Documentaries about America’s “war on drugs” tend to be grim and earnest affairs.
Even Eugene Jarecki’s Sundance Grand Jury prize winner The House I Live In (2012), a searing polemic about poverty, addiction and imprisonment, made for very tough viewing.
Cooke’s feature doc approaches familiar subject matter from a very different angle. He has structured his film as a primer on how to succeed in the drugs business. He has recruited an impressive list of interviewees, including drug dealers, their customers, Drug Enforcement Administration (D.E.A) officials, lawyers, detectives, writers and celebrities. The conceit could easily have seemed flippant and facetious. Cooke takes us from street-level dealing to international distribution, explaining at every step of the way what dealers need to do to maximise their earnings. Thankfully, the irony is self-evident.
The film is also extremely informative in a way that more strait-laced docs aren’t. Former dealers discuss their business in a matter-of-fact way, as if they’re giving tips to MBA students. We learn how to smuggle heroin in kidney beans and how “weed makes friends”.
The money that the dealers and kingpins make is astounding. Cooke’s film is less gruelling to watch than The House I Live In, but is making the same point – namely that current US drug laws don’t make any sense at all, and that there are compelling arguments for legalisation.