This Guy Has Collected Nearly 9,000 Drug Baggies And Has Turned Them Into Art
Depending on where you live in the world, you might notice small plastic bags sporadically littered on streets, alleyways, parks or water systems. There's a high probability that they once carried some illegal drugs and the user has since discarded the packaging without much thought.
But one man in Chicago has spent two years picking those baggies up and taking a closer look at them. Ben Kurstin first started collecting the pieces of plastic in Humboldt Park because he wanted to see just how prolific drug use was in the community. He says he also wanted to clean up the area because kids and dogs play in that same park.
Ben has told LADbible: "The project began when I had just moved into a new apartment on the west side of the park. My walk to the bus was a little over half a mile, and I walked along the park. I saw a bag on the ground within the first few weeks of living there. I wasn't looking for them, I just so happened to look down as I passed it.
"The design on it was of a nude woman, and it said Heavy D. I thought it was very interesting, and on my way home I looked for it to pick it up but the wind had taken it. A few days later I saw another new one, and I decided that I would start to collect the bags and see how many designs I could find."
Two years later, Ben had collected nearly nine thousand baggies, all with different colours, symbols, emblems, logos or shapes. Ben then spent another year scanning each bag in high resolution before turning the photos into an art collection.
Some pieces are simple groupings of similar categories like superheroes or card suits; and then there's the big art works designed to be the centre statement of the project: how the American war on drugs has failed.
Ben focuses on the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E) programme. It was founded in the early 1980s in Los Angeles and was supposed to educate school kids about the dangers of taking illegal drugs. But the initiative started to be criticised a few years later, with Indiana University stating in 1992 that those who completed the D.A.R.E programme had significantly higher rates of hallucinogenic drug use compared with those who hadn't been exposed.
That criticism was followed up by RTI International, California Department of Education, National Institute of Justice and the American Psychological Association along with a lot of other groups or organisations who all in one way or another reported the programme doesn't work.
Ben says looking through Humboldt Park has attracted the attention of many, including drug dealers wanting to sell their product and others who were just curious. But he has told us that his art project has put him in harm's way before.
He said: "I was mugged two days before Christmas while I was picking up some bags in the park. It was eight teenage boys, they surrounded me and began hitting me in the head. I went down after around the 10th time they hit me.
"They got my wallet and spent $18 (£13.90) on my credit card on Chinese food but didn't get my phone or keys. I ended up with a concussion and a few scrapes but was lucky."
"Once I found four baggies of heroin at the bus stop right as the bus was pulling up. I had a split second to decide what to do. There was a playground right there at the corner and didn't want to leave them there, so I grabbed them up and took them with me. The first chance I got, I dumped them out."
Out the 160 to 180 different designs that Ben has found over the course of the project, he has a few favourites. He said: "The Batman symbol really sticks out because I'm a huge fan, and have been my whole life (including two Batman tattoos). It sort of speaks to the project as a whole in terms of law and order, crime and justice.
"Batman is a vigilante, and not a hero in a lot of ways since he is himself breaking the law, and something that I've always found so fascinating about the character is that he ends up being a sort of therapist to many of the villains in his rogue's gallery. They are all damaged people and he ends up not only stopping their crime, and beating them up, but often stopping their behaviour and he tries to help."
Ben has also found the gold skull with black background to be 'poetic', because it speaks to the idea of luxury, wealth and death, which 'goes hand in hand with drugs'. While searching for baggies, he also came across spoons which were used to heat up drugs like heroin, as well as used needles. He was considering using the syringes for another project, but realised that there was a big health risk if he didn't collect, handle and store them correctly.
While the artist has mocked up the American and Confederate flags, a skull, the Playboy bunny logo, and other mosaic images, his biggest piece will be an eight-foot-tall, six-foot-wide image of Richard Nixon's face, with the D.A.R.E logo taped across his mouth.
The late former US President declared illegal drugs were 'public enemy number one' in 1971 following an explosive report detailing the extent of the growing heroin epidemic. He was also responsible for Operation Intercept in the late '60s, which tried to stop weed flowing into the US from Mexico. That initiative was shut down after just 20 days because it put an enormous strain on border crossings.
The war on drugs has been criticised by many but one of the most severe critiques came in 2011, when the Global Commission on Drug Policy released a scathing report, claiming: "The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.
"Fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and years after President Nixon launched the US government's war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed."
If you judge the war on drugs from an incarceration point of view, it is very successful at locking up substance users and dealers. According to Politifact, The state and federal prison population was just shy of 220,000 people in the mid-1970s. Fast forward to 2014 and that number hovers around 1.5 million. A little less than a third of that population was behind bars for drugs violations.
Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, pointed to Sweden, which spends three times more than the EU average on drug control, while having drug use in the country three times lower than the EU average.
In a report, he said: "The police take drug crime seriously. Governments and societies must keep their nerve and avoid being swayed by misguided notions of tolerance. They must not lose sight of the fact that illicit drugs are dangerous - that is why the world agreed to restrict them."
An Australian study by the New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research also found that a drug's illegality helped deter young adults. The 2001 survey of 18-29-year-olds found nearly a third wouldn't try cannabis for the sole fact that it was illegal.
Ben believes there's no silver bullet to dealing with the issue of drugs but lengthy jail sentences aren't the answer.. He said: "Locking up non-violent offenders for using drugs doesn't work. They don't get clean, they don't receive the help they desperately need, and it's cruel to lock someone up for years for using a substance that is only harming them.
Weed is slowly becoming more accepted across America, with nine states making possession of the substance completely legal, and a further 13 taking steps to decriminalise it. But Ben points to Portugal's domestic drug policy as a model worth emulating.
Portugal changed its approach to illegal narcotics in 2001, making possession an administrative offence rather than a criminal one, as long as the person wasn't carrying more than a 10-day supply. While drugs weren't decriminalised per se, it meant instead of imprisonment, drug addicts were targeted with therapy or community service. People charged with possession would also face a commission instead of a courthouse, and instead of a judge, they'd be seen by a social worker, psychiatrist and an attorney.
As a result of the changes in 2001, there was a 90 percent drop in drug-related HIV infection, the number of 13 to 15-year-olds using drugs declined, the workload for drug-related criminal justice workers decreased and the amount of drug-related deaths was reduced from 131 in 2001 to just 20 in 2008.
Ben added: "We need to try something new, and I think a
good start would be empathy and to provide help. Tough penalties and
indifference for individual's plights isn't working. It hasn't for the 100
years since they made heroin and cocaine illegal, it's not going to start
Featured Image Credit: Ben Kurstin