By Michelle Conlin
Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor
in the American Black Market
By Eric Schlosser
Houghton Mifflin -- 310pp -- $23
After finishing the first essay in Eric Schlosser's Reefer Madness, one wonders: If Philip Morris or Seagram or another major U.S. company owned a patent on premium, smokable pot -- a drug Schlosser argues is less addictive than nicotine, caffeine, or booze -- would it still be illegal? More important, would judges continue to punish marijuana offenders by handing them life sentences without parole -- as has happened in Alabama and Indiana -- while letting cold-blooded killers get off with an average of less than 12 years?
Probably not. Connecting the dots on the arbitrary nature of our taboos, and the unfathomable discrepancies in our punishments, Schlosser makes a persuasive case that we're a country in the grip of a "deep psychosis." Through misplaced moralism, political expediency, or apathy, America is ruinously mishandling the underground economy. As with his Big Mac-bashing, best-selling Fast Food Nation, Schlosser doesn't so much muckrake as vivisect the shadowy, little-understood black market that, he says, accounts for about 10% of gross domestic product. Having emerged mostly since the 1970s, it encompasses everything from tax cheats to faux Chanel. But in this provocative polemic, Schlosser limits his targets to sex, drugs, and cheap labor.
In the book's eponymous first essay, an expanded version of a 1997 Atlantic Monthly story, Schlosser tells the story of America's biggest cash crop. His examples range from high-tech growers to poor farmers who sandwich pot plants between their other crops. And he introduces the naive first offenders and two-bit nonviolent users who have received draconian punishment. Never mind that some of the same politicians on the left and right who favor zero-tolerance drug laws didn't utter a peep when, as Schlosser reports, their own drug-peddling kids got off practically scot-free.
Just how did the nation make such an about-face -- from being on the verge of decriminalizing marijuana in the 1970s, with everyone from the American Medical Assn., the National Council of Churches, and then-President Jimmy Carter supporting the move? Schlosser pins the blame on paranoid parents' groups, Ronald Reagan's War on Drugs, and boomer politicians intent on distancing themselves from the weed-loving 1960s. He also reveals how the feds have become so dependent on forfeiture lucre to meet their budgets that they have even gone after the owners of garden-supply stores, who sometimes unwittingly count pot-growers among their customers.
The cost, Schlosser shows, is a rapidly bloating prison system, where violent criminals are sprung early to make way for drug dabblers. But Schlosser points out that even as the Bush Administration steps up its war on marijuana, citizens are starting to fight back with state ballot initiatives, such as those in Arizona and California demanding treatment instead of jail time for first-time, nonviolent drug offenders. Money better spent, no doubt.
Schlosser's second essay is the least fresh part of his book. "In the Strawberry Fields" examines the plight of illegal immigrant fruit-pickers, who often work in Dickensian conditions and sneak home to squalid shantytowns in the shadows of walled suburban compounds. As the demand for California's produce has grown, so has its need for dirt-cheap labor. Schlosser says that up to 60% of these workers are without green cards, many laboring off the books and making up an invisible class of employee. Their willingness to work for slave wages -- $7,500 a year -- enables California agriculture to survive. Their pay, it turns out, is the only cuttable cost in the industry, which is often battered by bad weather, volatile pricing, and uncertain demand. "Illegal immigrants, widely reviled and often depicted as welfare cheats, are in effect subsidizing the most important sector of the California economy," says Schlosser.
The last section of the book, "Empire of the Obscene," is at times disjointed, but it's also the most entertaining. It tells the story of Reuben Sturman -- the colorful, secretive smut lord, known for showing up in court wearing surgical masks and Groucho Marx disguises -- and of ambitious Internal Revenue Service agent Richard N. Rosfelder Jr., who made a 15-year career of pursuing Sturman.
Rosfelder succeeded when no one else could, destroying Sturman's empire and turning him out of his Shaker Heights (Ohio) Tudor mansion adorned with Dutch old-master paintings to while away his last days in the Big House. Sturman was one of the biggest tax cheats in history. His rationale? If the Feds were going to hunt him for peddling porn, why pay taxes to finance their cause?
The story isn't limited to the catch-me-if-you-can tussle between the porn scofflaw and the IRS white knight. Rather, Schlosser explores how something once deemed so deviant has entered the mainstream. He illustrates how porn profits are being pocketed by so-called family-friendly media and hotel companies.
These essays lack connective tissue. But Schlosser's exhaustive reporting is reminiscent of social realist literature. Journalism schools should make required reading of the excellent endnotes in Reefer Madness. In the notes -- as in the rest of the book -- Schlosser makes a compelling case that marijuana is not the only issue over which our society has gone mad. As he might have put it: America, the hypocritical.
Conlin is working life editor.