I missed Matthew Cooke’s documentary, How to Make Money Selling Drugs, during its premiere at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, but if timing is everything, then its home entertainment platform release on January 14th screams of great fortune in circumstance. Available now on DVD and Digital Platforms, the film benefits by following on the heels of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, the spirited (excessive might be a better descriptive term) adaptation of Jordan Belfort’s memoir of his drug and sex-addled days as a Wall Street trader because, some would argue, it offers exactly what Wolf detractors wanted: a detailed roadmap to said excess. But Cooke, as a writer and director, has a conscience, which compels him to provide not just the step-by-step “how to” breakdown, but also warning signs, markers along the way of the impending doom at each exit.
Say you like to smoke a little pot with your friends. You’ve got a connect to a good and steady supply for your recreational use, but you think, how tough could it be to just grow your own. You get a kit, clear out some space in your basement, buy some lamps, and you’re in business. The thing is, without much effort, you really are in business because you’re growing more pot than you need, so you start selling the extra, word spread, and you’re in the game, which means you’ve got to think about the other players, namely your competition.
Each step, from street dealer to cartel drug lord, opportunity exists, along with opportunity costs and those costs are the same – loss of money, freedom, life. Cooke teases us with commentary from players in the game, dealers and law enforcement professionals all along their respective chains of power and command, and the trappings of success, the cars and homes, access to areas behind the velvet ropes and curtains that bar those outside, enviously looking in, but he also presents the honest and complex social realities and consequences – the comeuppance that looms. Jail time, which unjustly claims black and brown folks than white, and death (also grimly reaping more people of color) means that ill-gotten gain has a relatively short window.
Of course Cooke accepts the reality that he must entertain, even as he’s educating the audience, so the film lures and lulls us with a late-night infomercial vibe. Drugs are the product and, if you want the trappings of success, he’s more than willing to show us, and provide “expert” testimonials from insiders. Legendary dealers, rappers who exploit their days on the streets – “selling” their street cred in the music world parade before us, making their case better than the anonymous survivors who made money but never truly escaped. But then, Cooke trots out the liberal celebrities – Susan Sarandon, Woody Harrelson, Arianna Huffington – to preach about the broken system, and the fix that we’re too unwilling to enact across the board.
What would happen if we legalized drugs? The governmental war on drugs failed miserably; that much most pundits are willing to concede. So what’s the worst that could happen if we regulated it? Granted, just looking at the problems we have with regulating everything from health care to banks, the potential exists for epic mis-management, catastrophic, in fact. But, is that worse than where we are now? Not a ringing endorsement, I know.
The issue, for me, is less about the money, the economics of the situation. It is societal, and personal. Just this week, while listening to NPR, I heard a report about policing and traffic stops. We all know, from either anecdotal reports or studies, that young black & brown men are more likely to be stopped than white men. But new data shows that black men remain higher targets for police stops, until they reach 50. Only then do the numbers for black men drop down to rates comparable to those of white men in their early 30s. As a black man creeping towards 50, I’m still under suspicion, and I’m not reaping any of the benefits.
Now that’s a story of survival. Too bad no one’s interested.
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