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Drug enforcement officer.

Drug Enforcement Administration Museum

Field review by the editors.

Arlington, Virginia

This Field Review describes the previous DEA Museum. It opened in 1999, closed in 2019, and reopened on October 15, 2021, with all new exhibits.

"It could be a lot worse in here," said Rusty Payne, spokesman for the DEA and one of our informal guides at the Drug Enforcement Administration Museum.

Rusty stood next to a body, wrapped in a sheet, lying on a hospital gurney along with a sign titled, "How Drugs Kill."

"We've got plenty of pictures of drug-related beheadings on the Southwest border," said Rusty. "But kids come in here. I wouldn't want them to see that."

American Head Shop circa 1970s.

Shanita Perry, our other DEA employee-guide, echoed Rusty's observations. "We have 'meth mouth' before and after pictures," she said. "The elderly do not like them."

Having to sooth the sensitivities of a wide range of walk-in visitors cramps the style of the DEA Museum, run by law enforcement officials who would rather push the shock button with "scared straight" exhibits (which have historically been highlights of police museums). This self-censorship also partly explain why, with all of the drugs and paraphernalia confiscated over the years, the museum only occupies a modest space on the ground floor of DEA headquarters.

Still, there's good stuff to see. The exhibits begin with the dawn of "the modern pleasure drug culture" in 19th century China, and really hit their stride in the stoner America of the Nixon years. "We get lots of display donations," said Rusty, but none voluntarily from drug users.

Disco pimp shoes.

Visitors are greeted by "Jimmy's Joint," a reproduction "American Head Shop circa 1970s" with beads in the doorway and a hairy, grinning proprietor surrounded by hash pipes and bongs, one labeled "Tokemaster." An accompanying exhibit in the museum, Middle Class Drug Culture, laments that "they brought an unfortunate entrepreneurial energy to what has been a very marginal subculture," and displays over-the-counter rolling papers, roach clips, and a "marijuana intensifier" machine.

(In contrast, the DIY 1960s showcases bongs made from a 7-Up bottle and a jar of Kraft Imitation Mayonnaise, and a display board glued with hallucinogenic mushrooms.)

Bong and water pipe innovation.

Rusty said that he gets into debates "all the time" with museum visitors who want to know why pot isn't legal. "We get a lot of, 'What do you think of this? What do you think of that?'" he said. "We don't think! We enforce!"

As the goofy 1960s and '70s end, the exhibits grow more serious. The snakeskin disco shoes and rabbit fur coat worn by undercover cops give way to booby traps found in marijuana fields and the diamond-encrusted Colt .45 of drug lord Rafael Caro-Quintero, which is the most popular exhibit in the museum, according to Shanita. There's a teddy bear stuffed with drug money, McDonald's coffee mini-spoons that had to be recalled because Americans used them to snort cocaine, and a CD of "Mexican narcomusic" by the band Grupo Exterminador, "celebrating the exploits of Mexican drug criminals."

Another victim of drugs.

The timeline ends with a display of Southeast Asian death-to-drug-traffickers posters and an entire exhibit on "Drug Diversion" of prescription medications (Shanita said that "pharming parties" are big in the suburbs). In counterpoint to Jimmy's Joint, a reproduction "American crack house" is far less inviting. Look through a slot in a rusty metal door and you'll see -- a photo of eight- and nine-year-old kids!

Does anyone ever visited the museum while on drugs? Shanita said yes, and "If I see them, I tell them to leave."

"We know if you come here high," she said. "Why would you do that? This is DEA headquarters! They love arresting people!"

Drug Enforcement Administration Museum

700 Army Navy Drive, Arlington, VA
From north: I-395 exit 8A, just south of the Potomac River Bridge. Follow signs for Pentagon South Parking. Turn right onto Fern Rd., cross under the freeway, then turn right onto Army Navy Drive. Drive one block, cross Hayes St., then turn left at stoplight into parking deck, or drive another block, turn left onto Joyce St., then left again into parking lot. Walk back one block east. Entrance is on east side of S. Hayes St., slightly south of intersection with Army Navy Drive. From south: I-395 exit 8C. Bear right onto Army Navy Drive, then turn left at stoplight into parking deck, or drive another block, turn left onto Joyce St., then left again into parking lot. Walk back one block east. Museum entrance is on east side of S. Hayes St., slightly south of intersection with Army Navy Drive.
Tu-Sa 10-4 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
John Philip Sousa: The March King, Washington, DC - 4 mi.

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