First there was "Just Say No." Then came the frying egg and a dire warning: "This is your brain on drugs."
Now the anti-drug message is spread across 5,000 square feet at the Museum of Science and Industry, replete with depictions of a drug-addled brain, a mock methamphetamine lab and twisted wreckage from the World Trade Center.
The traveling exhibit, sponsored by the Drug Enforcement Administration, is equal parts science, history and social commentary. Critics say it is propaganda that lacks balance, but thousands of schoolchildren in five cities have passed through its halls, including teen drug and alcohol offenders sentenced to see it by a Michigan judge.
"Target America: Opening Eyes to the Damage Drugs Cause" opens Friday and runs through Dec. 3.
Peter Bensinger, a former DEA head who worked to bring the exhibit to Chicago, said it is a remedy for years of less than effective drug education efforts. The target audience, he said, is children ages 8 to 14.
"The brain doesn't look like a fried egg," said Bensinger, who led the agency from 1976 to 1981. "This is reaching out beyond a passive message on TV or a catchy phrase.
"We're not going to arrest our way out of the drug problem in America," he added. "We need education."
The first scene visitors see after passing through the exhibit's double doors is jarring: a crumpled green Thunderbird that a man high on marijuana, cocaine, benzodiazepines and opiates slammed into a car carrying a woman and her three children. The woman died.
From there, the exhibit chronicles the stages of the drug trade from production to trafficking to money laundering. A reproduction of a crack dealer's apartment includes cigarette butts on the floor, ripped wallpaper and a soiled diaper.
Elsewhere there are faux heroin and cocaine production plants, a scientific look at how drugs affect the body and "The Chicago Story," which chronicles the local drug war by detailing advances in drug-busting technology and major arrests over the decades.
That section also offers visitors the opportunity to watch unsuspecting museum patrons with a police camera mounted in the lobby--the same kind used to track drug deals in high-crime neighborhoods.
What often attracts the most attention, organizers say, is the "Lost Talent" portion--photographs of people killed by drugs, ranging from teenagers to rock stars. There is also a slide show of photos of people whose deaths are linked to drugs in some way.
Among them is Jay Balchunas, a Wisconsin Department of Justice investigator who was killed in 2004 in a gas station robbery while on his way to a drug investigation. Balchunas' sister Linda Lamm, 34, of New Berlin, Wis., took her two sons to tour the exhibit.
"I know not to do any of that stuff," said Andy Lamm, 8, as he looked over "Breaking the Cycle," a history of law enforcement's pursuit of illegal drugs. "Don't do drugs."
A heavy effort is made to link drugs to terrorism, and near an enormous image of Osama bin Laden it is noted that Al Qaeda has thrived in the drug trade. But the connection isn't always as clear: In the "Impact on the World" display, images from the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks sit beside a photo described as "addicts getting high."
Even Bensinger had a hard time explaining it.
The exhibit also includes browned and distorted pieces of the World Trade Center, which sit in the middle of the hall beside pieces of the Pentagon.
The link between drugs and those pieces of wreckage seems circuitous at best, leading critics to say the exhibit is more like propaganda than an objective treatment of the topic.
An A-list of visitors came out for Thursday's opening, including DEA Administrator Karen Tandy, Mayor Richard Daley, Police Supt. Philip Cline and former Chicago Cub Ryne Sandberg, whose foundation is a sponsor, as is the McCormick Tribune Foundation.
"Kids are getting all kinds of misinformation out there, from their friends, from legalizers, from the Internet," Tandy said "These are the real facts about the consequences of drugs. ... Kids will get their one-stop shopping here real fast.
"If you go
"Target America: Opening Eyes to the Damage Drugs Cause"
Where: Museum of Science and Industry, 57th Street and Lake Shore Drive.
Cost: Free with regular admission, which is $11 for adults, $9.50 for seniors and $7 for children age 3-11.
Hours: Regular museum hours are 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.
Runs: Through Dec. 3.
Information: (773) 684-1414 or www.targetamerica.org
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