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Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market

Eric Schlosser

Houghton Mifflin

US Hardcover First Edition

ISBN 0-618-33466-1

Publication Date: 05-05-2003

309 Pages; $23.00

Date Reviewed: 05-12-03

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003



Non Fiction, Mystery, General Fiction

05-23-03, 06-12-03

Ignoring the facts is becoming a national pastime - a dangerous one, according to Eric Schlosser. Schlosser is making a very credible go as a one-man alternative to the network news. 'Fast Food Nation' had a visible impact on the eating habits of Americans and the bottom lines of the companies it examined. 'Reefer Madness' was actually started before 'Fast Food Nation', and contains the same passionate reporting that made the first a hit, but with much less appealing targets. In early 21st century America, there's no easy way to support anything remotely resembling illegal drugs without making a lot of enemies. Schlosser goes straight for the Soft White Underbelly; first drugs, then illegal immigrants, then finally porn. These are three subjects that nobody wants to talk about. Sleaze, sleaze and more sleaze do not make a family friendly news broadcast. However, Schlosser's real subject is not the sleaze, but the movements of money and morals underneath. The surface matters are certainly full of entertainment, excitement and colorful personalities. His powerful examination of these three illegal economies is first and foremost riveting reading. But this isn't just entertainment or edification. 'Reefer Madness' is news, the kind of practical reporting that moves readers to make a difference.

'Reefer Madness' is divided into five fairly standalone essays. Each is so well formed on its own that there's an immediate "fix-up novel" feel to the book. But with his introduction, 'The Underground' and his conclusion, 'Out of the Underground', Schlosser manages to perform the trick of any smart reporter and keep the readers thinking about the big issues behind the fascinating particulars that he is reporting. In this case, we're directed to look at the impact and the implications of our huge underground economy. This is another example of Schlosser's smarts as a one-man news organization. He makes a very compelling tie between the in-your-pocket economics and the in-your-heart emotions.

Each of the three main sections of the book has a number of remarkable stories. 'Reefer Madness' starts with the story of Mark Young, a man sentenced to life without parole for brokering a big pot deal in a state where rape gets you on average, eight years. He follows with the story of Harry J. Anslinger, the J. Edgar Hoover of drug enforcement. Young's a sleazy loser who gets a state-approved anvil dropped on his head. Anslinger is one of those forgotten figures from history who exerts a heavy and sinister influence long after his death. In between there are more cases of mind-bogglingly excessive enforcement, and a look at the costs. I reside in a county where federal agents have regularly raided medical marijuana operations. It's a sobering experience when it happens close to home.

'In the Strawberry Fields' also strikes close to home. Set largely just minutes from where I happen to live, in Watsonville California, this essay examines the employment of illegal immigrants in California strawberry fields. Though this essay is significantly shorter than either of those that bracket it, it is no less hard-hitting. Particularly mind-boggling are the contracts created by Kirk Produce Incorporated. It's a picture-perfect portrait of evil lawyers, cackling as they surround the poor and the ignorant, trap them in poverty and suck them dry until their withered carcasses blow away in the wind. But Schlosser is not merely an assassin of corporations; he also praises those that do well, and local company Driscoll's is held up as an example of a good employer. But once again, Schlosser is working to a greater purpose than to lambaste the practitioners of particularly awful form of modern peonage. He's shining a light on the surface but pointing at the movements of money (from small farms to big agribusiness) and morals (criminalizing the victim, that is the worker versus criminalizing the big business).

The final and best segment is the article on pornography, which focuses on the case of one Reuben Sturman. Sturman was just an ambitious comic book salesman who, in Schlosser's history, is largely responsible for creating Porn As We Know It. Once again, the surface details are incredibly entertaining. If you've ever read 'Bottom Feeders', or any other material about porn entrepreneurs, you'll know that they're a complex bunch of a seemingly seedy characters who usually turn out to be rather more normal than most people who claim that label would care to admit. Schlosser covers more than fifty years and discovers Sturman is the man who first used the shady investment techniques that made Enron all-too briefly famous. What's most interesting is that Sturman was essentially pursued by the government and called an extorting criminal until he became one to battle the government that was pursuing him. And, as Schlosser so ably points out, it all seems rather quaint now, the peep shows and the liquor store-rack magazines. Anybody who has an Internet connection can download material that would make even Larry Flynt's head spin - as Flynt himself tells Schlosser.

Schlosser is never without his own moral point of view as he accumulates his damning mountain of information. He is a one-man news organization, and his point is powerful and important. The "American Way of Life" is in the midst of a malevolent change for the worse for most American citizens. As Schlosser examines the underground economy he divines our own future, and like the underground, it's not pretty and it's not happy. But Schlosser doesn't succumb to gloom and doom depression and neither will most readers. We've come to the bottom of the barrel, and Schlosser's kicked it over so that we can look underneath. Now, he flat out states, it's time to do something about it. With truly independent points of view like Schlosser's, we have the single most critical tool required to effect change - knowledge that it needs to come about. Schlosser restores to books -- and readers -- their ability to change the world.