement, if given time and shown patience, can eradicate even overwhelming epidemics.

Frustrating many at the DEA is the notion that baby boomers discovered drugs and were first to experience their pleasures and pitfalls.

"Even my in-laws, who are in their 70s, had no idea there was a problem before the '60s and '70s," said James J. McGivney, a DEA agent for 28 years and now deputy director of D.A.R.E America, which educates schoolchildren about drugs.

"We've had a couple of drug epidemics and we successfully solved them," said McGivney, noting that by 1940, law enforcement had nearly wiped out one epidemic of drug addiction. "We think we can solve this one."

As of 1997, 14 million Americans were using illicit drugs regularly. The number has been nearly halved in the past two decades. Experts warn, however, that those numbers can mask the fact that there are more hard-core addicts today -- using substances such as cocaine and methamphetamine -- compared to 20 years ago.

A tough business

The museum's stunning photos and vivid written descriptions convey the tragedy drugs bring, for instance, the brutishness and wealth of the Latin American cartels. Visitors learn of how, in 1989, Colombia's Medellin cartel heard that two informants would be aboard an Avianca flight. So they blew up the plane. All 107 passengers and crew were killed.

They can view a model of "Casa Blanca," the Cali cartel's $18 million mansion that is modeled after the White House in Washington -- complete with look-alike portico.

Also in the museum are pictures of Cali's money-counters, machines that are kept quite busy: The DEA conservatively estimates Cali's annual profits to be around $8 billion.

"They got to the point where they couldn't count it -- they had to weigh it," remembers McGivney. Today, the cartel ships its cash in 25-pound boxes of $20 bills, he says, each containing about $1 million.

Another exhibit memorializes Enrique Camerena, a DEA agent who in 1985 was brutally murdered by members of a Mexican cartel. Camerena and his Mexican pilot were kidnapped in Guadalajara, interrogated and beaten to death. Their tortured bodies were discovered a month later on a remote ranch.

The DEA is keeping a tight lid on its museum, which the agency believes is the first of its kind, until the mid-May opening. But according to those intimately involved with the project, a walk through the museum is a venture through time, a chronological tour that hits the high and low points of America's unseemly marriage with drugs, which began when Chinese traders brought recreational opium smoking to the West Coast around 1850.

Felt better fast

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