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'How to Make Money Selling Drugs' review: Too cute, but that doesn't make this doc wrong

Matt Pais, @mattpais

RedEye movie critic

July 11, 2013

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**1/2 (out of four)
 
“Marijuana leads to homosexuality and therefore to AIDS.”
 
Boy, perceptions of drugs (and the gay community and disease) have changed a lot since President Reagan’s drug czar made that claim. Actually, they haven’t come that far. In his documentary “How to Make Money Selling Drugs,” Chicago native director Matthew Cooke becomes the latest filmmaker to show how financial incentives and inherent racial bias fuel a drug war that crowds prisons and devastates families but make limited societal progress, if any.
 
Eugene Jarecki’s “The House I Live In” more thoroughly deconstructed the issue, and Cooke duplicates Jarecki’s work by interviewing “The Wire” creator/former police reporter David Simon and Russell Simmons, who was an executive producer on “The House I Live In.” (“How To Make Money” is less impressively exec produced by “Entourage” star Adrien Grenier.)
 
Cooke does, however, have something useful to add to the debate.
 
Some of the doc’s most sobering content depicts the regularity of SWAT raids--and how often these go wrong. That’s not to say, “The criminal inside fights back and people get hurt.” It’s more like, “It’s the wrong house, and an innocent 92-year-old woman dies.” Law enforcement’s belief in using people arrested for possession as pawns in a sting crumbles with a story about a 22-year-old college girl killed during a dangerous attempted sting. It’s also fascinating to hear how ex-cop Barry Cooper made a fortune on a video series about how not to get busted and worked to expose corruption in the force.
 
Though it’s not necessarily illuminating to hear that people have attempted to smuggle drugs in prosthetic legs and kidney beans, those are memorable anecdotes all the same.
 
Cooke shouldn’t have framed his doc, which features interviews with 50 Cent, Eminem and drug-law reform activist Susan Sarandon, as a cutesy lesson that alternates between self-help book and underground video game. He’s working toward change, and a sarcastic tone probably isn’t a step in the right direction there. The film also opens with too much useless chatter: We don’t need someone to explain why some people become dealers and some want to steal drugs from them. The economics of illegal activities are clear to most, whether they’ve been around that world or not.
 
While changing laws is easier said than done and Cooke’s film doesn’t include recent changes regarding legalization in Washington and Colorado, “How To Make Money” showcases the hypocrisy that drives a situation where politically driven emotion typically trumps common sense. Or are you the one person who thinks all politicians are driven only by good reason? 

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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