Learning America's Drug History



Wonder Drugs & Violent Times: DEA Museum

Highlighting America's Long And Complicated History With Drug Abuse With Interesting Artifacts And Educational Exhibits

Heroin Medicine Bottle[Courtesy/DEA Museum]

America's long and complicated history with drug abuse is highlighted in the DEA Museum. During a controversial time when many communities are weary of police, the museum's interesting artifacts and educational exhibits help people understand what the DEA does and highlights the – often life-threatening and challenging – obstacles they face each and every day.

“We hear from visitors that they had no idea the drug issues in America were so complicated, that the history is as long as it is,” said past DEA Museum director and current Chief of Community Outreach Sean Fearns. “They had no idea what the DEA even did. Whether the museum addresses the lack of trust between communities and police... I can't say. But I think it does help explain how we got to where we are today and what we have been trying to do over the last century.”

The DEA Museum – which started with a couple of agents collecting artifacts, objects and documents - opened in the spring of 1999, on the first floor of the DEA headquarters. The lobby features a DEA Hall Of Honor, which currently memorializes 83 individuals who have been killed in the line of duty over the DEA's history. Then there's the 3,000 square foot primary exhibit, Illegal Drugs in America: A Modern History, which takes guests from the mid-1800s to present-day.

“It goes back further than most Americans realize,” said Fearns. The first traces of a major drug crisis were opioids in the mid-1800s, the “wonder drug of the day,” he continued. “Pharmacies carried it. There were no drug laws so you could get it without a prescription and control. People began to use it and abuse it quite frequently. The media caught on and began to report this in early newspapers and magazines of the day, about 'patent medicine addictions.' As a result, the government responded and began to set up controls and regulations to try and reduce the amount of available products and make sure they had the right ingredients...”

One of the museum's items that highlights the casual use of opioids in the 1800s is a patent medicine bottle called Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Cough Syrup. According to Fearns, the medicine was given out to mothers to give to their babies for childhood illnesses. It contained opium as one of the main ingredients.

Coca Drug Bottle [Courtesy/DEA Museum]
Bayer Pharmaceutical Drugs [Courtesy/DEA Museum]
Statue Of The Santa Muerte Mexican Cult [Courtesy/DEA Museum]

“What's interesting today is the struggle with prescription drugs and 150 years ago mothers were being told to give their kids these drugs to solve their sleeping problems or whatever else ailed them,” Fearns marveled. “Right next to it is a bottle of cocaine tooth ache drops. It's true that cocaine today is still used in certain oral and eye surgeries as a topical anesthestic but under very controlled hospital conditions versus going to pharmacies and getting these bottles... It's amazing to see how far we've come with our knowledge and science of what the drugs do to you. But 150 years later, we're still struggling with how to make them available to treat pain and injury, and avoid potential for addiction.”

The opioid craze died down around World War II, leading to some concern with the rise of heroin use in the 1930s, particularly relating to the jazz scene (which has an exhibit in the museum). Then there was the 1960s and the start of drug cartels. In the 1990s, it was meth. The 2000's were the beginning of the club drug era. Now, in the 2010's, synthetic drugs like K2 and bath salts are on the rise, along with prescription drug abuse.

Of course, there are many people in America who question if drugs are truly a problem, who believe that selling, dealing or using drugs isn't as harmful as the government makes it out to be. One of the museum's artifacts highlights the fact that there are “so many sides to the issue,” said Fearns.

It's a statue from Mexico, from the Cult of Santa Muerte, an organization in Mexico that hold a religious view that drug trafficking is sanctioned by God. The statue looks similar to a statue of the Virgin Mary, but the face is a skull and it's covered in dollar bills.

“It was in a back seat of a car, driven by a drug trafficker, in a seatbelt in the backseat,” recalled Fearns. “It would provide you safe passage as you made your deliveries. When we stopped this man, our guys thought it was a transportation method, full of drugs or money. One of the hands has been broken off to see if there was anything inside. This statue not only leads to discussions about drug trafficking in Mexico, but gives different contexts to history, exploring different sides of the issue.”

Hidden Drugs Found [Courtesy/DEA Museum]
Inside The DEA Museum [Courtesy/DEA Museum]
Drug Dealers [Courtesy/DEA Museum]

One artifact that stands out to Fearns is a limited edition Colt .45 pistol. Its handles are diamond-encrusted and it's valued at over $200,000. The gun was carried by a Mexican drug trafficker named Rafael Caro Quintero, who had kidnapped, tortured and murdered a DEA agent back in the 80s.

“It speaks to the ostentatious nature of folks who have made a lot of money off of drugs... The violence associated with drugs and trafficking. This was from an era when cartels were at their peak,” said Fearns.

It's the violence and death involved with drug abuse that seemed to really concern Fearn, who said he hoped the museum would educate people to make the right decisions. The DEA Museum is not only about the history of drug abuse, but the prevention and treatment, two large components of the DEA's mission.

Fearns started working at the museum in 1998, no stranger to the public relations world. Back when he first started working at the museum it was in its early blueprint stages, with only a team of three people working on it. Fearns' focus was to expand on the initial collection and design exhibits out of the thousands of items the agents had been collecting over the years.

What has kept him passionate about the DEA Museum is how committed to the mission everyone at the DEA is. He said: “Our only mission is the drug issue. I think you find a feeling amongst us that we are trying to make a difference in every community that we are in. Drugs poison communities with violence and crime. We know that law enforcement alone can't stop this problem. We need prevention. We need treatment, recovery. We also know that we need to do what we can to stop flow of these drugs in from other countries and keep them from reaching the hands of our kids, particularly.”

While the DEA's mission is to stop drug abuse in America, the DEA Museum remains an unbiased and immersive experience, diving into the country's complicated history with drug-related crimes.

Olivia Richman

A graduate of East Connecticut State University in Journalism, Olivia has written for Stonebridge Press & Antiques Marketplace among others. She enjoys writing, running and video games.

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