Written and Directed by: Matthew Cooke
Produced by: Bert Marcus and Adrian Grenier
Featuring: Eminem, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, "Freeway" Rick Ross, "Big John" Harriel Jr., Skipp Townsend, Brian O'Dea, "Pepe," Barry Cooper, Mike Walzman, Susan Sarandon
The "War On Drugs" has been waged, in different incarnations, since the first attempts at prohibition in the early years of the 20th century. It's a class war, and a race war, engineered by men like Harry J. Anslinger, first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He firmly believed most drug users in the 1930s could be classified as "…Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others."
It's also a war waged by commercial interests determined to drive hemp — the high-yield wonder crop of the 20th century, cheap and easy to grow with myriad uses from fuel to clothing — off the market.
Yet, despite the billions of dollars thrown at defeating the drug problem over the past century, people continue to buy, sell and use narcotics in massive numbers. It's clear to everyone, the Global Commission on Drug Policy included, that current policies don't work. America continues to lead the voracious worldwide demand for illegal drugs; according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, there are 22.5 million Americans, 12 years old or older, who'll admit to using illicit substances within the past month.
Current drug laws therefore criminalize almost 9 percent of the population and keep the prisons disproportionately full of African-Americans and Latinos, who are more than four times as likely to be convicted of a drug offense than a Caucasian, even though more white people are buying and selling drugs. It's a top-down war, as the socially dominant enforce their value system and self-medication choices on those below them — our alcohol and tobacco are OK, but your weed and ecstasy are going to land you in jail.
It's refreshing, then, to see the distribution and profit mechanisms of the global narcotics trade examined from a business perspective, stripped, at least initially, of the loaded moral dimension. We're all too familiar with the law enforcement and addiction angles on this old, old story. Matthew Cooke's new documentary, How to Make Money Selling Drugs, starts out by exploring the opportunities and threats presented by the ultimate sales pyramid: drug dealing. For many Americans, dealing is the only business opportunity they're likely to get, and certainly the only commercial undertaking available that's going to net them $1,000 per day in their first few months of operation. Mary Kay, eat your heart out.
Candid interviews with former dealers such as Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, "Freeway" Rick Ross, "Big John" Harriel Jr., Skipp Townsend, Brian O'Dea, "Pepe" and Mike Walzman reveal the harsh realities that draw individuals into the drug trade, often at a very young age. It's rarely a deliberate choice, more often the best option for survival. When Curtis Jackson's mother is shot dead when he's eight years old, selling cocaine is the easiest way for him to achieve self-sufficiency. How to Make Money Selling Drugs follows the career trajectory of a kid like Jackson who starts out as a street vendor — with all the risks that entails — and rises through the ranks to become a kingpin like "Freeway" Rick Ross, whose income from selling crack nationwide reached as high as $3 million per week.
While there are the inevitable Mr. Nice-style anecdotes about the thrill of putting one over on the Feds (Brian O'Dea tells how, after receiving a tip-off that the DEA were onto him, he replaced an entire shipment of drugs with coffee and donuts, much to the chagrin of the investigating agents), the dealers are represented as a thoughtful, entrepreneurial and sensible bunch, who, by and large, have moved on from that phase of their life. These innovative and resourceful men have successfully overseen huge, often international, import-export businesses, handled elaborate distribution operations, seen off their competition, and delivered a tidy profit. They've got the same talents and skills as other business magnates, but they're never going to be showered with the same accolades as, say, Richard Branson or Warren Buffett, or any of their more comparable counterparts in the alcohol and tobacco industries.
Cooke also presents interviews with former law enforcement officers who've wearied of using the SWAT team sledgehammer to crack the nut of dumb kids looking for a good time. Most notably, there's Barry Cooper, previously a career cop with a fearsome reputation for drug arrests. He had a moment of epiphany after his first taste of marijuana, and it dawned on him that he was hustling for the wrong team. He switched sides, launched the successful "Never Get Busted" DVDs and website, and made his living advising those who were the victims of police corruption and wrongful busts.
A couple of "entertainers," regarded with so much suspicion by Anslinger, add their contribution to the debate, demonstrating how fucked up the whole system is. Actress Susan Sarandon is an outspoken social and political activist on a number of topics, and here she bewails the inequity of current mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses. Hapless individuals like Hamedah Hasan, who was sentenced to 27 years for the crime of being in her cousin's house when he was busted, spend more time inside than convicted murderers. And Eminem, with raw honesty, details his near-fatal addiction to Vicodin. He was hospitalized a mere two hours away from total systemic shutdown and had to endure a long, slow road to recovery, relearning basic motor skills, thanks to the pernicious side effects of the legally available painkiller.
How to Make Money Selling Drugs is provocative and heartfelt, a long-gestating labor of love from director Matthew Cook. It's slickly edited (by Cooke and Jeff Cowan), using videogame graphics to score a few sardonic points about the entertainment industry's appropriation of gangster paradigms. It doesn't tell the whole story, but it certainly offers a fresh perspective on the moral, cultural, financial and medical conflict surrounding the use of illegal drugs. It's one of our biggest social problems, and it's not going to be fixed by current strategies. Given last year's federal drug war budget of $25 billion, we all have a stake in drug policies, and this film is definitely worth a watch, if only to help gauge the size of the hole your hard-earned tax dollars are being tossed down. Additionally, if you're a parent, user, recovering addict or fan of TV shows like Breaking Bad or The Wire, you'll find plenty that resonates.
How to Make Money Selling Drugs is currently available on demand and select theatrical release begins June 26.