The nation loves an entrepreneur, or at least a good story about one. There is something about the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality, the lure of taking big risks for big rewards, and the dream of working for ourselves that is attractive, especially in a world where most of us find ourselves working for someone else in a less than ideal setting, and doing work that isn’t particularly rewarding either financially or personally.
One subset of the entrepreneurial storyline involves crime, especially drug dealing. This is even more appealing to those who lack the connections, education, money and other kinds of support that make more mainstream ventures possible. For kids growing up in a lot of neighborhoods in this country the drug dealer may be the only example of someone working their way to a better life they see.
I have known a lot of drug dealers, and quite a few who got caught up in violent crime associated with selling. Some of them had been in and out of prison multiple times, never able to resist the rewards for long by going straight. And don’t mistake the truth, it’s hard and dangerous work, with long hours, constant threats from rivals, robbers and law enforcement. But the money they often made was beyond anything they could earn in more legitimate ways, and they used it like anyone else would, buying things for their families and friends, driving a better car, living in a nicer house, and having fun. A lot of times they bought food and paid bills for their struggling mothers and siblings.
Director and writer Matthew Cooke offers a new entry in the genre, this one a documentary that purports to tell us How to Make Money Selling Drugs. Taking the guise of a do-it-yourself tutorial, the documentary introduces us to people who have been involved in selling and using drugs, as well as opponents of harsh sentencing laws and veterans of law enforcement. We see 50 Cent (a former dealer), Russell Simmons, activists Woody Harrelson and Susan Sarandon, lesser known criminals and folks whose lives have been destroyed by laws that blatantly discriminate against the poor and people of color.
The facts of Cooke’s film aren’t much in question, but here we have a new presentation of them, one that will perhaps cut through the dry dialogue about the war on drugs and raise awareness of the need for a change in drug policy. The War on Drugs is lost, and to carry on with it only causes further harm.