Editorial: A Monument to Failure 5/7/99

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Adam J. Smith, Associate Director, [email protected]

On Monday, May 10, the Drug Enforcement Administration Museum opens for viewing. The exhibit, housed within the Pentagon City, Virginia headquarters of the twenty-five year-old bureaucracy, presents the history of drug abuse and drug enforcement in America. The photos and the placards on its walls harken back to the turn of the century, the heyday of patent medicines when elixirs of all kinds were sold virtually without restriction. Many of these tonics owed their soothing powers to ingredients such as cocaine or opiates and, according to the exhibit, "by 1900... one of every 200 Americans was addicted." Mostly housewives.

But for all of the museum's photographs of dead drug users and displays of drug paraphernalia and tommyguns, the most revealing feature comes at the end of the tour, where a placard tells of the situation today, including the emergence of multinational drug cartels and criminal organizations "far more ruthless, corrupting and sophisticated than anything seen heretofore in this country."

The irony is likely lost on the gun-toting bureaucrats, but it is rich, nonetheless. More than eight decades since the first drug laws and a quarter-century after the creation of the DEA, and despite millions of arrests and hundreds of billions of tax dollars spent on the drug war, the situation, on the whole, is undoubtedly worse than ever. According to the government's own estimates, three out of every two hundred Americans is a chronic user of either heroin or cocaine, meaning that addiction is flourishing at three times the rate of the bad old days, before the drug laws and before the DEA.

Given the nature of bureaucracies, we may never know the identity of the person who first came up with an idea for a DEA museum, but we can assume that the person has a hell of a sense of humor. At a cost to taxpayers of $350,000, the exhibit stands as a monument to the futility of Prohibition, and the impotence of even our best-armed and most well-financed efforts to enforce it. Twenty-five years of rising budgets and expanding power, of bigger arsenals and more sophisticated technology. Twenty-five years of the best laid plans, and yet, today, global crime syndicates, "more ruthless, corrupting and sophisticated" than ever, amass fortunes that dwarf the domestic products of many nations.

This week marks the opening of the Drug Enforcement Administration museum on the main floor of that agency's headquarters in Pentagon City, Virginia. Looking back at the history of drug prohibition in America, maybe the person who came up with the idea really was onto something. Perhaps, one day, we'll be smart enough to recognize the point that is being made here. And then we can turn the whole building into a museum.

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