“Greetings from Florida. America's original drug gateway!" hails a new banner at the Museum of Science and Industry.
Typically focused on scientific achievement, nature and technology, MOSI on Friday opened an exhibit straight from science's underworld: drug labs, addiction and associated crime.
The relics of drug busts — among them, hypodermic needles and a childless tricycle — grimly greet visitors at the entrance. There's a re-created Afghan desert heroin lab outfitted with gas drums and Uzis. And its jungle counterpart, a Colombia cocaine lab with cloth strainers and green coca leaves.
In the center, rusted metal and mismatched shoes from the World Trade Center allude to a link between drugs and terrorism financing.
This is "Target America," a touring exhibit from the Drug Enforcement Administration that will be on loan to MOSI for an entire year. It will be the exhibit's longest landing anywhere. That's because the DEA considers Florida ground zero in the war on drugs.
With its rum pirates hundreds of years ago and cocaine cowboys of the 1980s and modern-day prescription pill peddlers, the state earned a leading role in the exhibit.
But Florida is also the beneficiary of recent enforcement initiatives, said DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart, who runs the agency and was at MOSI for Friday's opening.
"Instead of being the source of prescription drugs, Florida will be the solution," she pledged.
"Target America" is part of the DEA's educational outreach program.
MOSI didn't have to pay to host the $514,000 exhibit. It's funded by the federal agency and its educational foundation, and by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, said Sean Fearns, director of the DEA Museum in Arlington, Va.
Campy drug references and antidrug mottoes and pledges were on full display at the traveling exhibit's opening. The gift shop sold black DEA ballcaps and "Junior DEA Special Agent" badges in black wallets with photo-ready pockets. The Miami Vice theme played, and parents took pictures of their children with DEA officials, who slapped "special agent" stickers on kids and encouraged them to become drug cops.
Stone-faced, real-life, clean cut, pinstripe-suit wearing special agents walked around talking to students such as Reba Carter, 16, who attended the exhibit with her classmates from Pivot Charter School in Riverview.
"I think it's pretty darn amazing," Carter said. "I've never seen all the effects of drugs. My mom says stay away from them. But it's amazing — the destruction!"
She watched Special Agent Mike Pullen, 31, demonstrate the difficulty of his job investigating a meth house while wearing a hazmat suit, duct-taped balloon feet and a gas mask.
Pullen said he didn't mind being put on display.
"Half of the fight is putting the word out to the kids," he said. "That's part of our job, too — not just arresting people."
Behind him the exhibit's "meth hotel" waited like a bad doll house with Sudafed scattered on a dresser and a sink lined with chemical cleaners.
For some, the exhibit hit home at the wall of "Lost Talent," which featured celebrities like Billie Holiday and Jim Morrison as well as everyday people like Zachary Davis, 24, who died from heroin use. His photo showed him holding a puppy.
Julie Rinaldi studied each display before thanking DEA agents and officials on Friday. She showed them a photo of her daughter, Sarah, 17, who died of a prescription drug overdose in 2006. Dawn Darden, a spokeswoman with the DEA, gave her a tissue.
A few feet away, Wit Ostrenko, MOSI's chief executive and president, stood before a white Bentley Continental GT coupe on display. Worth $107,100, it was part of a $1.9 million seizure.
Outside, a group of elementary children in red shirts and cowboy hats walked by on their way into the science museum.
Which future would the children choose? Ostrenko wondered.
"We've got to get them turned on to doing great things in Florida," he said, "not drugs."
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or [email protected]