Meet "Big John" Harriel Jr. As a boy, the family he was living with was so poor, they sometimes ate lemons off the tree in their front yard. When the lemons stopped growing, Harriel knew it was time for him to go out, find work, and help put food on the table. So he got involved with his neighborhood's going concern, one of the only reliable growth industries in America: drugs. At the age of 15, he started making $100 an hour.
And meet Brian O'Dea, a top-level international smuggler who once got a tip that the police were on their way to intercept a 50-ton shipment of marijuana, so he whisked away his product and left the cops some fresh-made doughnuts and coffee instead.
And meet Neill Franklin, a thoughtful and earnest police officer who oversaw more than 17 drug task forces during his 33-year career before he fully realized the racism and destructiveness of the laws he was so successfully enforcing. After he retired, he became the executive director of the pro-legalization/regulation nonprofit Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.
These guys—and many others—are the real-life cast of How to Make Money Selling Drugs, part satire, part exposé, and part how-to guide about one of the last rags-to-riches business opportunities in America.
Selling Drugs isn't another dreary-but- important documentary about the self- destructiveness of the drug war. (Destructive to everyone, that is, except the prison industry and the law-enforcement agencies that get dump trucks full of taxpayer money to keep playing their useless game of whack-a-mole.) Selling Drugs is, as director Matthew Cooke said in an interview last week, "a thrill ride, a movie-movie" that aims to bring long-established facts to a new audience.
Like millions of teenagers in the United States, Cooke experimented with marijuana and had the vague notion that keeping it illegal was stupid, but he didn't think much more about it until a college microeconomics course. That was his road-to-Damascus moment. "My mouth dropped open when I saw the numbers," he said, "and what this is doing for the prison-industrial complex, and the people who are going to be unemployed no matter what, who are basically being harvested to supply cheap labor for prisons."
But that's not the kind of presentation that would have helped his teenage self make the leap from "weed should totally be legal" to "drug prohibition is a massive, not to mention racist, structural problem that is ruining lives across the western hemisphere."
So he made Selling Drugs as a kind of video game with ascending "levels," from small-time street slinger to international drug kingpin, and populated by colorful characters. There are current and former dealers, from a subsistence cocaine dealer in Detroit to "Freeway" Rick Ross, who basically invented the Los Angeles crack trade and was pulling down $1 million a day before he was 30. Cooke also roped in celebrities: former drug dealer 50 Cent, recovering drug addict Eminem, and Susan Sarandon, who advocates for people like Hamedah Hasan, who was sentenced to the mandatory minimum of 27 years because she happened to be at her cousin's house when the cousin was arrested for drug activity. (Hasan is an iconic example of injustice in drug sentencing: She received a longer sentence than the leaders of the drug ring because she was so peripheral to the business that she had no useful information to trade for a lighter sentence.)
Selling Drugs is important, and it covers a lot of ground, but it's also slick and entertaining. Go see it, and bring along a friend who might think "weed should totally be legal" but hasn't necessarily thought through the drug war as a whole. Those kinds of friends are the ones who need to see How to Make Money Selling Drugs.