Reefer Madness: Notes From the Underground Economy

Discussion in 'Marijuana News' started by Superjoint, May 11, 2003.

  1. By Sam Sifton
    Source: New York Times

    Sex! Drugs! We'll get to cheap labor in due course. ''The current demand for marijuana and pornography is deeply revealing,'' Eric Schlosser writes in the introduction to ''Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market,'' three essays that explore facets of America's estimated $650 billion underground economy. ''Here are two commodities that Americans publicly abhor, privately adore and buy in astonishing amounts.'' Schlosser, who delivered a stirring indictment of the business and culture of American appetites in his first book, ''Fast Food Nation,'' now throws more muck rakes at our national mores.

    The first is a chapter on the booming business of American marijuana cultivation -- and a damning of the nation's mandatory minimum sentencing laws. The last is a serious romp through the recent history of pornography in the United States, a story that hangs on the tale of Reuben Sturman, the self-styled Walt Disney of porn, who died in a prison hospital in 1997. Stuck in the middle is an investigation of the terrible working conditions endured by illegal immigrants in California in order to harvest strawberries under the hot sun.
    What connects these three reports? The free market. We are a nation of consumers. (Perhaps our demand for strawberries is less revealing of our souls or culture than our desire for filmed sexual intercourse or a quarter-ounce of pot, but we do purchase a lot of them all the same.) Schlosser's guiding principle for ''Reefer Madness'' seems to be that the three essays can add up to a refutation of Adam Smith's theory of the modern market economy. ''The idea of the marketplace as the fullest expression of democracy has a strong appeal,'' he writes in the conclusion, ''Out of the Underground.'' ''But it assumes that economic motives are the only human motives. If making money were all that mattered, there would be no nurses, teachers, poets, farmers, soldiers, police officers or professors of medieval literature.'' To which list I would add: no stoned video-store clerks or onanistic builders of amateur porn sites on the Web, either. And, of course, no advocates for fair wages for migrant farmworkers.

    Schlosser's argument walks a difficult, winding path. Porn, he says, should be made legal across the board, and pot as well. Both actions would throw light upon the darkness of the black market and thus reduce America's gross national pretense of virtue. At the same time, though, he writes, ''All those who now consider themselves devotees of the market should take a good look at what is happening in California. Left to its own devices, the free market always seeks a work force that is hungry, desperate and cheap.'' Which is true enough. As Schlosser smartly notes: ''The sort of black market labor once narrowly confined to California agriculture is now widespread in meatpacking, construction and garment manufacturing. The growth of the underground has lowered wages, eliminated benefits and reduced job security in these industries.''

    But we were talking about pot and porn. The addition of labor to the discussion renders the argument muddy. And as a result, ''Reefer Madness'' often seems more a congealed denunciation of American hypocrisy than a volume that came together as the result of careful thought. Small-time drug dealers in jail for life, migrant strawberry workers living on the edge of slavery, porn stars reclaiming their sexual power and businessmen profiting from that goal -- this all may be the underground, but you can't see it for the fog.

    You know what, though? Never mind. There are other measures of a journalist's success than the cohesion of a collection of essays. Schlosser is a fine and diligent reporter with a real gift for description, and his three dispatches are fascinating pieces of work. In particular, Schlosser's riveting profile of Mark Young, an Indiana man convicted on federal charges for his part in arranging a large marijuana sale, does much to humanize his examination of America's domestic marijuana business, a business, the author reports, that is worth more than $4 billion a year.

    ''One of the great ironies of American drug policy is that antidrug laws have tended to become most punitive long after the use of a drug has peaked,'' Schlosser writes, adding: ''Marijuana use among the young peaked in 1979. Strict federal laws were passed seven years later, when use had already fallen by about 40 percent; and the explanation most young people gave for quitting marijuana was the perceived health risk, not fear of imprisonment.'' Young, who had introduced a buyer to a seller of marijuana, received a life sentence, Schlosser reports, and was placed in the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan.

    Schlosser's investigation of California's strawberry harvest, meanwhile, is harrowing in its description of workers who labor six-month years for less than $7,500 and have life expectancies under 50. It is also fiercely eloquent in its conclusions. ''If the current abuse of illegal immigrants is allowed to continue,'' he writes, ''the United States soon won't have to import a foreign peasantry. We will have created our own.''

    His chapter on pornography, ''An Empire of the Obscene,'' the longest in the book, rockets along on the heels of its protagonist, Reuben Sturman, a wily porn magnate and antigovernment agitator who could make a fine noir hero for Hollywood. ''You wanted to know how the industry started,'' Sturman tells Schlosser when they meet in a medium-security prison in Kentucky a year before Sturman's death. ''Well, you're looking at the person who started it.''

    Here's what to do. Read these three pieces as if they were distinct articles in the same magazine, one that can afford to have only a single, hard-working reporter on staff. This is very good journalism, after all, stacked like cordwood. And there is much to learn about the evils of this world -- even if there's no need to tie them all together just yet. Black markets, Schlosser writes, ''will always be with us. But they will recede in importance when our public morality is consistent with our private one.'' See you then.

    Sam Sifton is the editor of the Dining section of The Times.

    Reefer Madness:
    Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market
    By Eric Schlosser
    310 pp. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $23.

    Complete Title: 'Reefer Madness': Notes From the Underground Economy

    Source: New York Times (NY)
    Author: Sam Sifton
    Published: May 11, 2003
    Copyright: 2003 The New York Times Company

Grasscity Deals Near You


Share This Page