From their origins in makeshift labs around the globe to the toll they take on individuals, families and communities — illegal narcotics and the science that surrounds them are the focus of the latest exhibit at the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center.
The exhibit, “Drugs: Costs and Consequences,” takes a detailed look at the production, consumption and distribution of illegal drugs. However, it also covers the science behind drugs’ effects on the human body while offering families and students a sobering look at the impact of addiction.
Developed by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration and the DEA Educational Foundation, the exhibit has been seen by more than 22 million visitors in 13 cities around the country. Though it’s only in its second month in Mobile, Executive Director Jan McKay said the Exploreum has already booked tours for more than 12,000 local students.
“One of our goals is to get as many children and families through here as we can,” McKay told Lagniappe. “This is a great way for parents to start talking to their kids about drugs because it’s such a good way to start the conversation.”
“Drugs: Costs and Consequences” opens with a series of photographs showing people of different ages, races and economic backgrounds who were affected by drugs. From a doctor arrested for overprescribing painkillers to a child targeted by drug traffickers for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the first stop quickly shows no one is immune.
From there, the exhibit showcases how drugs are made through detailed recreations of processing labs for heroin in Afghanistan, cocaine in Columbia and methamphetamine made in homes and hotel rooms here in the U.S. — all modeled after facilities discovered in real DEA drug busts.
From start to finish, the event is “hard hitting” in a number of ways. Whether looking into a model of a crack den or examining the often-overlooked link between drug trafficking and global narco-terrorism, McKay said there are many thought-provoking aspects.
“It means a lot to me that we actually have remnants from the World Trade Center as well as the Pentagon,” McKay said. “There’s a direct connection between the illegal drug trade and the money it surreptitiously takes out of the country to fund terrorism around the world and here in the United States.”
In addition to the illegal drug trade, the exhibit also covers the direct impact drugs have on the human body. In a series of interactive features — including a replicated MRI machine showing a video of various drugs’ effects on the brain — the costs and consequences to human health are easily seen.
Key to educating visitors, a reference room offers materials and literature on a number of topics related to drug trafficking, drug use, addiction and treatment. Counselors with local groups such as the Drug Education Council are also available to speak with visitors, and occasionally officials with the DEA and its Educational Foundation are there as well.
Last week students from Washington County got to hear from the director of the foundation’s board, David Katz, who was visiting the exhibit with his wife, Gail. Originally from Chicago, the couple has stopped in all 13 cities that have hosted the exhibit, which prominently features their late son, Daniel, who died at age 25 from of an overdose of oxycodone and cocaine.
“Our country is addicted to drugs, and education is the key. It’s the only way to reach children and teenagers,” David Katz said. “I think they should teach history 101, science 101, English 101, math 101 and drugs 101 in every grade, because we have kids who are smoking marijuana as early as the fourth grade, and parents are allowing them to do it.”
Addressing the students, Katz rejected the notion that marijuana is less harmful than other drugs featured in the exhibit. Since its legalization in Colorado, Katz said there’s been a 62 percent increase in traffic fatalities in the state. He also added DEA agents regularly arrest people who say marijuana is how they “got started in the drug business.”
His wife, however, focused more on the growing problem of prescription painkiller abuse — offering a word of warning to parents that’s become a common message from the DEA itself.
“The closest drug dealer to anyone is their medicine cabinet. Whether it winds up in your kids’ hands or a contractor’s,” Gail Katz said. “It doesn’t discriminate, either. It affects everybody. If you think your child might be using, they are. Your kids can convince you of anything.”
One of the most poignant sections of the exhibit is an area toward the end dedicated to the lives and talent lost to drugs. There, photos of Hollywood stars lost to overdoses hang next to those of law enforcement officers killed fighting the crime that follows the illegal drug trade.
Blank pads are available for visitors to write in names of loved ones still struggling with addiction, including one simply reading “myself.” At the very top, above pictures of Janis Joplin and Michael Jackson, is a photo of Daniel Katz — young and smiling.
Though the exhibit is personal to the Katzes, David Katz said his family is one of many grieving someone lost to addiction.
“Everyone in this room knows somebody that’s affected by addiction to drugs or alcohol,” he said. “Every single person, whether they know it or not.”
“Drugs: Costs and Consequences” will be at the Exploreum through Sept. 3. The exhibit is intended for families, groups and school field trips. For more information including pricing, contact Monica Dunklin at 251-208-6880 or [email protected].