Pot, Porn, and Strawberries

Talking to Reefer Madness Author Eric Schlosser About the Nation’s Shadow Economies

Like all the finest muckrakers, Eric Schlosser enables his readers to see the invisible. Before his 2001 publishing phenomenon Fast Food Nation, the millions served at McDonald’s each day couldn’t discern the manure and livestock remains in their Big Macs, or make out the labor abuses happening behind the counter or inside the slaughterhouse. In his new book, Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market (Houghton Mifflin, 310 pp., $23), Schlosser examines three disparate commodities—marijuana, strawberries, and pornography—to burrow deep into the nation’s subterranean economy, which racks up as much as $1 trillion in off-the-books transactions each year. Schlosser maps out the blurred boundaries and arbitrary distinctions between the black market and the free market, the underground and the mainstream. He also finds that many aspects of the secret economy—and more importantly, the American government’s chaotic relationship with it—can affect our everyday lives as intimately as the food we eat.

Schlosser intends Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness as part of a trilogy, to be completed with a book on the U.S. prison system. “They’re about the history of America over the last 30 years,” says Schlosser, chatting with the Voice in a graveyard near Regent’s Park in London (he was in town as part of his U.K. book tour). “In 1970, there weren’t very many McDonald’s, and they had a negligible impact on our agricultural economy and our culture. People were smoking pot, but the pot laws were being relaxed, and there wasn’t the huge domestic industry that we have now—the profits from pot are enormous because of the penalties imposed on pot. If you visited migrant farmworkers in California, you would find that they were receiving higher wages than ever. Pornography was a negligible economic activity at dollar value. We were closing down prisons in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and the criminal justice system believed that incarceration was becoming virtually obsolete, except for a small handful of violent recidivists.”

Since 1982, however, the year Ronald Reagan appointed the nation’s first drug czar, some 250,000 Americans have spent at least a year in jail for marijuana offenses. In 2001 alone, approximately 650,000 people were arrested for simple possession. Tales abound of grotesquely disproportionate sentencing for pot crimes; the latest is the 18-year-old in Alabama who sold three ounces to a cop and got 26 years for his trouble. Such reefer madness isn’t strictly derived from Republican Party agitators, either—annual marijuana-related arrests more than doubled under the non-inhaler Bill Clinton. Yet the weed remains America’s preeminent black-market industry and, at as much as $25 billion a year, possibly its biggest cash crop.

“The war on marijuana is really a moral war against nonconformists,” Schlosser contends. “A hundred years ago, strong cannabis was a routine part of patent medicines, and that wasn’t a problem when there were all these big drug companies using it in their preparations. That changed once it became associated with people whom the powers-that-be were afraid of—poor Mexican immigrants, and even more importantly, African American jazz musicians.” (Harry J. Anslinger, the zealous Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief, kept a file called “Marijuana and Musicians,” and once hoped to pull off a nationwide dragnet of jazz players.)

Like pot, sexually explicit material used to be the illicit domain of a threatening subculture; now it’s just another billion-dollar legitimate industry. The final panel of the Reefer Madness triptych tells the story of the late porn baron Reuben Sturman, whom the government spent decades hunting for various gross indecencies before finally nailing him for extortion. “The third part is a case study in how the black market becomes the mainstream,” Schlosser explains. “A lot of the lines separating one from the other are very random and artificial. Pornography was as deviant in the eyes of the mainstream as you can imagine. Lenny Bruce was imprisoned for saying the word fuck in a nightclub act. But once it becomes mainstream, corporations get involved and there’s a very different type of enforcement.”

Rigid application of obscenity laws withered during the Clinton administration, but the sex industry has been under orange alert for a new battle since the arrival of John Ashcroft, whose attitudes toward unclothed inanimate objects are well-known. (“I mean, to cover up Justice—you couldn’t make that up,” Schlosser marvels. “But you know, she’s naked, she has a blindfold on, maybe he thought there was some really kinky action about to start.”) Is the attorney general too busy sequestering Middle Eastern immigrants and raiding medical-marijuana centers to target smut peddlers? “The most likely reason that he won’t launch an anti-porn crusade has nothing to do with what he thinks about porn,” Schlosser opines. “It’s the fact that he wouldn’t be taking on the Gambino family or a little distributor in North Carolina—he’d be taking on Time Warner, Hilton and Marriot, Rupert Murdoch. These companies are making money from porn, their customers want porn, and there’s a very strong argument that the government has no business interfering. It’s a realpolitik equation. It’s not like rounding up bong manufacturers.”

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