For the better part of the last decade, arthouses and Netflix queues across the country have been suffocated under a glut of well-intentioned but utterly indistinguishable social issue documentaries. They're cheap to produce, there's no shortage of injustice to expose, and though they may lack mainstream appeal, they have a reliable built-in audience (aka "the choir"). But amongst a cacophony of talking heads and Flash-animated infographics, how can one such film set itself apart from the deluge of Food, Inc.s and Gaslands that clutter the independent cinemascape?
Enter How to Make Money Selling Drugs, co-produced and widely promoted by Entourage's Adrian Grenier (or "Harvard Man," as this James Toback fan prefers to call him). This slyly titled indictment of American drug policy presents itself as a hybrid of old-school arcade games and late-night infomercials promising to unlock the secrets to financial freedom. Propelled by a gallery of street-credible hip-hop superstars and former kingpins, the film cuts the genre's ubiquitous roll call of statistical horrors with a Cocaine Cowboys-inspired nostalgia for the good old days of high-profile drug running.
By repackaging its thesis as an edgy how-to guide for enlisting in the criminal underworld, does How to Make Money Selling Drugs amount to something greater than the genre's typical monotonous lecture delivered by a comically overbearing narrator? No. Not even close. More importantly, though, how accurately does this hyper-stylized approach reflect the complexities of the contemporary drug game? To find out, the Scene showed the film to a pot dealer who spoke on condition of anonymity. For the sake of confidentiality, let's call him Carlos Danger.
Needless to say, in case you're looking at the title as a business opportunity, don't. Selling drugs is illegal and carries a strong risk of hard time. And with that, we turn to Carlos.So Carlos, you're a drug dealer — where do you fit into this movie?
Man, I was wondering the same thing myself, haha.
What do you mean?
Well, you know how the movie breaks down the entire drug game into these 10 levels, like a video game? From "Getting Started" all the way up to, like, "Kingpin" or something? So in the first level, they're already talking about setting up a grow operation and getting a gun and shit. They're talking about this kid that made a fortune selling hard drugs before he was 20. If that's Level One, then I'm at the point before you've even plugged in the controller. That's just not me at all.So who are you then?
I'm a normal dude who pretty much works full time at legitimate jobs but still doesn't have any money left over after paying rent and bills. I just do this on the side to make sure I have a cushion in case I have unexpected expenses, like if I have to go to the hospital or something. I don't have health insurance, you know? I try to live a pretty meager existence, but still, without this extra hustle I wouldn't have any savings.But surely your goal is to eventually quit your job and become a full-time criminal, right? I mean, isn't the whole point of playing a video game to advance through the levels?
Yeah, the way this movie sets it up, you'd think that everyone who starts off moving an ounce of pot between their friends is ultimately trying to retire with a mansion in the hills ... or at least transition into a rap career, haha. I mean, their entire portrayal of drug dealing is represented by guys like 50 Cent and Freeway Rick Ross.And those are more like the guys on the next level who you get your product from?
Hell no! If I even met a dude on that level I'd probably piss myself, I'd be so scared. If I had to associate with legitimate gangsters and shit, I definitely wouldn't be selling pot. My re-up guy is just a friend who's in a similar position — works a lot but has bigger goals than his income is capable of helping him achieve. I don't know how large the chain is or who's in it, but the guy at the top is likely just a dispensary grower on the West Coast. I mean, maybe I'm not really the kind of dealer you're looking to interview for this story?I dunno, maybe you're on to something. I've certainly known my share of dealers, but none of them have exactly aimed to be the next Escobar or anything. Of course, I've only known pot dealers — I'm sure it's different for harder stuff.
Totally. But one thing I noticed about this movie was that it tells you at the beginning that its primary focus is on coke and weed. But then it treats the two interchangeably, and kind of suggests that if you're gonna sell pot you'll eventually want to move on to selling coke, which to me is oddly in agreement with the whole "gateway" argument that they warn you about as a kid in the D.A.R.E. program. I'm definitely not looking to expand my business.So it sounds like you're saying that the video-game structure of HTMMSD might be a flawed way of portraying the reality?
Yeah, I guess so. Or at least to be more accurate, the first several levels would be full of players like me who don't fit the drug dealer stereotype and have no aspirations to advance in the game. I'm perfectly comfortable staying at Level One.What do you think is the likelihood that you could get arrested, and do you worry about it?
As far as the likelihood, I really have no idea. Pot is everywhere — in some situations, like concerts or at certain bars, it's almost as available and openly consumed as cigarettes. It's all gotta be coming from somewhere — I think that in this city there are probably thousands of people like me who are spreading small amounts around between a dozen or so of their friends. But even though that should make me feel secure, it doesn't. The paranoia is actually almost enough to make me not do it at all — sometimes I even hang it up for a while because I get tired of feeling that way ... always peering through the blinds every time a car passes.Do you think the film might actually perpetuate the stereotype of what a drug dealer looks like?
Yeah, I think that's exactly what irks me about it. I know that the film is trying to enlighten people about how fundamentally backwards the drug war and sentencing guidelines are, with mandatory minimums and everything. But if I watched this movie not knowing anything about drugs except from what I see on TV shows, I may come away from it agreeing that the system is broken, but I'd also feel more confident than ever that dealers are these insane, dangerous individuals.You don't seem very dangerous.
Right. In fact I bet that these days, with marijuana becoming more socially acceptable, coupled with how hard it is to find a job that pays a living wage, I'm probably a closer approximation of the "average drug dealer" than anyone in this movie. That's a huge part of the story that they've overlooked. We're not running kilos of blow from the Bahamas on fast boats. We're probably serving you coffee on your way to work.