by Peter Wong on July 11, 2013

The late historian Howard Zinn would have approved of Matthew Cooke’s debut documentary. Zinn’s endorsement wouldn’t reflect an encouragement of creating a new generation of drug dealers, as suggested by Cooke’s provocatively titled “How to Make Money Selling Drugs.” Instead, Cooke’s film presents a people’s-level view of the real consequences of America’s War on (Some) Drugs.

The film’s title definitely isn’t a misnomer. Viewers do learn through a video-game like presentation about the seven levels of the drug selling career ladder. Arrival at each new level is heralded by electronic beeps, congratulatory music, and steadily increasing bundles of $100 bills. This film literally shows what’s needed to rise from selling grams on the street to heading an international drug cartel. War stories are offered by such drug trade veterans as marijuana smuggler Brian O’Dea and cocaine dealer “Big John” Harriel.

Cooke doesn’t deny the perks of selling illegal drugs. The alleged excess pay of BART workers is nothing compared to cocaine dealer Mike Revins’ (not his actual name)  earnings of $50,000 per day at age 18. Revin’s Beverly Hills teen clientele gave him instant access to that privileged milieu’s hot parties and their sexy women.

One also admires the ingenuity displayed by smugglers in transporting illegal drugs. Whether it’s swallowing drug-filled condoms or having a girlfriend drive an old beat-up car with specially hollowed panels for hiding kilos of illegal drugs, the emotional and monetary satisfaction of putting one over on law enforcement forces can’t be denied. The story would of course be different if a drug-filled condom burst inside a carrier’s stomach.

Yet talking about the huge amounts of money and privileges available to those who reach a certain level of the illegal drug trade doesn’t necessarily amount to endorsement of this business. Rather, this discussion demonstrates Cooke’s empathy with those seduced by the allure of selling pot or coke. It’s hard to argue against getting into the illegal drug trade when one lives in an area where more legitimate jobs are nonexistent. Morality may be a wonderful inspirational tool, but even the churches that ran soup kitchens knew they had to feed their clientele first before their message would be listened to.

Cooke’s film offers a stronger reason for rejecting involvement in the drug trade. His film asks “If making lots of money is your primary reason for getting involved in selling illegal drugs, how far are you willing to go to preserve and/or build your income?” By putting the onus of answering this question back on the audience, individual viewers are forced to contemplate whether they’d be willing to kill another person to protect their sales turf or even just their sales income.

One of “How to Make Money Selling Drugs”’ great ironies is that its money-making process isn’t limited to just making pot sales to users. Political entities profit in their individual ways from the drug trade. Taking public anti-drug stands helps politicians such as Senator Dianne Feinstein burnish their tough on crime credentials. CIA involvement in the drug trade helped the spy agency covertly fund the Nicaraguan Contras. Too bad late reporter Gary Webb doesn’t get credited for his work in exposing the CIA’s Dark Alliance.

Law enforcement has also been corrupted by the nearly $25 billion earmarked for fighting the drug war. “The Wire” creator David Simon, among others, describes an environment where solving rapes or murders prove less important than meeting drug arrest quotas to receive future federal funding. Imprisonment of people convicted under the Rockefeller laws and other punitive measures provide an employment godsend for prison guard unions. Asset forfeiture rules have provided legal cover for often questionable property seizures.

The film shows the current paramilitary approach to stamping out illegal drug use has become self-defeating. As one interviewee cheerfully explains, prisons now serve as job fairs for finding future cartel members. Mexico’s drug war has become a combination of an effective cartel terror campaign and an arms race being won by the cartels’ financial ability to buy far superior weaponry. The US is still the world’s top consumer of cocaine.

Perhaps these socially destructive consequences should be considered karmic retribution for allowing public policy to be shaped by the prohibitive motivations behind the anti-drug crusade. Harry Anslinger, the guiding light behind anti-drug policy, associated drug abuse with “indecent” jazz music and such “social undesirables” as blacks and entertainers. Anslinger’s racist legacy still lives on today. Black dealers such as Harriel remain four times more likely to be arrested than white dealers such as Walzman, even though white drug buyers and sellers outnumber their black counterparts.

Cooke’s film clearly demonstrates that couching buying drugs solely as a personal character flaw has been a wasteful and ineffective strategy. Promoting a “Just say no” approach to addiction ignores the reality that addictive behavior exists independent of a drug’s legal status. Interviewees such as rapper Eminem talk about their addiction to legally prescribed drugs. A more cynical viewer might even suspect that addictive behavior would be condoned for industries peddling “socially acceptable” gateway drugs such as alcohol.

The director offers non-paramilitary alternatives for dealing with the problems caused by illegal drug abuse. Treat drug addiction as an illness, not a crime. Create real job opportunities for blighted communities so the Mr. X’s of the world don’t see drug dealing as the only existing alternative to escaping their downward economic spiral. Run a public deglamorization campaign on illegal drug use, which Patrick Reynolds (grandson of the founder of the R.J. Reynolds tobacco empire) notes effectively curbed cigarette smoking’s acceptability in America. Study Portugal’s effective efforts in reducing illegal drug use and see which techniques can be applied to the U.S.

“How to Make Money Selling Drugs” ultimately offers viewers a choice between American society’s current addiction to its self-destructive responses to the illegal drug trade or adopting a socially reparative path. Will our society choose wisely?

(“How to Make Money Selling Drugs” was produced by Bert Marcus Productions. It opens July 12, 2013 at the Roxie Theater (3117-16th Street, S.F.).)

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