"You can't be subtle in this town."
— Hunter S. Thompson, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."
We were somewhere around Pentagon City on the edge of Interstate 395 when the drug enforcers began to take hold. I remember saying something like, "I had no idea the DEA had a museum; maybe we should go ..." And suddenly, there was a terrible mall all around us and the sky was full of what looked like squat office buildings — all glass and concrete and blocking out the sunlight — and the sound of the Metro, which ran underneath the Pentagon City Mall and the Pentagon Centre and the Drug Enforcement Agency Museum at 700 Army Navy Drive in Arlington, Va.
"You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who's visited this museum," said my companion (for the purposes of this chronicle, let's call him Dr. Red Ladies) as we entered the DEA Museum's revolving door. A metal detector and a wand from the guards and we were through. Installation art on the Drug War was just up ahead. But first, the guest book.
"Somebody came from Mexico. For intel?" Dr. Red Ladies said, pointing to the visitor's name from our neighbor to the South. "They're from all over," he said, motioning to other museum visitors who signed in from Scotland; Brazil; Jakarta, Indonesia; Spain; and Woodbridge, Va.
He was wrong; we weren't hard-pressed to find people who visited this museum. They'd come from all over. Or had they? Was it all a ruse? A front?
Next to the log book was a wall with some words from Nancy Reagan: "For the sake of our children, I implore each of you to be unyielding and inflexible in your opposition to drugs."
Ahead lay the evidence that people had been yielding and flexible for generations.
The first wall of installations began with a representation of an idyllic pharmacy of early 20th century yesteryear. They might have gotten it from a Norman Rockwell painting.
Then the darkness descended.
First up: "An American head shop, circa 1970s." The smiling proprietor of the exhibit's Jimmy's Joint holds up a tool of the trade, a "Tokemaster" bong. Message: Just your friendly neighborhood hop-head.
Next in line: "An American crack house, circa 1990." No smiling proprietor here. Just a small peephole in the steel-grate door. Message: This is unfriendly.
Finally, the coup de grâce: "An American Marijuana Dispensary, circa 2000s." It could be on any corner, just like the drugstore. It has a green cross. It wants to help. Message: It is tough to be a drug warrior in the new century, a steadily liberalizing era regarding marijuana laws.
That part of the museum's "Illegal Drugs in America: A Modern History" section concluded and we were off to a romp through history.
The Chinese Opium Wars (where, the DEA explains, the Chinese lost Hong Kong and birthed the "modern pleasure drug user"); the Jazz Age (where "hipsters" and "cool cats" enticed the young and impressionable to try illicit substances.)
It always comes back to blaming the hipsters. If not for continuing the modern pleasure drug user, then gentrification along H Street or in Brooklyn.
"Dreamed about a reefer five feet long," the voice of Stuff Smith and his Onyx Club Boys sing from a record from 1938. Five feet? Ye gods. Bob Marley was an amateur.
History, as it is mercilessly wont to do, got crueler. DEA agents in the 1930s were assigned a simple kit of tools: A badge, a Thompson submachine gun and two hand grenades. There you go boys. Go get them.
By the time the 1990s roll around, the DEA and its drug cartel foes are wielding Glocks, Tec-9 machine pistols and body armor, and are smuggling every form and substance inside bricks, teddy bears, fresh fruit and via gyrocopter, ramps over border fences (take that border security!) and tunnels.
Plus, home-grown drug traffickers start to carelessly blow themselves up.
It all gets continually grim, as can be seen from the public service announcement on crystal meth.
"I don't sleep, and I don't eat, but I've got the cleanest house on the street. Ooohhh, Meth, M-hm, Meth," the "Cleaner Girl Meth Commercial" sings.
And then the brightness returns, like the entrance to Circus Circus. Because it's time to entertain the kids.
Enter "Welcome to the World of Drugosaurs!" a publication just right for the preteen.
This was the first I had heard the dinosaurs went extinct from drug use. The Huffadon, the "chemical-sniffing drugosaur," the Teracracktyl, the "cocaine and crack-using drugosaur," the Velociraver, the "MDMA-using drugosaur." It's all there. Now the truth could be told.
Pick up that tract and then it's out the exit, bordered by a wall of people and an animal — "crossing guard," "soldier," "child" and "dog" — while posing the question, "Who's affected by drugs?"
And the answer came with a mirror: "You are." Ponder it, hippie, as you exit. And don't forget to stop by the gift shop and pick up a Junior Special Agent badge and a copy of "Blue Ribbon Recipes From Your Red Ribbon Pals."
The beer bread recipe on page 33 sounds delicious.
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