Film Review: How to Make Money Selling Drugs

The efficacy of the war on drugs is given another solid punch in the face by Matthew Cooke’s occasionally smarmy but strongly argued documentary that functions as a faux Letter to a Young Drug Dealer.

In Matthew Cooke’s spritely documentary How to Make Money Selling Drugs, he means the title to be taken quite seriously…sort of. Setting itself up as a kind of instructional video for would-be drug dealers, the film is structured as a step-by-step “training guide” to making it to the top of a viciously competitive but highly lucrative (albeit illegal) industry. Cooke advances his film level by level through the various layers of criminal enterprise (“Level One: Getting Started” to the top level: Cartels), examining all the operational hazards and institutional hypocrisies encountered along the way.

Since the point here is to show how standardized the business of street-level drug dealing is, Cooke goes to the best source to get his intel: the dealers themselves. It’s a mixed bag of interviewees he pulls in, though all are engaging in their own way. Ranging from relative small-fry like Bobby Carlton, an East Coast guy with a curly Kenny G hairdo, and the charmingly smiley Southern California smuggler Pepe, to the infamous “Freeway” Rick Ross (a onetime kingpin allegedly responsible for introducing crack to the West Coast) and ex-dealer turned rapper 50 Cent, Cooke has a deep list of experts to draw from. Although the specifics of their advice vary depending on their specialties, the overarching message is much the same from any of them.

First, “weed” (or just about any other illegal drug) “makes friends.” Second, it’s not hard. Third, the money is phenomenal, with even low-level pawns able to make $1,000 a day. Fourth, violence is inevitable, so make sure to either be armed or hang with a crew that will scare the competition off. Fifth, you’ll probably get caught eventually (especially if you’re a black cocaine dealer, who get arrested and convicted at a much higher rate than white dealers), so have an insurance plan.

Cooke’s humorous approach has some payoff here and there, such as the Beverly Hills high-school dealer who talks about how he could overcharge his clientele that understood neither grams nor the going rate with “rich-girl prices.” But as the film advances higher in the criminal drug chain, its tongue-in-cheek message to the fictitious dealer watching the film takes on a more satiric edge. Interviewees such as judges, lawyers and former narcotics officers all get their turn in front of the camera to explain the war on drugs as being an utterly corrupted and failed system that does little but increase violent crime and prison populations. Scenes from David Simon’s “The Wire” are seeded throughout to more strongly illustrate certain points. Simon himself gets a few choice lines that echo his stringent warnings about the long-term societal damage caused by the war on drugs used in last year’s The House I Live In.

Some viewers may come to this documentary because of the appearances of celebrity advocates like Susan Sarandon, Russell Simmons and Woody Harrelson. But fortunately, Cooke devotes most of the film to people who have spent time on both sides of combat in this war, and who can speak most honestly to its litany of casualties and vanishingly rare successes.