“Black markets will always be with us,” writes Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser in his new book, Reefer Madness, a three-pronged examination of the underground American economy. “But they will recede in importance when our public morality is consistent with our private one. The underground is a good measure of the progress and the health of nations. When much is wrong, much needs to be hidden.”
Those are the last words of Reefer Madness—a sly echo to the book’s introduction, in which Schlosser invokes Adam’s Smith’s 1776 economic treatise The Wealth of Nations to establish an ideological basis for a free market gone berserk two centuries later. Smith, Schlosser explains, believed that “the invisible hand” of the divine steered the free market, regulating prices and wages, moderating supply and demand, and improving industry and agriculture without any conscious interference by man. Smith also wrote—and Schlosser doesn’t mention this part—that wealth tends not to linger too long in any one place. Two centuries of steady economic growth—albeit with a few valleys to go with the peaks—would seem to suggest that America, as in so many other instances, is the exception that proves this rule. Yet even adjusting for 1776 currency and population, Smith would be astounded to learn the huge percentage of American wealth circulating in a kind of antipodal economy in the early 21st century—vast, illicit, off the books, and largely out of sight.
Schlosser’s first stop, and the one that gives the book its name, is to look at the business of marijuana, a crop whose annual worth, the author suggests, might actually exceed the worth of the next closest, legal cash crop—corn—by several billion dollars. Marijuana itself, of course, is currently illegal in America under almost every circumstance—a disparity often pointed out between our time, when prison sentences meted out for its cultivation, distribution and even mere possession exceed those handed out for violent crimes, and Adam Smith’s, when its cultivation was deemed a strategic necessity by America’s founding fathers.
With just 70 pages devoted to this growth sector of the underground economy, the author doesn’t have time to run down the entire list of marijuana-related hypocrisies put forth over the last century by state and federal governments. Just the same, he mounts a scathing attack on existing drug laws (and punishments) and arrives at his conclusion with the necessary burden of proof seemingly well in hand: legalize it.
“A society that can punish a marijuana offender more severely than a murderer,” he declares, “is caught in the grip of a deep psychosis...We need a marijuana policy that is calmly based on the facts. An end to the war on marijuana will not come from Congress or the president, from the DEA, the police, the prisons or the courts. It will come from citizen activism and the ballot box. It will come when ordinary people make their views known. The government’s behavior will not withstand public scrutiny for long. This war is over, if you want it.”
The most infuriating thing about the marijuana section of Reefer Madness is the emergent theme of “one law for them, another law for us,” which Schlosser first brings to bear with devastating impact on the parts of his book pertaining to federal seizure laws. According to Schlosser, a federal prosecutor known as the “Forfeiture Queen” had no compunction about kicking an elderly couple out of the house they’d lived in for nearly 40 years after their 22-year-old grandson was arrested for selling marijuana. Shortly thereafter, Schlosser writes, she changed the tune of her sanctimonious drug-war battle anthem—that people should know what goes on in their own home—after her 18-year-old son was arrested for selling LSD out of the Forfeiture Queen’s own Chevy Blazer and allegedly her Connecticut home as well. Schlosser cites numerous similar discrepancies.
If the marijuana portion of Reefer Madness is often enraging for its look at official hypocrisy, the slimmer (only about 30 pages) section devoted to the injustices faced by Mexican migrant labor in the strawberry fields of California is bleak and depressing. It is in this section that Schlosser comes closest to summoning the spirit of another muckraker to whom he has often been compared: Upton Sinclair.
Like Sinclair, Schlosser plays on the reader’s conscience to draw attention to the plight of an exploited workforce, which in the case of the strawberry workers amounts to a neofeudal system of peonage perpetuated by a surplus of illegal labor willing to work for practically nothing. Schlosser’s muckraking in this section, which benefits tremendously from his first-person accounts of labor camps and migrant shantytowns, doesn’t pack quite the visceral punch of The Jungle—although, in fairness, it’s tough to compete with Sinclair’s hapless workers falling into rendering vats and being sent out into the world as “Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard.” But it’ll sure as hell make anyone with a keen social conscience think twice about buying California strawberries, which is at least a step in the right direction.
Schlosser’s final foray, into “The Empire of the Obscene,” raises questions that are somewhat more problematic. Regardless of how the reader might feel about obscenity laws and freedom of speech, it’s still frustrating to read about porn barons who manage to keep their business off the books by hiding in the same jungle of dummy companies and offshore bank accounts that corporations like Enron used to camouflage their finances. Schlosser is less forthcoming with his own answers to the pornography question, but the words he chooses to close his discussion are worth bearing in mind: Sometimes the price of freedom is what freedom brings.
Reefer Madness could have been three books. Schlosser opted to cover more ground in one, and he does an excellent job of streamlining his material. Highly recommended.