Arts & Events

Film Review: How to Make Money Selling Drugs--Now playing at the Elmwood

Reviewed by Gar Smith
Thursday July 18, 2013 - 09:35:00 PM

How to Make Money Selling Drugs is a message film with a simple message: It's surprisingly easy to amass a fortune pushing pot and cashing in on cocaine. Director Matthew Cooke spells it out in Ten Easy Steps that are so simple even a school kid could do it. 

As a matter of fact, school kids do. One of the surprises of this film is that half of the dealers interviewed are white and many of them started dealing as fresh-faced teens. Bobby Carlton was a blond schoolyard pot-shop hotshot at 14. By 18 he was pulling in $50,000-a-day moving cocaine around the planet. 

Bay Area rapper Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson recalls how he resorted to dealing drugs when he turned 8 years old and his mom was murdered. He was a bling-encrusted entrepreneur before he turned 12. 

The colorful cast includes a number of standouts. 

"Big John" Harriel grew up in a home with little-to-no food. Fed up with not being fed, he got busy. By the time he was 15, he was making $100 an hour selling drugs. 

Brian O'Dea (DEA, ironic, no?) once made $200 million selling 50 tons of marijuana but he takes greater pride in how he out-foxed the cops to do it. When he got a tip the shipment was going to be intercepted, he engineered a switch. When the cops swept in to open the boxes of contraband, instead of pot, they discovered crates containing pots of coffee and hundreds of complimentary donuts. 

Mike Walzman grew up in Los Angeles where he became the richest kid on his block by supplying cocaine to a thriving local market – his fellow teens living in Beverly Hills. 

"Freeway" Rick Ross was a crack dealer who was making $1 million a day before he turned 30 – and before he made the mistake of trying to sell 100kg of coke to an undercover agent. 

Barry Cooper made more than 100 drug busts during his career as a cop. Then, one day, after sampling a reefer, he quit the cop racket and went to work defending arrestees from crooked cops who planted drugs on innocent victims. 

Neill Franklin, a Maryland State cop who served on 17 different drug task forces, is now the Executive Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). 

How to Make Money is basically a guy's film. If any woman ever made a career out of selling drugs, this film doesn't mention it. Nor does Cook explore the mechanics that keep the drug trade a male-only club. The only women to break through the film's testosterone curtain are actress/activist Susan Sarandon and Alexandra Natapoff, a law school professor and legal expert specializing in the art of snitching.  

Director Cooke is a rather colorful character in his own right. While a teenager, he bounced around the country working as an actor and a musician before forging a lucrative career making and selling fake Ids. 

In 1996, he returned to college and picked up a BA in filmmaking (magna cum laude, no less) and three years later, he raised $7 million to build the Internet's "first and only patented broadband search engine." In 2005, Cooke penned the screenplay for the hit film The Falcon and the Snowman with Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton. 

It was reading Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States that redirected Cooke's sense of what film could – and should -- do. He became interested in "telling the story from the people's perspective." That's the genius of How to Make Money: it takes time to listen to the real people behind the term "perps." And what could be more radical than daring to humanize "criminals"? 

"I think we're lead to believe we're a nation of two types: criminals and citizens," Cooke says but, in fact, "if we are divided about anything it's by two conversations – the truth Americans speak on the streets and the conversation between our commercial news and Washington elites." This idea of an "alien" Criminal Class is "blasted across our media – drowning the rest of us out." 

Washington and Big Media fail to focus on the fundamentals: The US is the world's biggest consumer of cocaine (40% of annual consumption). Pot is the country's most profitable crop ($36 billion a year). Since 1981, the federal drug-busting budget has expanded more than 16-fold to $25 billion a year. During that time period, police SWAT drug raids have ballooned from 3,000 to 50,000 a year. America boasts 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's jail inmates. Over this time period, the number of prisoners held for drug offenses has increase from ten percent to 25 percent of the prison population – and the majority are Latino and African-American. 

Final bit of contextual information: According to the Centers for Disease Control, the country's deadliest drugs are perfectly legal – alcohol kills around 47,000 Americans every year while cigarettes account for more deaths than all homicides, drug overdoses, car accidents and AIDs combined. The corporate "pushers" not only remain free, they enjoy lavish operating subsidies from Washington. 

Out in the poorest expanses of our country the drug black market offers one of the few accessible paths out of poverty.  

"This is not a war on drugs," Cooke argues, "It is a war on people, waged particularly against minorities and the poor. US drug policy costs the lives of users, dealers, law enforcers and the innocent." And, in the process, it enriches the powerful nexus of corporations and billionaires who profit from the continued expansion of the Prison-Industrial Complex – which feeds on "criminals" with the same ferocity the Military-Industrial Complex consumes "soldiers." 

As Cooke puts it: "My intention with this film is to empower the conversation we've been having on the streets. And to embolden viewers to challenge an issue that has long been taboo politically. In the wise words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 'Either we go up together or we go down together. Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.' That would be a dream come true."