This bimonthly series highlights lesser-known museums in and around D.C.
In 1976, a special agent with U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) began collecting early narcotics law enforcement badges. To celebrate America’s bicentennial, the federal government had encouraged its agencies to develop exhibits showcasing their histories. First opened in 1999, the DEA Museum has since grown from one agent’s badge collection to an interactive learning environment — filled with diverse artifacts, hands-on activities and personal histories — with a stated mission to “present the history of substance misuse in the country and the role that government has played in addressing that problem.”
Located on the premises of the DEA headquarters in Arlington, the museum’s displays range from fascinating historic artifacts related to drug use, production, trafficking and enforcement to an exhibit on the science of addiction, including the molecular structures of drugs and how they alter brain chemistry. Panels feature powerful stories of former addicts who managed to escape the cycle of addiction.
The DEA and its decades-long War on Drugs is fraught with controversy, and any museum will have a built-in bias, yet the DEA’s exhibits are surprisingly well rounded. While parts of the museum take a light approach — a selfie wall tiled with drug iconography comes to mind — others bring visitors face-to-face with the human suffering of drug addiction in a gut-wrenching way. Notably, “The Faces of Fentanyl” exhibit commemorates lives lost from fentanyl poisoning. Walls upon walls are lined with smiling faces accompanied by names and ages at the time of death — “Forever 3,” for example, or “Forever 30” — with most victims in their 20s or younger. A nearby display proclaims that the DEA has seized enough Fentanyl to provide a lethal dose to each and every American.
The museum offers lesson plans for educators and interactive activities for youth, including video games like “Team Up,” where players can join an ops team to try to disrupt the supply of a drug organization.
Don’t forget to pay a visit to the museum’s Wall of Honor, outside the main exhibit area. This wall honors the agents fallen in the line of duty, such as Special Agent Enrique Camarena, whose body was discovered on March 5, 1985, after Mexican drug traffickers kidnapped, tortured and killed him. On the afternoon of his disappearance, Camarena was en route to meet his wife for lunch. He was abducted by five assailants as he left the U.S. Consulate and never seen alive again.
Who It’s For:
Binge watchers of “To Catch a Smuggler” and “Breaking Bad.” Fans of the TSA’s cheeky Instagram account. Anyone who has lost a loved one to an overdose.
- The gold-plated, diamond-encrusted, Versace-branded guns owned by Joaquín “El Chapo” Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, former leader of the Sinaloa Cartel
- Pablo Escobar’s “death mask,” presented to the DEA by the Colombian National Police
- An advertisement for Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, a patented medicine that contained morphine and led to child fatalities through the 1930s
- A Paddington Bear doll and goldfish, both used to smuggle drugs in the 1980s
- Peacock brand heroin bags, used by a Thai drug organization to identify their product
Fun and Not-So-Fun Facts:
The Canadian maple leaf emoji is universal icon for drugs on social media, and the chocolate chip cookie emoji indicates a “large batch.” The DEA’s forensic labs estimate that two of every five fake pills with Fentanyl (typically counterfeit Oxycodone) contain a potentially lethal dose, leading to the organization’s “One Pill Can Kill” campaign.
Street parking is scarce and the DEA parking lot is off-limits for visitors. Be prepared for a shoes-off security check, with valid form of identification. The museum is wheelchair accessible and all audio components include open captioning for the hearing impaired. Guided tours available upon advance request.
Gift Shop Gems:
The annual DEA holiday ornaments go fast — because who wouldn’t want a replica of a 1970s undercover agent’s disco platform shoe on their Christmas tree? — but can also be purchased online. DEA hats to make fake busts on your friends or DEA-branded teddy bears with bulletproof vests for the little ones also make great gift items, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Google review rating:
4.3 (of 257 reviews)
The DEA Museum is free and open to the public Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
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