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Innovative DEA Museum Reopens with Interactive Exhibits

What you don't know about drugs can hurt you: That's why we have the DEA.

Arlington is home to the headquarters of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the DEA Museum. After an extensive two-year renovation, this free museum debuts compelling new exhibits on the legacy of drug use, explains how drugs can affect the body, and portrays the work of DEA agents. “The museum also covers why the DEA was established, and why it’s important to protect Americans in this way,” explains Liz Thompson, visitor services coordinator at the museum. 

The museum displays a fascinating collection of drug paraphernalia and products that have had an adverse impact on the health of Americans. You learn that before 1970, packages did not have labels and sometimes contained ingredients like opium, heroin and heavy metals.
 
For example, a bottle of "Heroin" from 1898 was marketed as a pain reliever and cough suppressant. There’s "Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Baby Syrup" that contained opium and alcohol. “There was a lot of infant mortality and a lot of mortality in general,” says Thompson. “These products were marketed recklessly.”
 
As a result, legislators established the first narcotics law enforcement officers and eventually required the labeling we see today. These stories about history and culture are what make visiting the DEA Museum so interesting.
 

DEA Museum in Arlington
Photo by Renee Sklarew

What is Today’s DEA?

The DEA is charged with enforcing controlled-substance laws as determined by the United States Health and Human Services Administration (HHS). The DEA also supports programs aimed at reducing illicit controlled substances on the domestic and international markets.
 
At the museum, you’ll learn about the duties performed by DEA personnel using innovative interactives. The first exhibit you’ll see is the Wall of Honor featuring drug enforcement personnel who died in the line of duty. Others show fingerprint specialists and diversion investigators who go after individuals responsible for diverting pharmaceuticals into the illegal drug market, causing our current opioid crisis.
 
The DEA also employs forensic scientists and chemists who gather evidence that the DEA uses in court. They can determine where a drug originates, the level of potency, and identify shipments of illegal drugs. “Forensics allows us to track threats, see different trends in drug misuse, and identify where drugs are coming from,” says Thompson.

exhibits at the DEA Museum in Arlington
Photo by Renee Sklarew

What Can You Learn?

Experts like Thompson are available to guide visitors through the modern, interactive displays, but you can take a self-guided tour as well.
 
Highlights among the DEA Museum’s collection of artifacts: 

  • A pair of platform shoes worn by an undercover agent inserting himself into cocaine rings in the 1970s
  • A Harley-Davidson motorcycle that was belonged to the leader of the Hell’s Angels gang in Salem, Massachusetts: this motorcycle was seized during a multi-level operation to halt the flow of cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine
  • A hypodermic needle and hash pipe used before the turn of the 20th century
  • The ledger from the Corona Hotel in Washington State, where agents noticed that one room in this hotel was never rented, and in it, they discovered a trove of illegal drugs.
  • Most unnerving are the kitschy LSD papers featuring Albert Einstein and a huge Homer Simpson bong that demonstrate how traffickers lure people to experiment with drugs
  • An eerie Pablo Escobar death mask was obtained from the Colombian national police after the drug kingpin was killed in a shootout in Medellin, Colombia
  • The museum’s most recent addition is a prison suit and two gold- and diamond-encrusted guns owned by El Chapo
Photo by Renee Sklarew

How to Visit

Walk-ins are welcome at this free museum, but adult visitors are required to submit their government-issued identification, and all must pass through a metal detector.

The DEA Museum has outreach programs geared at drug misuse prevention, and it’s an interesting place to take older kids and college-age students. Kids 12 years and younger can earn a Special Agent badge by completing word searches and other activities. And while there is usually a staff member in the museum to answer questions, groups of 15 or more should make advance reservations to ensure a guide is available.
 
Parking is available at Fashion Centre at Pentagon City garage, which is across South Hayes Street from the museum. You can also walk from the Pentagon City Metro Station. The museum is close to many restaurants and shops that add local flavor and entertainment to your visit.

For more information, visit the DEA Museum’s website.
Location: 700 Army Navy Dr
Arlington, VA 22202
(202) 307-3463

Museum Hours
Open Tuesday - Saturday
10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Author: Renee Sklarew