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Museum Links Drugs, Terrorism and Drug Users - 2004-09-15

After a decades-long clean-up project, New York's Times Square became a tourism centerpiece. But now drugs are back on Times Square, this time in a traveling museum linking the drug trade with international terrorism. The exhibition, which has been put together by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, links drug usage with narco-traffickers and terrorism.

The exhibition, called Target: Drug Traffickers, Terrorists and You, has been traveling to cities around the United States for two Years. Now an expanded version has arrived in the middle of Times Square, an intersection often called the crossroads of the world. At a ribbon-cutting ceremony opening the temporary museum, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said Times Square, which has undergone a remarkable transformation in that past 15 years, is an appropriate place for an exhibit about drugs.

"Time Square had no legitimate theaters," recalled Mr. Giuliani. "It had no decent movies. It was made up of pornography, drug dealing, prostitution and crime. It was one of the highest crime areas in the country. Now you see a very different Times Square. You see a place that has several of the biggest hits on Broadway. It is filled with families, and it is a really nice place, a place that can once again be considered as the Crossroads of the World. Many things contributed to that, but at the core of it was the reduction in drug dealing."

Upon entering the museum, the first thing a visitor sees is a scene of devastation -- sections of a smashed car, children's toys and drug paraphernalia. The items come from a real crime scene in which a drug user drove into another car, killing a young mother and injuring her two children. Moving through the museum, visitors can see recreations of an Afghan heroin factory, a cocaine lab in a jungle, and a motel used to manufacture small amounts of methamphetamine, called meth for short. Drug enforcement agents say meth is a growing problem in the United Sates, particularly in the rural Midwest.

Lt. Colonel Mark Tipmungkol of the National Guard explains that the motel room is designed to show how drugs affect everyone. "A lot of the people who make meth are trying to do it in hotel room so they are not caught," he explained. "What a lot of people don't know is that methamphetamine production is very, very dangerous. Volatile chemicals are involved it's a dangerous substance."

Another exhibit, a replica of the last standing wall of the World Trade Center, links the illicit drug trade to terrorism. Exhibits like this have made the museum controversial. Critics say drug enforcement officials are exploiting concerns about the 9/11 terrorist attacks and trying to blame American drug users. DEA agent Anthony Placido says drugs users must understand that the money they spend to buy drugs is often funneled to terrorist groups.

"Certainly a large number of the recognized terrorist organizations around the globe raise a good deal of money, a lot of revenues for their activities through drug trafficking," he said. "We are not saying that all terrorist organizations are involved in drug trafficking, but many are. For example, the FARC, the AUC, the Shining Path in Peru, to a certain extent Hezbollah, certainly the Taleban and their house guests al-Qaida."

Interactive kiosks throughout the three-floor museum explain the medical and chemical effects of drugs, the latest scientific information available, and show how drug dealers launder money to finance terrorist groups. Lt Colonel Tipmungkol says the main goal of the museum is educational.

"It is an economic lesson more than anything else," said Lt Colonel Tipmungkol. "People do not realize the tremendous cost of drugs within our lives. It is estimated that $181 billion a year is lost in this country due to lost productivity. That is the equivalent of $1,500 per family. It is a cost people don't even realize they are paying."

Ginger Katz knows the cost first-hand. She founded a non-profit organization called the Courage to Speak Foundation after her 20-year old son died of a heroin overdose. She has traveled with the museum to locations around the country because she wants to help educate the public, especially the young.

"We speak in middle schools, high schools, parent organizations. We also host a program for families who have lost children," she explained. "This summer six new moms joined me. Now I get phone calls, Ginger can you help me, I've lost my child. That is why I believe education is critical at a very early age. High school and middle school children walking though here will be educated to how deep this runs and how devastating this is on families." The personal toll drug usage takes on individuals has been well documented over the last four decades. The temporary museum's organizers hope that over the next six months, tens of thousands of New Yorkers and visitors, especially children, will tour the exhibit and learn about other consequences of drug use, particularly the economic aspects, loss of productivity and terrorist funding.