How to Make Money Selling Drugs Runs Fri., June 28–Thurs., July 4

How to Make Money
Selling Drugs

Runs Fri., June 28–Thurs., July 4 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated.
96 minutes.

One of my best friends is a reformed drug dealer, though he did not achieve the subsequent music-career success of 50 Cent, who’s interviewed in this initially promising advocacy doc. Using Grand Theft Auto graphics and editing, director Matthew Cooke starts satirically, as if he’s producing a how-to guide for the drug trade. Ex-dealers and ex-cops explain their methods, costs and distribution are discussed, and the film actually feels subversive for a while—like posting bomb-making instructions on the Internet.

Then the celebrities start creeping in: Susan Sarandon, Woody Harrelson, Eminem, Russell Simmons, and company. They already have money, and what they want is for us to legalize drugs, or at least end the war on drugs, which is certainly a legitimate argument. Still, this earnest discussion of the issues—including our nation’s shameful incarceration rate of African-Americans—is at odds with the snazzy packaging. Cooke means to entertain us with his cheerful rogues, pitchman narrator, and movie clips (cue Scarface), but his thesis needs a more sober presentation if it’s ever gong to be mainstreamed. Young people, baby boomers and below, are already on board with Cooke. Politicians and middle-of-the road voters are a different matter. To persuade them, as this film will never do, you need to hear from current cops and doctors about public safety and harm reduction. (This was the approach taken by the backers of our state’s Initiative 502, subject of the new documentary Evergreen, seen at SIFF and likely to return.)

In its latter chapters, How to Make Money covers a lot of ground: from our first ’30s drug laws to Rockefeller-era mandatory minimums to DARE and Len Bias and “Just Say No.” The tone becomes scattered among so many talking heads; and it’s telling that Cooke couldn’t get anyone from the federal government to participate. (We see Gil Kerlikowske, our former police chief, in a clip before he became Obama’s drug czar.) The film too often feels in need of Adderall to focus. It takes someone like David Simon, the ex-crime reporter and creator of The Wire, to provide a calm, succinct analysis of the underlying economics: In low-income neighborhoods, he says, the drug trade “is the only factory that is hiring.” Too bad Simon didn’t direct this movie.