Arriving just in time to coincide with the rush for summer employment and student-loan paybacks, Matthew Cooke’s high-potency documentary How to Make Money Selling Drugs will function as a helpful job-seeking primer up to a point, and that’s the point where you wind up addicted, in jail or dead.
As it turns out, making money selling drugs is pretty win-win as far as it goes, but keeping it is another matter. So the title isn’t so much a joke as a bleak comment on a desperately cynical economy: In the drug trade, as well as the dubious “war” declared against it, everybody ultimately loses.
Divided into sequential chapters that systematically ascend from street-level pot hustling to international cartels and their state enablers, Cooke’s documentary aims to indict the moral hypocrisy behind the American war on drugs – first declared by no less a hustler than Richard Nixon – by demonstrating the trade’s irresistible allure in a world where making money legitimately is so much harder than collecting it on the corner.
Especially if you belong to any of those conspicuous racial, economic or cultural underclasses that make up the bulk of America’s burgeoning ranks of poor. (Not to mention jailed: As the movie points out, America has five per cent of the world’s population, but 40 per cent of the world’s imprisoned.)
Dealers are interviewed, as are law enforcement officials, recovering addicts, politicians, activist movie stars and loved ones of the locked away or dead. We’re told how to obtain and distribute the product, how to transport it from one country to another, how to work effectively with corrupt law enforcement, and even how to make the most of our time behind bars, prison being the best possible school for drug trafficking.
Early on, the lessons learned are practical, funny and unwholesomely appealing, as former hustlers – including rap star 50 Cent – describe how simply and easily they went from being hungry and broke to fat and flush. But the economy, like the dependencies it fuels and supports, always leads to greater appetites and acts of recklessness, and each step upward on the ladder becomes more slippery and treacherous. There may be more money to be made on the way to cartel druglord heaven, but the stakes are deadlier.
Unfolding in an initially breezy, dynamically graphic infomercial style, Cooke’s movie becomes remorselessly darker as it starts to make the connections: between profit and greed, between substance and addiction, between pushers and police, between politics and propaganda.
Ultimately, the most frightening lesson the film teaches is just how dysfunctionally impervious to defeat the so-called war on drugs is, especially when its tentacles of profit reach so many potential pockets, and particularly when it provides such a potent distraction from the more intricately vexing socio-economic conditions that are the real problem.
An unchecked outlaw economy that corrupts every level of enforcement and legislation it touches – precisely because there’s so much money to be made – the drug trade might be the ultimate equal opportunity employer, especially in times of such epidemic inequality.