From Breaking Bad to The Wire to Captain Beefheart and beyond, there’s just something about drugs that captivate the imagination and, in some unfortunately addictive cases, the mind. As noted neurologist Oliver Sacks seeks to demonstrate in his latest book, Hallucinations, every culture since the dawn of time has sought out chemical means of altering their consciousness. For better or for worse, ingesting substances to alter one’s consciousness is woven into the fabric of our being and is a multi-billion dollar industry that has lead to countless deaths, incarcerations, and the shaping of global economies. And it is precisely this massive, often unspoken-of industry that is the subject of Tribeca Film’s latest offering, the documentary How to Make Money Selling Drugs.
Despite its seemingly get-rich-quick scheme of a title, How to Make Money Selling Drugs, the follow-up to 2010’s Teenage Paparazzo from writer-director Matthew Cooke and producer Bert Marcus, is a hard-hitting look at the global narcotics trade and its effects in particular on American society. What sets this agit-doc apart from countless others is its unique structure; it plays out like a video game, with the viewer leveling up from foot soldier to international drug lord like they’re playing a marijuana-fueled RPG. However, unlike Mafia Wars, the subject matter covered in HTMMSD is nothing to be taken lightly.
A slew of celebrity guests like The Wire creator David Simon, Eminem, 50 Cent, Susan Sarandon, and others give the proceedings a certain credibility that is enhanced by compelling testimonies from real life drug dealers, addicts, and pushers who have experience ranging from slinging product on street corners to running international drug cartels. These people are the real deal, and their candor is often startling. As the debate around the War on Drugs and regulation of medical marijuana heats up, HTMMSD seems to have come at a perfectly zeitgesty time. To take you deeper into the world of How to Make Money Selling Drugs, I sat down with producer Bert Marcus to talk about the impetus behind the documentary, his opinions on current drug policy and the awareness they hope to raise with the documentary.
Nerdist: Tell us a bit about the project and how it came into being. Moreover, what do you look for when you’re looking for a subject about which to make a documentary?
Bert Marcus: Well, first and foremost, I think, many people have been through drug-related losses, whether it’s a family member or someone you were close to. I think that most every person personally or through someone they know has been through a drug-related episode that has involved them in the industry in some capacity. That’s really the eye-opener as to what the War on Drugs is and what it’s doing. I started to learn more about drug laws, policies, economics and racial impacts that came with them and was just blown away by the statistics. They’re staggering. I realized that nearly all Americans were affected by this and that there must be something through the medium of film that we can do to hopefully help. I realized we were presented with a chance to take a topic that has been approached hundreds of times and engage the viewer in a way that hasn’t really been done before.
Nerdist: Which brings me to my next question – the film’s structure. It’s modeled after a video game almost. What was the idea there?
Bert: I think number one, you know, especially being thirty years old and the youngest filmmaker involved in the production, it was important for me to engage the younger generation who hasn’t really dealt with the overexposure to films about the War on Drugs. I wanted to represent it in that kind of fun, tongue-in-cheek if not risque way that would really speak to that demographic, where most of these problems began in the first place. Hopefully, we can bridge that gap and absolve judgement and tension around the War on Drugs, and open it up to a conversation that we’re all willing to have. You know, high energy — especially the way we use the graphics. We wanted to bring in that audience that isn’t typically going to sit through a movie about a topic like this.
We tried to present it like a video game with all the different levels so you really get a sense of it. As a street dealer, you start at the bottom and build all the way up. It’s meant to educate, but many Americans don’t appreciate the reality of the drug trade and how it’s a global powerhouse business, not just a corner trade. Hopefully, the audience can appreciate the magnitude and intricacy of this massive industry while remaining engaged. We felt like this was the way for the form to function like video game action while revealing the nature of the drug industry itself.
Nerdist: Yeah, I thought that it was effective because it makes it fun without making fun of the subject matter. It’s a delicate line to walk.
Bert: Absolutely. We knew that going into it. We wanted to find something that would really resonate with people without being overly preachy or a typical documentary. We wanted to show all viewpoints, but structuring it like a video game was a way to make it fun and more lighthearted where it wasn’t so intense and people weren’t afraid to start it. Like I said, it was really geared towards absolving the tension and fear around this topic while making it as entertaining as possible. Because it is a dark subject and, like you said, we’re walking a fine line.
Nerdist: Let’s talk a bit about the the content of the film. It’s chock full of these incredibly surprising, stunning statistics. What was the most surprising thing you learned while making this film?
Bert: I guess the biggest thing I’m surprised about is how almost all Americans are directly affected by it. A lot of people think that it doesn’t have much to do with them. Also surprising is how a lot accept the failure of drug policy. It wasn’t really a major topic in the recent presidential debates, but the War on Drugs is the biggest public policy failure in the last 40 years and we spend over a trillion dollars on it. What’s interesting to me is how quick people are to shy away from the topic and accept it as a failure by our country while people are dying from it, racial injustices are perpetrated, and our system remains broken. To me, that’s eye-opening – people being so easy to accept failure. It’s a topic that’s been exhausted at times without any real solutions. There’s got to be a way to use that money for prolific gain. Solutions have not been brought to the table in a way that would generate real action.
Nerdist: You mentioned racial injustices and one of the most surprising things for me was finding out that African-Americans are nearly 10 times as likely to be prosecuted for drug-related crimes than white people. Is this systemic? How do we begin to approach changing something like that?
Bert: It all starts with the awareness, this conversation and bringing it to a global awareness. Number one, the public deserves to hear the information that’s digestible. It also needs to be told in a way that’s refreshing and approaches it from all angles, as opposed to just spitting out facts. I think people are turned off by that at times. The goal of this film is both to start conversation and plead for reform. It’s such a topical thing, and through discussions come solutions. Honestly, decriminalization – what is that we spend, $25 billion per year now? That can be put towards more productive causes like education. The money that’s wasted… hopefully we can take our citizenship seriously, especially when we consider the liberties afforded to us.
The stats are all very staggering. Ranging from our SWAT raids to the budgets we spend to our prison systems – our prison systems are being put together in the best interests of the big money groups behind them and they have minimum occupancies agreed upon, so we’re incarcerating people as opposed to educating and rehabilitating them. Education’s a big topic in this country, but we spend six times more on the War on Drugs each year than we do on education.
Nerdist: It seems like we’re quicker to sweep the problem under the proverbial rug than to acknowledge it.
Bert: Absolutely. Even our prison system. Only 5% of the world is American, but America has 25% of the world’s prisoners.
Nerdist: You touched on it briefly, mentioning decriminalization. Medical marijuana and its regulation have been recent hot button issues. What are your thoughts on that matter?
Bert: For marijuana? Yes. I’m not a smoker myself; I haven’t been, but I think it’s important that we stop wasting our money and efforts on stuff that’s not going anywhere and use our efforts and resources on more pressing issues. For us, we really want to present this in a way that’s meant to entertain but also present an issue from all angles and get them talking more than they would after an ordinary film. Something else that was really shocking was that the U.S. houses more inmates than the top 30 European countries combined.
Bert: That’s insane. Most Americans, at this point, have used or encountered illegal drugs at one point in their life.
Nerdist: Kind of makes you wonder how it got to this point.
Bert: Regarding the decriminalization question, over 100 million Americans have used marijuana before. Jail is not the answer.
Nerdist: On a bit of a lighter note, Adrian Grenier is one of the producers of the film. How did he get involved? Is drug policy a passion of his?
Bert: Yeah – I worked with him on Teenage Paparazzo, which we premiered at Sundance in 2010 and sold on the first night to HBO, so we got to know each other through that film. We started working on Drugs as we were finishing the editing on Teenage Paparazzo, and it was something that all of us had a deep personal connection to. We’ve all had people we’re close to that we lost or suffered to drugs. This was something very personal for both of us that we felt was timely and important to every American. We figured, what’s the way to present this in a fresh, exciting way? In each of our films, we try to find a unique angle to share a fresh perspective while showing all angles without being preachy. It was important to us to show all sides, not just the one you might agree with. When it came down to it, Drugs was pretty much a no-brainer for us in terms of topicality.
Nerdist: I think you definitely accomplished your goal and condensed a daunting subject matter into digestible, understandable segments.
Bert: Yeah, that was the goal. When you have a public policy failure on this scale, it’s worrisome. We wanted to have a fresh perspective and bring the younger generation into the fold. That was really the thing for us — broadening the demographic and expanding the audience that’s talking about this.
How to Make Money Selling Drugs is available now on VOD and in select theaters.