The film's title is more than just a hook to get people to pick up the DVD; Drugs is actually structured like a faux "how-to" manual that walks the viewer from street level hustler to head of an international drug cartel. It's a clever way to lighten what might have been a very dark and dramatic documentary, and it neatly dovetails with Cooke's message, which is that drug dealing and poverty are inextricably intertwined. Nearly all of the film's interview subjects were drawn into the business as children of extremely poor families, by the prospect of getting rich quick. Acknowledging that not only saves Cooke the trouble of downplaying the surface appeal of money and power (nearly everyone has a glint in their eyes reflecting upon their first success in the business), but also gives the film a strong satirical bite.
The structure also provides a pretty straightforward road map for Cooke to follow in explaining the way the drug trade functions. Although many of the levels are not much different, other than the amount of money being made and the drugs being sold, he works his way from the streets of Detroit back out to the beaches of Florida, where cocaine and other narcotics enter the country, and then briefly into Mexico, where drugs are a truly deadly business (a lone image of several decapitated heads is so oddly casual in its brutality it's hard to process). He ties each of the segments together with animation, on-screen captions, and other graphics, which tend to look a little cheap but certainly get the job done, as well as narrating the film himself.
The real value of the film, though, lies in the recollections of its many subjects, all of whom candidly and openly recall joining gangs, narrowly avoiding prison, tricks of the trade, and addiction. Subjects include Bobby Carlton, who started selling marijuana at 15 before heading to Florida and driving boats of cocaine into the U.S.; Brian O'Dea, a high school dropout who would eventually earn a million dollars a day carrying drugs on his boat; Mike Walzman, who became rich selling coke at private school; and "Freeway" Rick Ross, a kingpin who at his height carried around $40,000 a day just to hand out to friends and family. In addition to dealers, Cooke also speaks to a couple of former law enforcement agents, including Barry Cooper, who went from cop to cop stopper, making a living out of busting officers who plant evidence and twist the facts in order to bust people, and of course, some celebrity drug reform advocates like Susan Sarandon and Woody Harrelson.
Throughout, Cooke smoothly drops in information about the drug war and the way police and prisons depend on government money and bust money provided by said drug war to survive. As a result, his final segue from drug dealing to drug law reform is mostly smooth, although it could stand to contain a little more clarification on the idea that ending drug prohibition is also effective in combating addiction and drug use through the rerouting of resources toward recovery programs (the film mentions this after the fact, leaving a slightly contradictory portion where everyone talks about the hope that drugs will be decriminalized in the name of personal freedom, then offer horror stories about the agony of addiction). A portion with retired cop Neil Franklin also comes off slightly overbearing in its depiction of the drug war's emotional toll (that's me questioning Cooke, not Franklin). Arguing for a single, specific course of action is a move that could be considered preachy, but Cooke wisely relies on his subjects, rather than his talking points, to make a convincing case.
The Video and Audio
Trailers for The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia and Dog Pound play before the main menu.