Tuesday, November 16, 2021

No, They Don't Give Out Samples | Visiting The DEA Museum

After years of being on my list of things to see, we finally made it to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Museum. My Mother-in-Law and Ron, in the for the weekend, were up for exploring this small, quirky destination.

The museum starts with an odd contrast: on one hand, the signs outside building are quite inviting. Yet, as soon as we stepped into lobby we were reminded that we were visiting a working federal building. We had an armed escort to a security checkpoint, followed by a screening that seemed more thorough than TSA. From there, we had an escort to the museum itself. Once inside, we could wander freely.

The museum itself is relatively small, consisting of one large room with various displays and artifacts. It would be easy to walk in, think there's not a whole lot to see and walk out. However, we took our time and were not disappointed.

Much of the history of drug use in America is quite fascinating. From a Coke bottle back when Coca-Cola contained cocaine, to an asthma inhaler which was also powered by cocaine (!!), the artifacts underscore America's casual relationship with some very hard drugs.

While drugs often held amazing promise, even back in the day doctors had their limits. The museum cited Charles Bradley's 1937 experiment where he gave 'unruly' children amphetamines and counter intuitively, it calmed them down. It took another 25 years before anyone seriously considered his work, which ultimately led to the Ritalin that's used to treat kids today.

The museum spotlights three major classes of drugs: opiates, synthetics and marijuana. It's this last drug which gives the museum a bit of a propaganda feel. Outside the walls of the museum, in Virginia, cannabis is now legal to own and use. In the museum, cannabis like LSD and heroin, is highlighted as a Schedule I drug. It's considered to have "a high potential for abuse, [and] no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States."

Ron noted that in contrast cocaine is a Schedule II drug. He asked the docent about this rating, especially in the context of the recent push for legalization. I piled on: what about alcohol and nicotine? Why don't they even make the list?

The museum staff member tried to explain that a Schedule I ranking isn't intended to imply it's more dangerous than Schedule II, just that it meets a particular standard set by the FDA. And my question about alcohol and nicotine may be fair to ask, but the short answer is, for historic and legal reasons the DEA doesn't get involved with alcohol and tobacco.

The museum, however, isn't purely a 1980's anti-drug commercial. They delve into topics such as how class and fear of minorities often drove drug policy. One classic example is the treatment of lower cost crack cocaine versus more expensive powdered cocaine. The response to these variants varied significantly and were directly related to the race and socioeconomic status of the population using the drug.

If you find yourself in the Pentagon City area, the DEA Museum is worth checking out. Expect to spend 30 minutes to an hour there, and know that it has kid friendly exhibits and activities. We certainly enjoyed ourselves and learned a thing or two!

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