The Business of Drugs is Netflixs new newsy docu-series, a six-episode investigative analysis of controlled substances and their place in international society. Our host is Amaryllis Fox, a former kid CIA agent she was recruited at age 21 who hopped the globe fighting the war on terror until 2010; in 2019, she wrote a book about her experiences, which will soon be an Apple TV+ series starring Brie Larson. Foxs voice gives The Business of Drugs a knowledgeable, engaging tone, making it more along the lines of Dirty Money journalism than Tiger King sensationalism.
Opening Shot: An overhead shot of a massive villa flanked by a fancy pool and palm trees, lit up at night.
The Gist: Episode one digs into the cocaine biz, and its glib before its serious: Once a mostly harmless leafy pick-me-up for the indigenous people of South America, the modern story of cocaine goes like so: Freud, Pablo Escobar, disco hedonism, Wall Street hedonism, crack, El Chapo, more Wall Street hedonism, Fox narrates. She briefly introduces herself before sitting down with a ski-masked Los Angeles drug dealer identified only as Roy; his dad dealt coke, and now he does too, in small quantities because if he gets busted, the charges arent as severe.
Fox interviews a doctor who explains the addictive properties of cocaine, and a Yale professor who breaks down some of the economic context of the drug trade. She goes to Colombia, the apex of coca plant growth thanks to swaths of unoccupied land and an ideal climate. Farmers grow and harvest the leaves, hand them off to labs in the middle of the jungle that mash them into a paste, which is then sold to cartels, who process it into powder, and take it to the massive Buenaventura port, where its hidden in exported goods. Fox hangs out with one middleman who crams packages of cocaine inside stuffed kittens inside kiddie backpacks, then hops into a tiny canoe and heads to a dropoff point; he risks his well-being to make a measly $300 for every drop. She also watches as military workers rip up coca plants in the jungle. At the port, others tackle the needle-in-a-haystack job, probing a few among hundreds of sacks of coffee; they find 56 kilos stuffed in a ships propeller compartment, worth $4.6 million in U.S. street value.
Oh, by the way, heres a statistic for you: the Colombian government spends a lot of money (how much exactly, the doc doesnt say) to seize five tons of coke annually, out of 1,400 tons distributed. Cartels sell $24 BILLION worth of cocaine every year just to the United States. As they say, LET THAT SINK IN. Fox heads to Mexico, where a couple guys hang out with a pallet stacked with $8 million worth of cocaine, then load it up for a trip to the border. Just south of El Paso, Texas, the tunnels distributors used to use to get the product across the border are obsolete. Now, theyre mixed in with other goods in trucks, sometimes without the drivers even knowing. Fox wraps it up, and I paraphrase: Legalization may seem extreme, but many lives are lost and a lot of money is spent as governments battle these black-market monopolies. What the hell are we doing?
Our Take: Curious, how the first episode of Business opens with that spiel about Freud and Wall Street and all that, then never bothers to elaborate on it, or even return to that arch, colorful tone. It quickly settles into the nitty-gritty of the ins and outs of the cocaine trade, tosses in a few op-ed assertions, a handful of whopper statistics and some fascinating firsthand accounts by individuals participating in low-level criminal activity, then gets out in an all-too-brief 45 minutes.
Foxs presence is strong, credible and down-to-earth qualities necessary for gaining access to men working on coca farms in Columbia, in drug safehouses in Mexico and on the streets of Compton. Director Matthew Heineman did similar things in gripping feature doc Cartel Land, but gave us a deeper and more palpable sense of being embedded smack in the middle of dangerous business.
Youll like Fox, but wish she was more assertive. The episode focuses on production and distribution aspects of the business, and relegates the effects of that business deaths, poverty to a few brief inferences. Its black market commerce, so of course it has detrimental effects on societys structure and people. The doc presents an outline chock-full of facts and a fair amount of heady analysis, but fails to flesh it out with any content about the effects of cocaine on humanity; its just a given that its bad, I guess, so it skips the heart and goes for the head. Fox makes a few tossed-off statements about legalization; notices how the area surrounding Buenaventura is horribly stricken with poverty but offers no data relating to it; and implies that the war on drugs is a fruitless enterprise perpetuated by wrongheaded governments. But she never really stirs up the moral outrage that would make her arguments more compelling.
Parting Shot: Roy walks down a dark, damp L.A. alley, presumably to resume his drug-dealing business.
Sleeper Star: How about every person crazy/brave enough to go on camera even with ski-mask on and voice altered and talk about the illegal stuff they do every day?
Most Pilot-y Line: Fox: Ive seen this kind of thing with the war on terror a ton of money spent with little effective result.
Our Call: I hesitate to say STREAM IT. The first episode of The Business of Drugs feels incomplete, and maybe a little wishy-washy. But youll learn something anyway, and future episodes addressing heroin, meth and opioids carry promise.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com or follow him on Twitter: @johnserba.
Stream The Business of Drugs on Netflix
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