Pusherman, by Mat Bradley-Tschirgi
How to Make Money Selling Drugs starts as a guidebook where former drug dealers educate the viewer on how to rise through the ranks from Pawn to Drug Lord. Slick statistics accompany retro video game sound effects (Pac-Man himself even makes an appearance) as former drug dealers brag about how they made more money per day than most people make in a lifetime. Director Matthew Cooke also provides the snarky narration that makes the first half of the film feel like an extended movie trailer. The cash register cha-chings accompanying nearly every new statistic on the net worth of different drug amounts started to grate on me. I seriously wondered what point this documentary was trying to get at. Why tell the viewer in broad terms how to make money in an illegal trade? It’s only when it switches its focus from the economics of the drug trade to the history and hypocrisy of the war on drugs that it becomes deeply compelling and heartrending.
The facts on display are fascinating, but the flashy, shiny focus on the financial incentives of dealing drugs for the first half of the documentary undercuts the emotional second half. If the real topics at hand are how people can serve longer jail sentences for drug possession than for murder and that minorities are disproportionately targeted for drug arrests, then why is most of it presented in a sizzling package that appears to glorify drug dealing? The whole conceit of showing off the different levels of being a drug dealer is just a gateway to the larger discussion of criticizing the war on drugs and comes across as superfluous.
The former drug dealers interviewed here, including Brian O’Dea and Freeway Ricky Ross, all served jail time and work in legitimate jobs now. It shows their redemption in educating youth about the hard life that drug dealing can lead to. The topic of addiction is briefly touched upon with Eminem recalling how hard it was to get off of a Vicodin addiction. Very brief clips from The Godfather, Scarface and Easy Rider show the portrayal of drugs in film and aren’t really needed. The clips from the great HBO series The Wire are more on point to the topic at hand, and series creator David Simon has some interesting tales from his early work as a police reporter for the Baltimore Sun. Actors such as Woody Harrelson, Susan Sarandon, and 50 Cent have some insights on the drug war, but the main focus of the interviews is of the drug dealers themselves.
I was intrigued by the history of why the crackdown on drugs began, how much federal funding goes towards the drug war, and the true stories of how people have been put in jail for unjust causes. How to Make Money Selling Drugs has great information but presents it with too much shine and shimmer. It would have been more effective if it just would have presented the facts and lost the video game aesthetic of the statistics within.