When Matthew Cooke was thinking about how to make a film about one of America’s most-twisted, self-defeating issues, he turned to Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States for a bit of direction.
“I remember reading this line that said [Christopher] Columbus said that Native Americans are so friendly, they’re so warm, they’re very giving, they should be very easy to subjugate and make into slaves,” Cooke recalls. “I just thought, Holy shit; this is not a history book that I’ve read before.”
Cooke hopes he’s achieved something similar with How to Make Money Selling Drugs, a documentary that is a wild ride through America’s failed war on drugs. The real-life narrative is based on stories of individuals who have profited from the prohibition on narcotics or almost, to paraphrase former dealer 50 Cent (who appears in the film), died tryin’ on the ground level. In a flashy, satirical mock-informercial style, the film pokes trenchant fun while purporting to show how simple it is to smuggle cocaine or become a marijuana dealer.
Eventually, the viewer realizes that America’s drug policies have given rise to disproportionate incarceration rates for minorities and entrenched addiction across all class divides. Meanwhile, the drug trade has never been stronger.
“I knew that the time had come to get this idea out in the world, but how do we get information that's so sad and shocking out to an audience that doesn't normally want to watch documentaries?” Cooke asks TakePart. “I came up with the idea of doing a Cliff Notes guide to make something that was cinematic, exciting and thrilling.”
The film creates exciting cinematic thrills by uncovering such details as how SWAT teams routinely conduct raids on suspects not known for violent behavior, by riding along with the DEA as they prepare for a bust, and by engaging in candid interviews with everyone from Susan Sarandon to Freeway Rick Ross, a former crack kingpin who explains the drug business as if it were any other American corporation.
In fact, a college economics class Cooke took in college “revealed to me the horror of the war on drugs and how it created this whole separate set of problems that were almost irrelevant to drug addiction.”
The filmmaker has spent the past 15 years figuring out how to present that economics epiphany to audiences in a proper way.
Cooke doesn’t hide his belief that decriminalization would be the best way to limit the damage of the drug war, but he insists the film has “no intention of trying to ultimately glorify the drug dealer’s trade, and I hope people are scared off of it by the film.”
He also believes that it’s only a matter of time before policymakers realize that criminalization is a failed policy. Cooke cites a surge of public support being created by fellow filmmakers such as Eugene Jarecki and organizations like the Drug Policy Alliance, and points out that more and more Americans know someone touched, negatively, by the drug war.
“Pepe, my handyman, and I were both trying to quit smoking. He revealed the only time he was really able to stop smoking was when he was in prison,” says Cooke. He next learned that Pepe’s stint had been for dealing drugs. “He became the first interview of the film. Suddenly, everywhere I would look, there would be somebody that had some story that was directly connected to the war on drugs. That’s indicative of the reality.”
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