Give writer-director Matthew Cooke full credit. Not only is he clearly smart enough to grasp and present the complicated, interconnected issues surrounding American drug laws, but he also has the good sense to know that if you are going to tackle an issue as controversial and polarizing as this, then you damn well better find a way to present your argument in a way that people will actually listen to. And while the cheeky mock-educational approach of How To Make Money Selling Drugs may upset and offend some, it most certainly will spur many more to listen. And he's got plenty to say.
Presented as a 'how to' guide for those who are unemployed, homeless or living in an economically depressed area of America, How To Make Money Selling Drugs walks viewers through the process of doing exactly that, deconstructing the global drug trade in a step by step process taking you from being a local kid growing his own weed right up to the head of a global cocaine cartel. And Cooke does so through the eyes of a fascinating array of experts: Former dealers, lawyers, law enforcement officials, celebrities, and heavy hitters from the drug industry, including the man who created crack cocaine and introduced it to the West Coast, and a man who -- at the peak of his career -- orchestrated international narcotics shipments by the ton. This is not the drug industry explained by a textbook. This is the industry explained by those who have lived it.
Cooke clearly means to provoke his audience throughout and it doesn't take long to figure out how and why. Like the dealer who only learned his math once he understood how calculating ounces could make him money, Cooke launches the film in an entertaining, deliberately confrontational style designed to hook the audience before they realize just how much information they're actually being fed. As one of his dealers says, "Weed makes you friends." And by the time you realize how much hard data is being packed into the dialogue, you're already hooked.
What sort of data? It begins simply enough. You can make a lot of money selling drugs. Cooke rattles off the figures at an alarming rate and as you get to know the dealers who bought into this lifestyle and learn where they came from, it's not hard at all to see why they were drawn to it. Things progress from there to the shocking growth in anti-drug spending, the links between drug arrests and government funding for local police forces, the radical racial bias of drug arrests, and the shockingly flagrant racist and homophobic arguments made for launching the war on drugs in the first place.
Yes, Cooke clearly has an agenda with this film, and he states it clearly. The war on drugs has failed and will continue to fail. It has led directly to America having the highest rate of incarceration anywhere in the world while delivering no appreciable gains in its stated goals whatsoever. And the money spent on the 'war' would be better spent treating addicts, launching education programs and undertaking other efforts that have already proven successful in other parts of the world. This is not 'balanced' reporting in any sense of the world, this is a cleverly packaged argument and plea for change. It just also happens to be damn entertaining.
Review originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2012. The film is available to watch nationwide via various Video On Demand platforms. It opens in limited theatrical release in New York City today (Wednesday, June 26) and expands to other cities beginning on Friday, June 28. Visit the official site for more information.