Inside the Thought-Provoking Museum Protesting the War on Drugs
Portraits made from crystal meth and other exhibitions threw into sharp relief the true cost of an unjust system.
All photos courtesy of the Open Society Foundations
The United Nations' global drug policy criminalizes most of the popular ways to get fucked up. Unless you're tripping on legal shrooms at Dekmantel in Amsterdam, or puffing on a pot-shop joint at Decibel in Seattle, you've probably been complicit in the illegal drug trade—an international web that everyone from small-time Latin American farmers to bereaved parents of overdose victims are also tangled up in.
Historically, the UN has taken a hardline stance that emphasizes drug prohibition over medical or recreational benefits. These policies have enormous influence, with many countries modeling their national drug laws after these international agreements.
At the 1961 Convention on Narcotic Drugs, for example, cannabis was labeled a "controlled substance" alongside opium and cocaine, leading to strict control over its cultivation and the criminalization of individual possession. Similarly, MDMA was deemed a "Schedule 1 psychotropic substance" in 1986, which means the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs believes it is a risk to public health and has no therapeutic value.
While a few countries buck the consensus —Netherlands, for example, has historically lax enforcement of drug laws that it nevertheless keeps on the books to avoid UN ire—most tow the line, which translates to police crackdowns on rave and clubs, kids dying after taking untested substances, and bereaved parents wondering if these deaths could have been prevented by a smarter drug policy.
But the UN's tough stance may slowly be changing. Last week, spurred by Latin American countries ravaged by the War on Drugs calling for the world to soften its prohibitionist stance, world leaders came together for the first UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) since 1998. In a deliciously well-timed (but probably unintended) joke, the three-day conference, which aimed to revise the UN's stance on drugs, coincided with the week of 4/20—every stoner's favorite holiday.
The conference gave both pro-legalization and anti-drug crusaders the chance to duke it out in-person. There were speeches by parents of overdose victims who believe legalization would have saved their children's lives, and stern-faced bureaucrats from the UN Office of Drugs and Crime repeating their conservative talking points. There was even an afterparty in Bushwick with global bass DJs like Colombia's Dani Boom of Systema Solar, who came to New York as part of the activist contingent.
But the most thought-provoking venue during UNGASS was a midtown Manhattan pop-up installation called the Museum of Drug Policy that laid bare the contradictions and consequences of the current global prohibition on drugs. Sponsored by the Open Society Foundations, a social justice grantmaking institution founded by financier George Soros, the museum stood in opposition to the diplomats just a few blocks away, who at the last UNGASS called for an eye-rolling "drug-free world."
For three days, criminal justice reform advocates, Black Lives Matter activists, drug policy gurus, and semi-bewildered U.N. staff and delegates meandered through a gutted retail storefront of a sleek Park Avenue office building. Embroidered handkerchiefs stitched with the names and stories of individuals lost to the cartel war in Mexico fluttered in the lobby.
Art installations occupied three sides of the room, including a mock coca grower's thatched-roof, dirt-floor shack displayed an indignant sign: "Coca no es cocaine." Inside a replica prison cell, museumgoers could experience the claustrophobic life of a non-violent drug offender. A 1987 edition of the "Just Say No!" board game—surely Nancy Reagan and Tipper Gore approved—sat in a glass case as a monument to the US's anti-drug PR machine.
Other art pieces took a turn for the intensely personal, asking the viewer to consider what happens along the chain of events from manufacture to market. Zefrey Throwell, a New York-based multimedia artist, whose father overdosed on crystal meth, made a diptych of portraits from actual crystal meth and his father's cremated ashes. Philadelphia-based artist Jesse Krimes, who was imprisoned for six years on a drug charge, displayed a mural of colorful newspaper cut outs he made with his bedsheets, hair gel and a spoon on a wall. A portrait of a grieving mother and ghostly child was made on the spot by a Mexican artist who chiseled the image into a paper canvas with a power drill.
The range of characters depicted by the museum—users, abusers, victims, dealers, smugglers—came across as individuals caught up in a larger system beyond their control. The show made the viewer feel helpless in the face of the overwhelming forces that would allow a U.S.-funded crop duster to spray a Colombian farmer's fields with toxic chemicals, or a Mexican drug cartel to hold a whole state hostage. But it was also a reminder that just a few blocks away, the people with the power to change the status quo were making deals at UNGASS that would touch on everyone from a Ciudad Júarez widow to a London club kid.
Treaty negotiations at the U.N. are usually abstract and alienating, but the pop-up museum swapped preachy politics for the personal—and threw into sharp relief what is truly at stake with the global drug war. When I ran into John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor Baz Dreisinger in the lobby, she emphasized that the way governments think about drugs needs a complete overhaul, focusing less on prosecuting individuals and more on fixing a broken system. "If the [anti-drug] policy is immoral, unjust, and unfairly targeting, then the problem is the policy, not you," she said. "A moral panic is a moral panic. When people start becoming anxious about young people and drugs, that spills out all over the place."
"A moral panic is a moral panic. When people start becoming anxious about young people and drugs, that spills out all over the place."—Criminal Justice professor Baz Dreisinger
The overall message of the museum, then, was to show a panorama of intended and unintended consequences as a result of that very system. The museum's executive producer Daveen Trentmann later told me the exhibitions focused on acceptance, non-judgement, and harm reduction instead of criminalization. "If you're an active drug user, we accept that," she said.
The museum's three-day run culminated in a talk about the racial unfairness of drug laws by rap mogul Russell Simmons, a longtime critic of U.S. drug policy, with Prince's "Purple Rain" playing on heavy tribute rotation in the background. Backstage, Simmons reiterated to me how important it is to acknowledge how this country's drug laws are deeply unfair in their treatment of whites versus people of color.
"It's innocent and fun and maybe a little dangerous in the rave world – not something you go to jail for, it's something you put your body and mind at risk for," he said. "In the hip-hop community, they're eight times more likely to go to jail for using drugs as blacks."
Pittsburgh rapper Jasiri X, who hyped up the crowd before Simmons' speech by spinning tracks like Biggie's "10 Crack Commandments" into the police harrassment number "10 Frisk Commandments," was more direct in his critique of the racist double-standard inherent to drug enforcement.
"[Drugs are] innocent and fun and maybe a little dangerous in the rave world—not something you go to jail for. In the hip-hop community, they're eight times more likely to go to jail."—rap mogul Russell Simmons
"Have you ever heard of Skrillex being criminalized?" he asked me pointedly, referring to how white artists tend to face less scrutiny than their black counterparts. "When they're performing, it's all types of drug use happening at their concerts but it's not policed the same. When was the last time you heard of one of these big DJs getting busted for doing drugs?"
One solution to racial disparities in policing drugs is to stop policing them at all. Last week, Virgin chair Sir Richard Branson alongside the former presidents of Colombia, Mexico, and Switzerland called for the decriminalization of all drugs, everywhere. While UNGASS fell way short of such an ambitious move and concluded without bringing a definite truce to the War on Drugs, it did make some hopeful strides—especially with regards to marijuana.
Jamaica, whose government recently relaxed its stance on herb, called for the global decriminalization of cannabis and cited respect for Rastafarian traditions. Canadian PM and boy wonder Justin Trudeau announced that the Great White North will finally vote to legalize marijuana next year. Bolivian President Evo Morales, a former coca grower, called for the US to dismantle the Drug Enforcement Agency. Colombia, Mexico, and weed-legal Uruguay (whose president let VICE's Krishna Andavolu smoke a joint during their interview) all came out in favor of experiments with medical marijuana and other steps toward decriminalization.
This chorus of countries calling for a saner approach toward narcotics jived with the museum's efforts to push the envelope on the drug debate. The UNGASS circus has left town and the hardcore advocates will go back to fighting in the trenches of Vienna—where the UN Office of Drugs and Crime holds court—but hopefully, the museum helped more casual observers understand the severity of the situation. At the Museum of Drug Policy, art and activism combined to make a powerful case for reformulating the old "Just Say No" ads. Instead of scare tactics like "This is your brain on drugs," the museum hopes for a more enlightened future that shows "This is your brain on drug policy."