So long as one is ready to pack a gun, outsmart DEA agents, and potentially swallow a condom filled with heroin in order to smuggle drugs through airport security, anyone can become a successful drug dealer.
Along with a short film titled The Path to Prison, in which a young convict explains how he became imprisoned by age seventeen, How to Make Money Selling Drugs was presented by React to Film, Vassar’s chapter of a larger organization that has representation at high schools and colleges nationwide. The non-profit, as its website explains, seeks to “leverage the best documentary filmmaking to promote social responsibility and spark civic engagement.”
How to Make Money Selling Drugs presents a tongue in cheek crash-course into the inner workings of the trade.
But while the film, at its surface, seems to simplify the drug industry and presents it as something glamorous and exciting, it also brings deeper and underlying issues associated with the trade to light, such as the U.S. government’s failed war on drugs initiated by President Reagan, and the danger that drug wars perpetuate.
The film starts off with its hook as the voice of a narrator, or perhaps the voice of God or another celestial being, speaks directly to the viewer.
“Are you unemployed or stuck in a dead-end job? Are you homeless or living in a bad neighborhood? If the American dream broke its promise to you don’t worry: we have an answer.”
The viewer is then hooked. But selling drugs—could it be that easy? The highly-stylized, step-by-step manual for achieving success as a drug dealer is presented in the glib format of a video game walk-through.
Rising from “level to level”—from the ranks of a street-corner pawn to the ultimate cartel drug lord—is then laid out by “the pros.” “The pros” includes 50 Cent, who began dealing crack at the ripe age of twelve, “Freeway” Rick Ross, the well-known “drug king” of the greater Los Angeles area (who claims to make $1-3 million a day!) and many other drug dealers who are just as compelling as they are successful.
But to rise in the drug industry is no easy task, and although the film frames the game as something alluring and perhaps even glamorous, there are many perils and downfalls to working in the industry.
A major facet the dealers had to face was violence. “Pack a gun,” and “shoot to kill,” the dealers instructed.
Many of the dealers then presented the viewers with their many scars, acquired in a plethora of ways, ranging from stab wounds by addicts to bullet shots from the goons of rival dealers.
Another aspect of the industry one must be prepared for is the threat of serving jail time—an experience which the majority, if not all, of the featured “pros” face. That being said, jail time did not seem to be the worst consequence of the trade, and many of the dealers spoke about their time in a manner displaying acceptance.
In fact, having to serve time in prison was the norm and expected, as one dealer instructed the viewer to “hide your money now” so that it is there, untouched, when one is released.
Aside from a tutorial for selling drugs, the film also discusses the government’s response to the drug trade. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is the governmental agency responsible for taking action against drugs in the United States. DEA agents are interviewed as well, and the film sheds light on “the other side” of the industry. That being said, one of “the pros” does hire an ex-DEA agent who becomes one of the main instructors of the film.
Furthermore, in its discussion of the governmental and legislative side to the war on drugs, the film turns the industry on its head. While the drug industry has its problems, the U.S. government’s response to the issue seems to be even more problematic.
The film presents a brief history of the U.S.’s commitment to combatting drugs in America by means of flawed legislation and evil lobbyists; the film constantly refers to the “Drug Czar,” or head of anti-drug propaganda in the United States, as inciting a hatred of drugs through racist and anti-Semitic language..
While the film brings up issues, such as corruption within the drug trade and the government’s problematic response to the issue, How to Make Money Selling Drugs fails to correctly address another huge problem that stems from the drug wars: the innocent victims of the drug trade.
The film features a mother who, while utterly uninvolved with drugs or the industry, received a 30-year sentence for being at the scene of a drug bust.
That being said, the voices of the innocent victims of drug-related crimes are otherwise left unheard throughout the movie, such as those whose loved ones were murdered in Mexican cartel violence.
“In this 90 minute program, the masters of the trade will reveal to you their secrets on how to get paid in this $400 billion industry,” the film initially promised, and while “the pros” surely did give enormous insight into the industry, I did not walk away from the film ready to begin a lucrative career as a drug dealer.
The film is incredibly thought-provoking and leads one to question America’s reaction to the drug wars and wonder where drugs are really coming from.
After the film, students stayed for a talk-back with Associate Professor of English Kiese Laymon. The conversation included both praise and critique of How to Make Money Selling Drugs.
Laymon then pushed the conversation even further and turned the lens onto the Vassar community, asking where our role in the drug wars lies.
“Who here does drugs?” Laymon asked, and many students raised their hands. He then asked those students who choose not to partake in drugs why they abstain.
His question was then met with pensivity, as the students present thought about their own drug use, or lack thereof, and the implications of their decisions. Laymon then suggested that perhaps abstaining from drug use “confronts a fear of being human with a commitment to health.”
In retrospect, it seems that “the pros” from How to Make Money Selling Drugs used their “business” to escape their own struggles and avoid confronting their humanity.