Why are drugs illegal? A trip to the DEA museum in Virginia

There’s a very interesting article in the Guardian today which asks “Why are drugs illegal?“.

Yes, these were given to children.
Yes, these were given to children.

According to the article’s author, a drugs expert, drugs aren’t illegal because they’re dangerous or cause harm – if everything which was dangerous or caused harm was illegal, we wouldn’t have alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine, or guns, along with many other things.  In a very large part, the drugs which are illegal are illegal because it’s convenient for them to be so, and because it suits the interests of tobacco and alcohol corporations to ensure that their mind altering products stay on top.

I’d urge you to read the full article, because it’s very interesting, whether or not you agree with that assessment.  It also set me to thinking about the weirdest museum I went to in the States – the Drug Enforcement Agency museum, located next to the Pentagon in Virginia.

I’m a sucker for esoteric museums – the weirder, the better. There’s a museum in London called the Grant Museum of Zoology which is attached to the University of London.  I spent an amazing afternoon there gawping at the pickled jars of moles and penis worms (real things!).  So when I read in the guidebook that the DEA had a museum, I immediately wanted to go.

It’s a short hop on the subway from DC, and it’s free to go in, so we took a look.  We’d been warned that while most museums in DC at least try to strive for some balance, the DEA museum is full on propaganda from start to finish, but that didn’t really prepare us for what it was really like.

Film poster from the 60s
Film poster from the 60s

Despite the fact that several states in America have recently taken steps towards legalising marijuana, and that heroin is derived from a legal drug (morphine), the museum made no attempt to discuss rationally whether or not this was a good thing.  All drugs were evil – pure and simple.  The DEA were the brave agents of righteousness, crusading against the evil drugs which aimed to pervade society, encouraging family breakdown, and the valuing of individual desires over what is “right” for society.

It was a strange message – and it felt even stranger when contrasted with the historical artifacts and explanations for their use.  We saw “cocaine tooth drops”, suitable for teething infants, and read about Sigmund Freud’s belief that cocaine was a miracle cure for the horrors of heroin addiction.  We read that heroin was once believed to be a miracle cure for opium addiction.  We read that people who were interested in jazz music took heroin because it was cool, and all their heroes were doing it.  We read about “reefer madness”, and the violence caused by cannabis – even though this has been widely debunked as a racist scare story.

This photo was captioned
This photo was captioned “executive cocaine user”. Look at the emptiness in his eyes.

It was clear from the stories, and from history, that drugs caused terrible deprivation and suffering in many American communities, particularly in cities such as New York, and Baltimore.  But in the museum, I couldn’t help but feel that the message that all drugs are evil, without exception or nuance, wasn’t in fact part of the problem.  If you’re told that smoking cannabis is as bad as smoking crack, if you try smoking cannabis and it doesn’t harm you, might you not feel like trying crack would be okay?  Surely, a more honest approach might help people realise just how much more harmful some drugs, like crack, can be.

The influence of the alcohol industry, particularly after the end of prohibition, was particularly shocking.  Alcohol companies didn’t want to be public enemy number one, so they made sure that drugs could be neatly slotted into the public’s mind as the scourge of society.  Prohibition clearly failed (as it has with drugs – I read recently that 3 million UK adults took drugs last year), but alcohol remains a dangerous drug.  It’s one of the few drugs where detoxing can literally kill you – the body can’t cope, and the heart gives out.  Being too drunk is far easier than being too stoned, and the tragic deaths from alcohol related illnesses or accidents are in the thousands in the UK.  In my old university city of Durham, three students died falling in the river drunk last year.  If they’d died falling in after taking drugs, the outcry would have been far larger.  It’s a shame that this is an area so fraught with tension that we’re willing to risk more harm to more people rather than take on the prevailing narrative that you can drink as much as you like but if you touch drugs you’re in trouble.

I've just written about how dangerous drinking is, but one old fashioned couldn't hurt, right?
I’ve just written about how dangerous drinking is, but one old fashioned couldn’t hurt, right?

The DEA museum unsurprisingly didn’t tackle the legalisation campaign in America – it doesn’t quite fit with the narrative!  It is an interesting museum, and if you like a quirky museum, or are interested in the subject, I would recommend you visit.  Just don’t go looking for subtlety or the voice of reason – after all, if drugs were legalised, what would the DEA do?  (Just kidding – clearly they would be the regulators & tax collectors “ma’am, your weed is 2 inches too high for your shed, that’s a $100 fine”)



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