Matthew Cooke's new film "How to Make Money Selling Drugs" breaks down the War on Drugs. In this interview, he talks with Ezekiel Edwards, lead author of the ACLU's report Marijuana in Black and White.
Ezekiel Edwards: "How to Make Money Selling Drugs" is structured like a video game where players get tips on how to advance from one level to the next, from making small sales on the corner to running an international cartel. But the structure and the title are ultimately ironic, and allow you to present a powerful indictment of the human cost of the War on Drugs.
Matthew Cooke: The information is indeed out there that the war on drugs causes more damage than drugs themselves, and drug abuse and drug addiction are best served by a medical approach. But we have not asked our representatives to change the policy on our behalf, and so we are in this staggering human rights crisis of epic proportions. It is not only in this nation, but also worldwide. We are living with the largest prison population in the history of the planet and policies that are traditionally rooted in racism and still, to this day, absurdly and embarrassingly and horrifically racist in their application, and classist to boot. So, we asked ourselves, how do we reach an audience that does not normally watch documentaries at home, that is politically apathetic, that maybe feels that there is something wrong intuitively but does not know the scope? How do we reach an audience of next generation voters who are bored to tears of the double talk politicians?
EE: Why should Americans who are not directly caught up in the drug war care about it? What would you say to somebody who has not had their door broken down by a SWAT team, who is not living in a rough part of Baltimore, who is not being criminalized because of their drug addiction, whose son has not been dragged away to prison for 10 years or more for having been some minor player in a drug operation?
MC: Well, I can't help somebody if they are a sociopath. But, if they have an actual heart beating in their chest and if I have done my job, which I did to the best of my ability, it would be to put the audience in the shoes of someone else in such a way that they feel "there but for the grace of God go I."
EE: The film ends with a pretty powerful call for the decriminalization of all drugs.
MC: It is very, very clear – a no brainer to me – that nobody should be put in prison for drug use or for possession, period. And we need to make it so that we eliminate the black market completely. The reality is that prohibition creates the opportunity for a black market. As long as we have poverty, and as long as we have the largest demand for marijuana and cocaine in the world, we are setting up the black market, and we are teaching people how to make money selling drugs.
EE: You use a good analogy that if we criminalized tobacco, nicotine addicts would not stop smoking and kids would stop trying cigarettes. It's preposterous to think otherwise. Instead, we would needlessly imprison people. But that is not how you deal with addiction. We should deal with addiction through education and treatment and regulation.
MC: I think a long time ago William Buckley made some comment that just because society does not outlaw syphilis, it does not mean that we condone syphilis. We are not trying to criminalize every single thing that somebody could do that is bad for them using a police force. So, why have we become so accustom to the idea that in this particular case it makes sense? The emperor has no clothes, and we are just so used to it. We think that it must make sense because otherwise why would we be taking this approach so aggressively for so long? But it is just one of those cases of insanity that I think in a hundred years we will look back and say "Oh my God, we were really, really a mess."
EE: I think that one of my favorite segments in the film was discussion of the secret level, in which you explored how government officials can take out political opponents and win elections by being tough on drugs.
MC: Well that is the bad seed from which this rotten fruit has emerged, isn't it? There is no actual, substantive, intelligent reason for the war on drugs to exist other than for the purpose of building political capital and ensconcing this hideous status quo that still exists today.
The secret level is really "let's expose the secret." We want to assume the best about ourselves, that the War on Drugs exists out of a grave concern for our children and our children's children and drug addicts, but it does not exist for that reason at all. It has a completely different origin. It all roots in racism. The first marijuana laws were enacted purely to subjugate the Mexican worker population in Southern California. A couple of decades later, we can look at the New York Times headline that reads "Negro Cocaine Fiends." The reality at that time is that there were studies done on the abuse of medicinal and recreational cocaine. And who consumed it? The majority were middle class white women in the suburbs. This nonsensical paranoid hysteria around what was happening with the addicts in minority communities was invented out of whole cloth and man-bites-dog journalism and was used to throw minorities into prison to rally up support for racist constituents of racist politicians. This was the society we lived in for many, many years. It's ridiculous and absurd for the US citizenry and political culture today to not recognize that this stuff is so deeply embedded into the structure of who we are and that all you have to do is lift up the first rock of some sort of public policy like the War on Drugs, and you see the rot from which it has emerged.
EE: Your film does a great job of showing the overly aggressive and militarized policing tactics that are being used to go after people who are suspected of just possessing drugs.
MC: This is total 1984 insanity. I don't smoke marijuana, and I don't really do recreational drugs ever. If I wanted to smoke some marijuana with somebody, why in the hell should I not be able to do that? And most of the country agrees with that. And yet the reality is that if someone tipped off the cops that I had marijuana in my house, a SWAT team could come in and kill my dogs, threaten me, and if I pulled out a bat or a gun because my home was being invaded, they could shoot and kill me, and there would be absolutely no accountability whatsoever. So if we want to pretend that we are trying to protect families, protect our communities, and have and uphold a safe and secure environment for ourselves and our children, what in the hell are we doing with 50,000 SWAT raids a year? Mostly on non-violent drug offenders. This is a nightmare.
EE: One of the most striking topics of the film is on mandatory minimum sentences, showing that these incredibly harsh and rigid punishments for drug possession and sale were preceded by an exaggerated political and media firestorm and enacted into law in great haste and with minimal deliberation. I think that is something that people do not realize.
MC: It is this horrible chemical reaction that seems to occur between the mainstream media and our politicians, where the media whips the public into a frenzy so it can sell papers and advertising and the politicians jump on it so that they can secure votes. And we are in trouble every time that happens.
This incident where we had this incredible basketball player, Len Bias, who overdosed on powder cocaine, comes at a point where there is already hysteria about a crack epidemic. And it's like everyone is looking for someone to blame. They want to blame pusher as if there is this giant army of evil pushers that are setting up billboards and insidiously infiltrating all of our bodily fluids. This is out of Doctor Strange Love, or something. If we want a blunt solution, we should take the nearly 35 billion dollars [state and federal] that we are spending each year hammering people over the head with the criminal justice system and put it into education. Let's put our money where our mouths are. Let's put it into rehabs. Most people are on a waiting list.
EE: Where do you see this country headed in terms of the drug war? And do you see a way for us to extricate ourselves over the next several years?
MC: Yes, I am actually – surprisingly – very optimistic. We are observing a key change: a great majority of Americans believe that marijuana is a non-jailable offense, which is great because marijuana is one of the primary fuels for the war on drugs and for the drug dealers. If we decriminalize, we are taking an enormous amount of steam power out of the money-making machines of cartels and drug warriors. I think overall people are starting to get the picture. Either we fall even deeper into this Draconian system where we arrest or lock up millions of mostly poor people for what nearly half the country is doing anyway, or we wise up about it and change our law-and-order approach.
Adrian Grenier and I did a lot of press when this film came out. I do not think that we had one person argue with us about policy. We even went on Morning Joe, and Joe Scarborough said where is the line, where is the demarcation line where we say ‘no, the drugs are too hard, we've got to make it illegal.' And I said why do we need to hold the hammer of justice over an addict's head? Why is that a solution for any drug? And he just sat there and nodded his head. People with common sense are getting it. I am optimistic.
More on the ACLU's recent report Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests is here.