The Best and Worst of Drug Tourism

The Best and Worst of Drug Tourism

By Keri Blakinger 12/18/16

Bill Wilson's house, Colorado's 420 Tours and the Hall of Opium—some stops are long-standing attractions, others are new evolutions in response to changing drug laws.

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A Denver postcard with the saying "The Mile High City"
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From THC treks to 12-step travel stops, there’s a growing number of substance-centric tourism options for daring globetrotters.

Some stops — like the Bill Wilson house — are long-standing attractions. But others — like Colorado’s 420 tours — are new evolutions in response to changing drug laws.

Here’s a look at some of the best and worst in the ever-changing market of drug-related tourism:

Fun with the Feds

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The DEA Museum is, as one Huffington Post writer nicely put it, “not an A-list attraction.” A VICE writer was a little more blunt about it, with an article titled: “I Went to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Shitty Museum.”

“They’ve got a visitor’s museum at their Washington DC headquarters that claims they’re great because they arrest lots and lots of people,” VICE’s Julian Morgans wrote after a 2013 visit. “So I went along and learned about how they arrest people, the types of people they arrest and all the people they want to arrest soon. In short, I learned what’s wrong with them.”

Even travel website The Lonely Planet describes the museum’s offerings as propaganda.

“There are scary photos of gunned-down Latin American drug lords and coloring books for small children describing why drugs are bad. Don't miss the videos, which feature anachronistic gems like Nancy Reagan's 'Just Say No' campaign,” the review notes.

“There's little nuance here, and no discussion of America's changing laws and attitudes toward cannabis. Here the War on Drugs marches ever onward, even if the rest of the country (DC included, which voted to legalize marijuana in 2014) sees things in less black-and-white terms.”

The Arlington museum’s bizarre collection also includes a 1970s headshop, a crazy collection of confiscated drug-smuggling devices, a motorcycle confiscated through controversial asset forfeiture laws and some basic info on the history of drug control in the U.S.

If the above reviews haven’t been a total turn-off, the DEA Museum is open Tuesday through Friday and offers free admission.

Coked-Out in Colombia

On the other end of the drug tourism spectrum is the Colombian cocaine tour — unequivocally the least legally acceptable attraction on this list.

Popular in Sierra Nevada, Medellín, and San Agustin, cocaturismo draws in visitors from Europe, North America and Australia, looking for a little lift in their travels.

Advertised by word of mouth as “special tours,” coke excursions typically include a hands-on drug-making experience and some product to take home, according to Motherboard.

The whole process can take as little as one hour, going all the way from leaf to powder and learning all the steps in between.

Of course, as daredevil and fascinating as they might sound, cocaine tours are still definitely against the law. Proceed at your own risk.

Folk Art on Tap at the Beer Can House

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On a quiet residential street in northwest Houston, there’s a metallic glimmer midway down the block. It’s not apparent till you get closer, but almost every inch of 222 Malone Street is covered in shiny silver beer cans.

Fittingly known as the Beer Can House, the modest home features flattened beer cans for siding, dangling garlands of beer can tops along the eaves, and fences made of beer cans.

John Milkovisch, a retired upholsterer, started the outlandish decoration project in 1968, according to the Beer Can House’s website.

Legend has it that Milkovisch’s eccentric renovations began when he paved over the yard — just because he “got sick of mowing the grass.”

After embedding colorful marbles in the concrete, he moved on to the house itself. Today, it’s estimated that more than 50,000 beer cans cover the fascinating monument to homemade folk art.

Many of the cans Milkovisch drank himself — but friends, neighbors and his incredibly tolerant wife Mary all pitched in on the eccentric project. 

The house is open to the public Saturdays and Sundays for a low-priced tourist attraction at $5 a pop, with self-guided tours available for purchase in the gift shop.

Tokin’ Tourism

If THC-centric travel is on your to-do list, there are tons of options. For the less adventurous, there are marijuana museums and exhibits in Barcelona, Amsterdam (duh), Oakland, and more. But for tourists interested in a more immersive experience, pot trail tours are the thing.

My 420 Tours, one of the hashy heavyweights, is a Colorado-based tourism company that offers a mind-numbing array of marijuana-related activities.

Every Friday, there’s a three-hour adventure that promises a “deep dive” into the world of marijuana concentrates — free product sampling included. Afterward, there’s sushi, sake and a joint rolling class.

Four days a week there are $49 greenhouse and dispensary tours, conducted on “luxury cannabis-friendly transportation” (translation: a pot bus).

For the most intrepid of budding adventurers, there’s even a three-day all-inclusive pot vacation that includes cannabis cooking classes, pot-infused lotion massages, 420-friendly airport pick-up, dispensary tours and private excursions.

A Brief History of Opium

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In the heart of the Golden Triangle, visitors to Thailand can find the Hall of Opium. Opened in the early 2000s, the museum walks tourists through 5,000 years of the drug’s history.

Sited near the intersection of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, the museum is in the middle of an area once known for drug trafficking — a fact that will not escape visitors to the exhibit.

At the start of the museum is a tunnel filled with high and horrifying sculpted figures, presumably all under the influence of opioids.

The museum goes on to detail everything from the development of Bayer’s heroin cough syrup to the use of opium as a sleep aid for pharaohs, to the popularity of opiate-based laudanum in the Victorian era. Exhibits show legal Siamese opium dens, pictures of drug-addicted celebs, and interactive galleries featuring recorded tales from drug users.

The museum even features a small garden of poppy plants—safely protected behind glass, of course.

“It shocks me to see what destruction one pretty flowering plant can cause,” one visitor told CNN.

The museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays. More ticket info available here.

12-Step Tourism

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Friends of Bill Wilson will be pleased to know that the AA founder has not one, but two, houses open to interested tourists.

Stepping Stones, in New York’s Westchester County, is the historic home where Bill and his wife Lois spent the last few decades of their lives. The Wilsons bought the colonial-style home in 1941, after Bill and Dr. Bob had already launched their famous self-help group.

The property still houses the oak desk where Bill penned the Big Book. It’s also the place where, in 1951, Lois founded Al-Anon. 

The couple’s Katonah home was added to the National Register of Historic Places in the mid-2000s. Tours are available by appointment seven days a week and, sometimes, very last minute.

“Unlike most museums, we get these hysterical phone calls,” the foundation’s former executive director, Annah Perch, told the New York Times in 2007. "I got a call recently from a woman who said, 'I’m in Penn Station and I’m from Ireland and this is the only day I can come.'"

In Vermont, a few hours to the north, Bill’s birthplace is also on the National Register of Historic Places. The Wilson House, in East Dorset, offers guest rooms and a small apartment for overnight guests to meditate, read or relax.

It is — of course — home to AA and Al-Anon meetings five days a week and offers seminars and retreats throughout the year.

Dropping a House Full of Acid

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It may look like every other quaint Victorian house in San Francisco’s Mission District, but any tourist lucky enough to step inside the Blotter Barn will find the walls of Mark McCloud’s home covered in more than 33,000 sheets of blotter acid.

Also known as the Institute of Illegal Images, the Mission District hotspot houses a collection of what the longtime LSD-lover reveres as blotter art. Gobs and gobs of it are catalogued online at the Institute’s site, BlotterBarn.com — and even more of it is framed on his walls.

The bizarre illicit museum includes artifacts honoring LSD’s inventor, Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann; tools for making blotter; trippy blacklight wall designs; and countless displays of artsy blotter acid.

McCloud — a Buenos Aires native who first moved stateside at 12, according to VICE—has been amassing acid since the 1970s, when drug sellers started decorating their powerful paper.

Although the feds have raided McCloud’s trippy museum, he’s still out in the free world as the tabs on the walls are no longer active after decades of exposure to light and air.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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