Houghton Mifflin, 304 pp., $23
Eric Schlosser has a way of getting under America's skin. In last year's best-selling tour-de-force Fast Food Nation, he opened up a Pandora's box of horror stories concerning the nation's love affair with fast food. When Schlosser shined a bright light into the backrooms and kitchens of all of those franchise restaurants, the roaches began to scatter. Perhaps this revealing report on the country's gastronomical state of affairs caused the reported loss of sales at several of the largest peddlers of fast food.
An Atlantic Monthly correspondent, Schlosser is back again, but this time his spotlight is pointed toward another American pastime: making money. The U.S. economy is the most powerful one in the world. However, beyond the scrutiny of most ordinary citizens is another shadow economy, a darker and illicit style of doing business. Its transactions are illegal, off the books, unrecorded and unreported. I am referring to what is popularly known as the "black market." While many people are familiar with this term due to suspense films and espionage thriller paperbacks, what many people don't understand is just how prevalent it is, and how big business is reaping the rewards of these criminal practices. In Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market, Schlosser dissects the American economy and examines how it has affected society, either for good or bad.
The book is broken down into three parts. "Reefer Madness" looks at the marijuana industry and the legal system; "Strawberry Fields" explores the plight of illegal aliens and the harvesting of strawberry crops--the most labor intensive produce to raise and harvest; and in "An Empire of the Obscene," we are given behind-the-scenes access to the thriving pornography business, where Fortune 500 companies are surprisingly involved in this most distasteful of enterprises.
Well-researched and thoughtfully laid out, Reefer Madness analyzes the relationship between America's desire for wealth and its puritanical ethos. Assuming that our society and its economy is akin to that of an individual's personality and history, we need to look beyond the mere superficial appearance to really get the full story. The underground market is similar to the many secrets we all harbor; things that are not readily revealed or that cause us guilt and shame. According to Schlosser, many of today's businesses have much to hide and plenty to be ashamed of. The author makes us question the assorted variables that can cause the market to suddenly shift, that cause a certain activity to be judged illegal, and question where wealth comes from.
This book is bound to cause some controversy, simply based on the facts presented within. One of the more horrifying stories is the case of one Mark Young of Indiana. Sentenced to life in prison without parole for his minor role in a marijuana deal gone terribly wrong, Young's sentence was much more severe than for an offender tried for armed robbery, rape or murder. Young was never convicted of drug trafficking, possession or distribution. He was convicted solely by the testimony of the other individuals that were arrested that decided to co-operate with the government in a plea bargain. Young's role was strictly that of a middleman between the buyer and the seller, and his sentence was finally reduced to 12 and a half years. During that time his wife divorced him and his personal life was destroyed.
Schlosser questions the sanity of a legal system that issues a harsher sentence to a man selling marijuana than a man convicted of homicide. I was disturbed by the frightening fact that violent offenders are being let out of prisons in order to accommodate the 20,000 inmates jailed for various marijuana offenses. Currently there are more people in state and federal jails for marijuana than at any other time in the nation's history. The government's tough laws regarding marijuana have spurred unparalleled growth in our prison systems, leading to overcrowding, corruption, and a justice system bogged down in low-level drug cases. The end result of the government's war on drugs is a jolting wake up call: "billions of dollars spent so far at the state, federal, and local levels to fight marijuana; 10 million Americans arrested for marijuana offenses; about a quarter of million people convicted of marijuana felonies and sent to prison for at least a year." Despite all of these efforts the supply and demand of this hardy weed has not been reduced.
Schlosser should be commended for his insightful reporting. By asking the difficult questions that most of us shun and examining the hypocrisy of our culture, Schlosser acts as the voice of reason, forcing us to contemplate our belief in the free market and ultimately in our choice of right from wrong.