Not long after Eugene Jarecki’s War on Drugs documentary The House I Live In prompted reflection on personal freedoms in a time when America touts the highest rate of incarceration in the world, filmmaker Matthew Cooke takes an altogether different approach at addressing many of the same issues in How to Make Money Selling Drugs -- a playful, occasionally flashy documentary that essentially puts the viewer in the role of a video-game drug dealer who starts out selling cocaine on the corner, ultimately working his way up through the ranks to the level of Drug Lord. Although the decision to take such an irreverent approach to such a serious topic may seem counterproductive to some, Cooke’s collection of colorful characters and stylized graphics serve well to highlight just how a public health issue has been transformed into a virtual cash machine by the criminal justice system.
In “Level 1: Getting Started,” Cooke allows drug dealers of all colors and backgrounds the opportunity to speak about the circumstances that lured them into the drug trade and the steps they took to increase their profitability. As we advance through subsequent levels we see the risks weighed against the rewards, get a glimpse of how drug arrests are made, and even get a quick history lesson in the xenophobic origins of the War on Drugs. Meanwhile, we are treated to the tragic stories of casualties such as 23-year-old Florida State University graduate Rachel Hoffman, who was killed by drug dealers after becoming a police informant, and young mother Yolanda Madden, who was tried and convicted for drug possession even after an informant admitted to planting drugs on her, and despite testing negative for any traces of drugs. While civil-minded members of society find comfort in the prospect of gun-toting gangsters being taken off the streets, it’s easy to overlook the dangers of law enforcement getting drunk with power.
These stories ultimately lead to interviews with such ardent opponents of the drug war as former Texas law-enforcement officer Barry Cooper and David Simon, the outspoken creator of The Wire, who, along with others, highlight the inherent flaws of mandatory minimum sentencing and the corrosive effects of the drug war on the art of skilled police work. Although The House I Live In covers many of these same issues in greater depth, Cooke’s film proves a bit less oppressive in tone, and, as a result, slightly more user friendly (with the exception of some pretty gruesome drug cartel footage later in the movie). In the end, however, it’s just as depressing in the way it reveals how our society continues to opt for punishment over compassion while completely failing to learn from the mistakes of our past.
One of the most interesting aspects of How to Make Money Selling Drugs isn’t the revelation of how law-enforcement agencies continue to profit from the War on Drugs or the ways that crooked DEA agents can be a drug dealer’s greatest asset, but rather the fact that in addition to exposing the problem, it also proposes some very logical solutions on how to solve it. By acknowledging the hypocritical attitudes we’ve adopted toward alcohol as opposed to other drugs and using the same tactics that were previously implemented to curb smoking, Patrick Reynolds (whose grandfather founded the RJ Reynolds tobacco company) claims that we could effectively curb drug use without destroying lives, families, and liberty. In a world turned upside down by policies that make criminals out of addicts who are harming no one but themselves, it may seem insane to take such advice from a man whose family has profited from one of the most addictive substances known to man, but perhaps when the ones we trust least begin making the most sense, it’s time to step back and reassess our values as a society. Cooke’s film makes this point not just with style, but with a sense of studied logic as well. leave a comment --Jason Buchanan