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Brutally honest drug exhibit is thoughtful -- and sobering

October 11, 2008|SANDY BANKS

Imagine a giant science fair where all the displays are so good you know the kids must have gotten help from their parents. This year's theme: the dangers of drugs.

At first blush, that was the feeling in the exhibition hall at the California Science Center, which is playing host to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration's traveling museum on drugs.

I was curious what a DEA exhibit about drugs would look like. Drug-bust booty, flak jackets and high-powered rifles? Clips from "Reefer Madness" and that old commercial of the frying egg as "your brain on drugs"?

Instead, I confronted a series of thoughtful, sobering displays. I learned why washing a Vicodin down with a shot of tequila can create a toxic chemical mix that kills. I learned that it's brain chemistry that makes risk-takers more apt to become addicted.

And I left with a heartbreaking message that every drug addict is someone's child.

The exhibit -- "Target America: Opening Eyes to the Damage Drugs Cause" -- opened last week at the Exposition Park science museum. It's free and open through May.

It was created six years ago at the DEA's Washington, D.C., headquarters as a small display on the history of drugs.

Since then, it has traveled to six cities and added exhibits on the science of addiction, the business of drug dealing and the treatment of drug abuse.

The displays are aimed at 8- to 14-year-olds, so they are heavy on interactive stuff. Kids can make their way through a makeshift drug-running tunnel or shoot hoops wearing 3-D glasses that simulate the brain-distorting power of drugs.

Then there are the real-life scenes you hope your kids never experience:

The wreckage of a car mangled in a deadly traffic collision caused by a driver high on marijuana.

Photos of a bandaged child, badly burned in a meth lab explosion.

A replica of a bedroom with a bassinet in the corner, a rifle propped next to the bed and crack vials sharing the nightstand with baby bottles.

And there were items that kids -- whether we know it or not -- might already recognize.

Sarah Pullen, a DEA spokeswoman in Los Angeles, recalled watching a group of elementary school children study a display of marijuana paraphernalia when one boy spotted something familiar: a giant bong.

"He looked at it and said, 'So that's what that is,' " Pullen told me. "You could see the light come on. He made the connection: This is drugs."

Ifound the exhibit so brutally honest, I wound up on emotional overload. I understood why some viewers consider it too graphic for young children.

I watched a fifth-grader from Claremont's Valle del Vista Elementary School push a button on the "Celebrity Rehab" video and stare at a scene of a young actor furiously snorting cocaine. She blushed when she saw a parent chaperon walking toward her, and quickly got up, as if she'd done something wrong.

Nearby, a first-grader on a field trip from South Park Elementary School tugged on the hand of her father as he studied graphic photos of a baby injured in a meth lab. "Papi, let's go," the boy said. Dad turned away from the display clearly troubled.

Tracy Moore was disturbed, but glad she came. She brought five children -- her three and two others from their Palmdale home-schooling program.

"We don't live in a drug culture in our neighborhood, but we want them to know the danger," she said. "We're not going to visit a meth lab for a field trip, but here, they can see the same thing."

Moore's 16-year-old daughter, Elisabeth, was astounded by the loss of life depicted around her.

"It makes me careful what friends I choose," she said. "I don't understand why [drug addiction] happens, but I can see now what it does."

She was most moved by the wall of "Lost Talents," a photo montage that begins with about 20 photographs of lives lost to drugs -- mostly celebrities and law enforcement officers.

Along the way, visitors have added photos in every city, providing breathtaking testimony to the killer reach of drugs.

"Lots of adults said they couldn't leave that area," Pullen said. "So many of us are detached from the problem. This makes it personal."

And hard to shake.

I found myself studying their faces -- the 18-year-old wearing a Patriots sweat shirt and the black nail polish my daughter favors; the 23-year-old jock gently cradling a puppy; the 14-year-old still wearing braces -- and wondering how they wound up dead from cocaine, ecstasy, heroin and tranquilizers.

I wandered away, but kept circling back. Was there something their parents missed? Didn't listen to? Where did they get the drugs? Who found them dead?

It was a dose of scared straight -- and not just for the kids.

Maybe Tracy Moore's little boy didn't realize what she felt as she instinctively wrapped her arms around him as they watched a high-speed drug pursuit unfold on a giant screen.

But I did.



For more information about the exhibit, go to

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