(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Almost before his readers—the fans, converts, activists, company executives, and conservative critics—have “digested” the muckraking tour de force Fast Food Nation (2001), Eric Schlosser has given them a whole new subject to consider: the United States’ thriving black-market economy.Reefer Madness awakens readers to the massive profits available to pornography magnates, the rising demand for domestic marijuana, the relationship between marijuana possession laws and national incarceration rates, and the American addiction to foods grown and processed by illegal migrant workers. Moreover, this volume matches—or even exceeds—its predecessor in the areas that made the latter such a huge success: an exquisite sense of the dramatic, reliance on academic social science as well as solid documents from governmental and nongovernmental organizations, gonzo daring in capturing original material, and vivid writing. Schlosser persuades by overwhelming and enticing his readers. One is taken to places one fears to go (labor camps, prisons, high-tech indoor marijuana nurseries), and yet this is a moral journey, aimed at high-minded social reform.

In his brief introduction, “The Underground,” Schlosser claims that while the U.S. economy has always known different kinds of black-market activities (especially during Prohibition), the post-1960’s era has seen their growth to undreamed-of proportions. Relying on the work of both the Internal Revenue Service and Austrian economist Friedrich Schneider, Schlosser asserts that about 10 percent of the United States’ gross domestic product comes from shadow labor and illegal production. This means that in 1997, “Americans had failed to pay about $200 billion of federal taxes that were owed, an amount larger than the government’s annual spending on Medicare.” Moreover, the kind of underground economy that has evolved does far more damage than what preceded it.

In the sectors Schlosser examines—marijuana production, immigrant labor, and pornography—human costs are enormous. They come in the forms of bulging prisons, where merely disreputable “criminals” are mixed with the truly depraved; of widespread contempt for law enforcement authorities (who, in the case of marijuana investigations, often seem motivated by the desire to confiscate the property of the accused); of poverty, helplessness, and poisoning for Mexican “guest workers”; and of the multiple degradations associated with the pornography “industry.”

Schlosser wants to accomplish more in this volume than simply arouse public consciousness of these three areas of economic deceit. He believes that “the underground is inextricably linked to the mainstream,” and so the shape it takes indicates something less than desirable about the national soul. Thus, if many small operators thrive in a cash-based, tax-free secret economy that is “beneath contempt,” a strong light is shed on the big operators—at companies such as Enron, Anderson, and Tyco—who evade taxes, or federal scrutiny, or responsibility for employee welfare.

In the essay “Reefer Madness,” Schlosser brilliantly refines earlier writings for The Atlantic Monthlyand Rolling Stone. He places his research within a narrative about Mark Young, a thirty-eight-year-old fisherman, marijuana lover, and Harley Davidson mechanic from Indianapolis. Young played a minor role in a large marijuana-growing venture and in 1992 received a life prison sentence without possibility of parole. Schlosser introduces Young’s logic-defying case and then teases readers with bits of the story as he unfolds a much larger account. By the end, readers will have learned a great deal about the botany, history, and pharmacology of Cannabis sativa; its criminalization, decriminalization, and recriminalization; its association with anti-Mexican feeling in the Southwest; mandatory minimum sentence legislation; Leavenworth Penitentiary; and the ineffectiveness of antimarijuana policing.

Schlosser’s writing is brisk, clear, and impassioned. “A society that can punish a marijuana offender more severely than a murderer is caught in the grip of a deep psychosis,” he proclaims: “It has a bad case of reefer madness.” The causes of the boom in domestic marijuana are mainly the result of bad public policy, he says. By spraying Mexican and Colombian fields with the herbicide paraquat, ignoring the suffering of small farmers, and persistently overstating the damaging effects of the drug, the government prepared the way for its clandestine domestic production, he argues. Midwestern farmers have been especially tempted—during World War II, the “Hemp for Victory” program encouraged them to plant the crop—and corn has fallen to record low prices. When a bushel of high quality marijuana can fetch seventy thousand dollars, corn becomes prized for its ability to hide the so-called ditchweed.

Schlosser is aware of the dangers of pot usage and favors informational campaigns to warn young people of its incompatibility with academic and athletic achievement. He recommends Portugal and Spain as models for decriminalizing the possession of all drugs, “placing emphasis instead on prosecuting drug dealers and providing treatment for drug abusers.” On the whole, the more benign approaches found in Europe seem to be working, for rates of drug use there are lower than those in the United States. The...

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