Alibi V.12 No.39 • Sept 25-Oct 1, 2003 

Art Article

Still Smokin'

Eric Schlosser's Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market

1) How much do you save annually because California agribusinesses use illegal migrant labor?

2) Why do so many Mom-and-Pop video stores carry porn flicks?

3) What gets you a $100 fine in New York State or a 20-year prison sentence in Louisiana?

4) Which U.S. president replaced Thomas Jefferson's portrait with one of Calvin Coolidge? (See answers below.)

What's the connection, if any, between these questions? They're all answered in Eric Schlosser's grand tour along the scenic highways and byways of our nation's economic hypocrisies.

Between its introduction and conclusion, Reefer Madness sandwiches three long essays about the irrational history of American marijuana laws, the rise of pornography as a mainstream American business and the dependence of California agribusiness on illegal labor.

Schlosser tries to link the three subjects together as components of the U.S. black market economy, but the grouping seems a little forced. No matter. The book hangs together very well as a story about human nature, economic opportunism, American self-image and the Triumph of Unintended Consequences.

Schlosser, a master muckraker, delivers an encyclopedia of mind-boggling facts in the guise of a novelistic page-turner. Readability has kept his previous book, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, on bestseller lists for over two years, and the author uses similar techniques in Reefer Madness. He puts the story first, relegating expanded references and explanation to the extensive notes and bibliography. And he folds his data into stories about particular people.

In the porn essay, Schlosser follows the career of the biggest sex industry CEO you've never heard of—Reuben Sturman. Sturman's activities make the "porn empires" of Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt look like lemonade stands, and the Enron gang must have learned at Sturman's knee about money laundering, dummy corporations and offshore banking.

The marijuana section traces how U.S. drug laws and policies have changed, not because of scientific discoveries, but because of changing political climates. Schlosser focuses on Indianapolis native Mark Young, currently serving a life sentence because he knew about some guys growing pot. (My favorite quote, from a 1931 U.S. crusader against marijuana: "The dominant race and most enlightened countries are alcoholic, whilst the races and nations addicted to hemp have deteriorated both mentally and physically.")

Schlosser gives the pseudonym Felipe to the man who guides him through the strawberry fields of Orange County, where most farm workers live like third world refugees. Believe me, you'll never view strawberries in the same way again. Workers call the berries "la fruta del Diablo" because they are so horrific to grow and harvest. But Schlosser refrains from easy demonizing, looking beyond the workers' corporate employers in agriculture, manufacturing and construction to the ebb and flow of world economies.

Answers:

1) About $50.

2) Because Blockbuster Video Superstores don't, and porn's about the only profit-maker left for small independents.

3) Possessing slightly less than an ounce of marijuana.

4) Ronald Reagan switched the Cabinet Room pix in 1981, symbolically returning the United States to its true religion, worship of the marketplace.

Houghton Mifflin Co., hardcover, $23