Drug-war Follies

by David Lamble
Friday Jul 12, 2013

Rolling into the Roxie Theater on Friday is a rabble-rousing documentary with no claims to objectivity. The subject of "How To Make Money Selling Drugs": exposing the "reefer madness" philosophy fueling this country's multi-billion-dollar "war" on illicit drugs. Filmmaker Matthew Cooke's tabloid-style obsession with our prison-filling drug laws has unstated but clear parallels to the equally lamentable war on terror, and the security state spying on its citizens. Cooke's timeline for drug-law folly, dating back to Prohibition, offers an Orwellian analogy to a security state bolstered by millions of surveillance cameras.

No screen villain has aroused my ire like our 37th president. Richard Nixon made a dark art out of colorfully bigoted rants against an assortment of "enemies." Buried inside How To Make Money Selling Drugs is classic Nixon bile from the secret White House tapes: "Homosexuality, dope, immorality in general - these are the enemies of strong societies, that's why the Communists, the left-wingers are pushing this stuff, they're trying to destroy us! Every one of the bastards that are out there for legalizing marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews?"

Despite this incendiary bigotry, Nixon's wicked reasoning behind the need for a drug-busting bureaucracy, the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration, would carry the day, with the budget rising from 65 million chump-change dollars to today's lavish billion-dollar deficit-busters.

Watching Cooke inveigh against a narc-centric culture brought back memories of my heady days at an FM rock station exposing abuses in Texas' draconian drug laws, often targeted against minority activists. My station was editorializing for legalizing pot at a time when possessing a single joint could lead to 30 years in Huntsville.

June 2, 1972: I'm 28, and my b-day unfolds riding shotgun in a Mercedes coupe next to a stocky Englishman who's taking me to dinner. Crossing Houston's queerest intersection, Montrose and Westheimer, a powder-blue police car passes on the right, a German Shepherd giving me the evil eye from a back-seat cage. Moments later, my Limey pal and I are pulled over, and for several uncomfortable moments we're just scraggly hippies getting the once-over from Houston's cowboy cops.

What happened to us? Nothing. We got back into our suspiciously foreign vehicle and had our dinner with red wine. But the lesson planted that day stuck. This would be my only skirmish in the Nixon Drug Wars, and although I would later be reduced to giggles from a cigar-sized joint in nearby Mary's Bar, I would never buy, sell or hold anything more wicked than a Lone Star beer.
Scene from How To Make Money Selling Drugs.
Photo: Courtesy Tribeca Film

Cooke uses a real-life cast of characters - junkies, dealers, drug cops, prosecutors, judges, movie folks, rappers - to provide an entertaining primer for anyone who has missed every good drug film from The French Connection to Miami Vice and The Wire. Wire writer/producer David Simon makes succinct comments on how the War on Drugs has caused many police departments to abandon time-tested crime-fighting methods in their bid to make headline-grabbing, government-funded busts. Ex-drug cop Barry Cooper provides a Woody Harrelson-like swagger to his account of helping drug-law victims strike back at crooked narcs. He overshadows a cameo by the actor.

How To comes through on its flashy expose hook, delivering a job manual on every role in the food chain, from street dealer to cartel kingpin. The film would probably find its most appropriate audience in high school civics classes, the very kids usually excluded by the MPAA busybodies. At the moment, How To enters theatres unrated.

Cooke's previous efforts include an editing/producer stint on Amy Berg's pioneering doc exposing pedophile priests, Deliver Us from Evil. To his credit, he gets the addicts in his motley cast to confess how their misadventures were the product of not only governmental overreach but some serious errors in judgment.

Years ago, hip-hop star Eminem pulled himself back from a legal abyss by donning wire-rimmed glasses before facing a judge with the power to send him away on a serious gun rap. It is he, Marshall Mathers, who makes the film's most compelling case for addicts taking responsibility. Describing his own harrowing adventures in pill-popping, the popular recording artist presents a face to the camera as unlined and youthful as Justin Bieber's.

"You're taking things that people are giving you that you don't even know what the fuck they are. They are shaped like something that you take, so you take it.

"Coming off everything, I was literally up 24 hours a day for three weeks straight. And I mean not sleeping, not even nodding off for a fucking minute. I was literally just up, looking at the TV. I had to regain motor skills, talking skills. I just couldn't believe that anybody could be naturally happy or enjoying life without being on something. I would say to anybody, it does get better. I'm Marshall, and I'm an addict!"

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