How to Make Money Selling Drugs is an eye-opening, at times humorous new documentary that explores America’s failed War on Drugs. It also has the most brilliant title of any film in history. Written, directed, and narrated by Matthew Cooke and produced by Entourage star Adrian Grenier (with Bert Marcus), the film features interviews with a slew of celebrities (50 Cent, Eminem, Susan Sarandon, Woody Harrelson, Russell Simmons, etc.), retired drug dealers, law enforcement officials, and addicts. We spoke to Cooke and Grenier about the film, the War on Drugs, and whether the U.S. will ever man up and Legalize It. Plus, Adrian Grenier answers the Same 10 Questions We Always Ask Everyone.
I read that you started with the title of the movie and then worked backwards to develop the concept. Is that true?
Adrian Grenier: I saw the title first [when I became involved], but Matthew had had it in his head for a while, right?
Matthew Cooke: It was a Cliff’s Note guide, and it was 10 steps on how to become a drug dealer. I think in the editing process we probably went full-circle; at some point it was a documentary about, like, the circus or something, but by the end it got back to the original concept.
Adrian, how did you become involved with the film?
Adrian Grenier: [Matthew and I] knew each other for a long time, and we decided to help each other make films and documentaries, because we both had an interest in that. I vowed to help him make this film and he helped me make my last film. It’s been a great working relationship, and I’m happy to be here now, after many, many years of hard work together, because now we don’t have to wring each other’s necks – we can just support the film.
This movie took a long time to come together, right?
Matthew Cooke: Yeah, it took a little bit. Part of the process was finding the right tone and the right balance between the satire and the sarcasm, which doesn’t always fly, and the seriousness of the topic. And making sure that we were respecting every audience that we wanted to hit, which was a big, broad mainstream audience that doesn’t normally like to go and see documentaries. And to make something that was really entertaining and fun and slick, and that had the magic that we all want to feel when we go and see a movie: Wish fulfillment. We want to put ourselves in the shoes of someone who’s done something extraordinary, and it just so happens that some of these guys, these drug dealers, have done something extraordinary. And I don’t mean that we’re glorifying the drug-dealing world, but that we are glorifying the incredible capacity of a human being under trying and challenging circumstances to overcome. And that’s what a lot of these stories are, as well. They’re not just about people overcoming poverty due to a crazy black market that exists out there, and which often acts like a safety net for those people who’ve fallen through the cracks. But also, the incredible turnaround story of somebody who goes from being addicted to drug-dealing as much as to any drug, to becoming a really incredible, beneficial, and important person in society.
You mentioned a wide audience for this movie, but who exactly is the target audience? Is it politicians? Policy-makers?
Adrian Grenier: Change is gonna happen with the younger generation. They’re the ones who are gonna stand up and say, “Enough of this ridiculous policy.” So we’re really targeting the younger generation – those that get it already; those who are online, and have the information. We wanna give them a fun ride, speak their language, the language of pop culture, and fast pace, and have real talk – straight talk. There’s no political agenda, there’s just, “let’s lay out of the facts,” and the reality is we can all indulge a little in the fun, the sensation, the glorification of the amount of money that goes into drug-dealing, and the lifestyle thereabouts, but let’s have a real talk about all of the issues and not just pretend like we’re goody two-shoes.
Was it hard to convince your interview subjects to speak about this controversial subject on camera?
Matthew Cooke: We didn’t have to work very hard at selling the idea. I think that once you start down a path of intending to talk to people about the drug war, you find very quickly that you have 360 degrees of opportunity to do so. That literally anyone we would talk to would either know, or be involved with, or be one step away from a drug dealer, a drug addict, or a drug war-related story. And I think everyone in the film who participated was the best representative we could find to speak to a particular aspect of this very complex and deeply relevant, moving issue. But I think that the celebrities were also picked because they have an invested interest in talking about [the issues] they brought to the screen. For example, Susan Sarandon and Russell Simmons are incredible proponents of drug reform policy, and have been critical in that regard. So is 50 Cent. So it wasn’t just random people.
Adrian Grenier: And we had unprecedented access, not only to an inside look at drug dealers and how they operate, but also the DEA. Remarkably, we were able to embed ourselves and go out on actual drug raids and NARC operations, and I think it’s because there’s been a shift in rhetoric coming from up high. Gil Kerlikowske, the U.S. Drug Czar [who appears in the film], is open to alternatives, and is recognizing the failures of our current policies, which is very encouraging. I think it shows how willing they are to allow us to present an accurate story so that people can start to understand that we need alternatives to the militarized drug war.
Right, and things like New York’s Rockefeller Laws, which imposed extreme mandatory sentences even for minor drug-related crimes, clearly don’t work.
Matthew Cooke: Exactly. If you’re to look at the landscape accurately, we have drug addiction – which we want to curb, and that’s a problem, and as a society we’d love to come together and find solutions for that. Then on the other side, you have this completely separate set of problems, generated by the War on Drugs, because the War on Drugs is the wrong tool for the job. It’s like, you’re driving in your car and you don’t know which way to go, so you stop and ask for directions, and someone throws a grenade in the backseat. It’s not useful. It just creates another problem. So that’s my analogy for the day for the drug war.
Adrian Grenier: I think we can all agree that we wanna protect communities and protect our young people from the harms of drug use. And then we have this trillion dollar drug war which is supposed to be the solution, and yet, drug use has gone up. And it’s gone up in both white and black communities. And yet we’re throwing people in jail at an alarming rate, and more so in minority and poor communities. So, we’ve lost track of our initial impulse, which is to protect communities, and we’ve come all the way to destroying communities. It’s ironic, because the very policies that are supposed to protect communities are hurting them. So it’s the “two wrongs don’t make a right” thing.
Do you think we can succeed in decriminalizing drugs eventually, through education, information, and treatment programs, following the model of Portugal, which is a case study that you use in the film?
Matthew Cooke: Portugal’s a great model, and that can be built off of. There’s absolutely no reason to look at a binary solution, an either/or multiple choice. It’s not that way. We can come up with something that’s very smart if we have a reasonable adult conversation. It’s not, “Let’s legalize heroin and put it into the hands of a major soft drink corporation.” It’s not about having Coca-Cola or Hershey’s sell this stuff to kids (although as an aside, I wouldn’t necessarily put it past us; we’re one of only two countries in the world that allow pharmaceutical advertising on television). So it’s not about either we fully legalize and put it into the hands of private corporation and let them reap insane amounts of money for it.
Adrian Grenier: “Get your first hit with your vaccinations!”
Matthew Cooke: Right, or, on the other hand, come in with a SWAT team and kill your dogs and traumatize your kids for the next 20 years because you got a bag of marijuana. So, there’s something in the middle. And I think that that does look like a vast decriminalization. We’re not legislating morality. We’re not saying, “Hey, it’s a good idea to do heroin!” We’re saying if you wanna do heroin, it costs 10 cents and you can get it at the pharmacy. And then where’s the incentive for somebody to sell it on the black market? It’s gone. And I can’t remember any insane Hollywood party where I heard someone say, “Hey, do you have any rubber cement to huff?” Nobody cares about things that aren’t illegal that still get you high.
DEA Agent Keith
And of course decriminalization would also eliminate a lot of the violence that’s inherent in the illegal drug trade.
Adrian Grenier: Entirely.
Matthew Cooke: There’s no violent black market for rubber cement. But I guarantee you if you sniff it, you’ll have a nice, cheap Saturday, the same way you might if you take any other drug.
Adrian Grenier: It’s really the violence that we wanna eliminate. I’d much rather deal with drug addiction as a mental health issue in the peaceful confines of a medical facility than to have desperate, raging addicts – who don’t have the proper treatment because we’re not funding it, because we’re too distracted with the drug war – going around, desperate to find enough money to buy the high-priced drugs that they need, so then they end up robbing and stealing and doing the things that they come to be known for. And then the other violent result is that every time we pick off a low-level street thug drug dealer, then there’s a vying for power between other drug dealers, and there’s a lot of violence surrounding that.
Could a politician realistically win a national election on a platform that supports decriminalization?
Matthew Cooke: I think once the facts are out there, absolutely. And one of the heroes of our film is this incredible ex-narcotics officer, Neill Franklin, who spent more than 30 years waging this war on the frontlines. And he told me, had he known the facts, he would never have done that job. And I think the American people, people all over the world, once they know, will have no problem getting behind a politician, or pushing their current politicians to change.
Adrian Grenier: It needs to be communicated and articulated accurately and honestly. And I think our politicians have a great moral obligation to do that, and they’re not doing that because they’re using the sensational nature of the drug war to their own advantage, trying to earn votes based on fear as opposed to education and wisdom. Whoever it is, has to be able to make the moral decision to come out and speak quite honestly about it, and be unafraid to suggest that we all make a different mistake – or risk making a different mistake – because 40 years of making this mistake, escalating all the time, at $25 billion a year to simply use military action in our communities, I think, is a huge mistake.
Matthew Cooke: And then what’s left for the actual addicts? I had to put a friend in rehab, and it was tens of thousands of dollars a month. And everything else that was available was horrifying. And there are waiting lists. People don’t get the help and treatment that they need.
Especially without money and resources.
Matthew Cooke: Right. So you can take this tough…well, I was about to call it “tough love,” but there’s no love in it at all. You can take this “tough on crime” approach, but it does nothing. The people who actually get sober, anecdotally, who go to prison, they would’ve turned it around anyway. They just needed to hit a bottom of any kind.
Adrian Grenier: You look at someone like Michael Douglas’s son [Cameron]—they said, “You’re not gonna do drugs anymore, ‘cause if you do, we’re gonna throw you in jail!” Well, that didn’t help. So they threw him in jail, and said, “Now you’re not gonna do drugs anymore, right?” Well, no. He did. It’s not helping him, on an individual basis. And we’re paying to incarcerate him, to be totally ineffective, to make no progress. If we really cared about the weakest members of our community – those that have addiction, for whatever self-esteem reasons or insecurities, or for whatever reasons they turn to drugs, we really wanna help them. Let’s make a real effort to do so.
Matthew Cooke: And let’s be honest about the drug-dealing world. I don’t think most people’s number one dream job – when you ask them as a kid what they wanna be when they grow up, I don’t think most of them say, “I wanna be a drug dealer.” I think they fall into it. It’s what’s available. In the United States, being the number one consumer of marijuana and cocaine worldwide, somebody’s gotta do that job. Who does that job fall to? It falls to the 8+ percent of people who are unemployed and can’t find another avenue out. What are we telling them as a society? Don’t put food on the table, don’t make ends meet, go starve in the streets? It’s not realistic.
A DEA sting operation.
Adrian, you grew up in New York, right?
Adrian Grenier: Yes, during the crack epidemic.
And Matthew, you’re from Chicago. Was there any life experience in particular that drew you to this subject matter?
Matthew Cooke: There were a couple of moments in my childhood where my family really didn’t have any money, and we had to stay at friends’ houses. And I was couch-surfing, so I was technically homeless and I needed to have some spending money. Getting a minimum wage job and going to high school at the same time was not an option, so I made fake IDs, because there was a market for it. And later on, after leaving a life of crime, essentially, which I never thought I was gonna stay in—well, maybe for a little bit, I did, actually. But finally getting an opportunity to see, “Oh, I can get student loans and I can go to college,” well, thank God I hadn’t been caught. And thank God I hadn’t been caught drug-dealing, because I wouldn’t have been able to get any student loans. So, when I found about the War on Drugs, and how devastating it was – and how much more devastating it was than the drugs themselves (and of course I knew plenty of people who had problems with addiction) – it was a feeling of “There but for the grace of God go I,” like, had I sold drugs instead of IDs, and had I been busted, I never would have been able to go to college. Everything would’ve been destroyed. And what’s worse, had I been black, then my sentence would have been longer, all the chips would’ve been stacked against me. And then looking at the statistics, that whites and blacks and other minorities and people of color, essentially, all do and sell drugs roughly at the same level, but people of color make up 30% of the population in the US but they occupy 60% of the prisons. So finding this out…this is personal. It feels personal.
Adrian Grenier: We owe it to ourselves to get each other’s back in society. And everybody makes mistakes. If Mr. Obama had been caught in that single moment – heavy sarcasm – the “single moment” that he inhaled, he might be in jail, I mean who knows? So I think he owes it to his younger self, and to the future Obamas and the future presidents, to change these laws. We are society, the laws are supposed to protect us, and if they don’t we need to change them. And if a law is proving to be unjust, then we owe it to our fellow man, or fellow women, our brothers or sisters, to free them from the injustice. And it doesn’t just have to happen in your own community. If it’s happening in the community next to you, then it’s happening in your community. The fabric of our country is only as strong as our weakest community. It’s our responsibility.
That seems like a solid note to end on…
Matthew Cooke: Ok, so now we’ll interview you. What’s your favorite sports team?
Matthew Cooke: Ok, I’m done.
AND NOW, ADRIAN GRENIER ANSWERS THE SAME 10 QUESTIONS WE ALWAYS ASK EVERYONE!
What’s the last thing you had to apologize for?
Shit. Um…I had to cancel a meeting because I’ve been so busy.
What’s your favorite curse word?
Should I be honest?
Get the fuck outta here. [In Italian accent]
What’s the worst hangover you’ve ever had?
What was your first car?
A Volvo. It was a stick-shift, by the way. Not an automatic.
Do you have scar that tells a story?
Yeah, I have a scar under my chin. I was roller-skating when I was 6 or 7, with my aunt, and she was behind me, holding my hands, and this was in like ’82, so it was like disco, and there was this couple behind her and they were skating backwards, and they fell, and they landed on top of my aunt, so I fell forward, and there were three people on top of me, but because she had been holding my hands, I broke the fall with my chin. There was blood all over the rink. I should’ve gotten stitches, but I didn’t.
Do you have a party trick?
I know a good card trick.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve ever put in your mouth?
I take big bites. I have a big mouth. It’s funny, I can’t take these little pee-wee bites. I need a man bite.
What’s the one thing to remember in a fist fight?
Don’t get into a fist fight.
Who was the last person to see you naked?
Define naked. Like, naked emotionally? My therapist.
And finish this sentence: If I ruled the world for a day, I would…
I would end the War on Drugs.
"How to Make Money Selling Drugs" is now playing in select cities.
Also on Maxim.com: