Meet Barry Cooper, a zealous drug cop who switched sides to help people framed by the police after he smoked pot and decided he loved it. Or Bobby Carlton, who became a big-time cocaine dealer who battled addiction and now works with others facing the same path.
These are just a few of the human dramas laid bare in How to Make Money Selling Drugs, a hard-hitting documentary that takes you through the beautiful and ugly sides of the multi-billion dollar trade through the spoken words of its players.
The revelations are at times disturbing, with footage of cops planting drugs on someone and graphic photos of beheaded drug lord victims in pools of blood.
A coke dealer in Detroit lends advice on keeping a low profile. "I'm trying to use the coke to free myself," he says. "Borrow $500,000, start a couple of businesses - get right out of this shit. If you decide you want to pick up this game - shit - get in it for the right reason: the money only."
Marshall Mathers, better known as Eminem, delivers an emotion-packed narrative of his near-death experience with prescription drugs like Oxycontin, part of the movie's lesson that legal drugs like tobacco and alcohol kill more people than banned substances.
Curtis Jackson, a.k.a. 50 Cent, decries profiling and searches by cops in black neighborhoods, where young men routinely get put away for five, 10 or more years. Then we hear from a twentysomething, white coke dealer in Beverly Hills who was kicked out of school when he got caught but avoided any prison sentence at all.
At first, the film comes across as a step-by-step how-to guide to use drugs as a way to money and status to make up for the broken American Dream. Like Abbie Hoffman's underground tome Steal This Book, the film protests injustice and calls attention to huge hypocrasies in the system.
Woody Harrelson points out the U.S. is supposed to be the land of the free, under the principals of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. But America sustains an abnormally large prison population compared to any other nation in the world, mostly due to the Drug War. It's an addition that's hard for public officlals and cops to resist, with the prison industry and government funding tied to clamping down on drugs. As the ranks of the incarcerated swell, others come to replace them and demand for drugs never wanes.
Susan Sarandon and Russell Simmons rail against New York's Rockefeller drug laws and mandatory minimum sentences on the federal level. It's not unusual to see a single mom sentenced to 27 years because she moved in with her cousins to avoid an abusive boyfriend. The people who took her in got busted and she was blamed because she lived with them.
"Right now you can murder somebody and get out quicker than being in a house where there's a drug bust and (you) don't even know what's going on and you can end up serving 30 years," Sarandon says. "It's crazy. It's not right."
David Simon (creator of The Wire), drug kingpin Freeway Ricky Ross and others weigh in as the 97-minute documentary wraps up with the message that legalization would save billions and generate billions more to fight addiction, not unlike the model in Portugal.
In a prepared statement released with the film, director Matthew Cooke said when he became friends a decade ago with Adrian Grenier (of Entourage fame), the actor saw the movie concept on Cooke's idea board in the form of a 10-page Cliff Notes style treatment.
"Adrian was drawn in for the same reason I was," Cooke commented about the movie's executive producer. "There is a hard honesty to what the 'lessons' of the War on Drugs teach our youth. The mission of the film was not to promote those lessons but to expose them. And to do so in a radically honest way."