Three Easy Pieces
Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market
I know a writer who sheds the stress of her day job with a puff of pot before settling down to do her real work. She brews a cup of herbal tea, sits at her desk, pulls out her joint, opens the window, and takes one long, elegant drag. It’s hard to believe that someone could actually think this person should spend her life in prison for such a gesture. But sure enough, as Eric Schlosser reminds us in Reefer Madness, toking on a substance that has never directly caused a single death has pushed America’s vice squad to hideous levels of extremism. One of its more rabid members actually proposed legislation in 1996 demanding that anyone bringing more than two ounces of marijuana into the United States be subject to the death penalty. True, it’s 2003, and yes we have other wars on our mind, but my friend would nonetheless be well-advised to shut her window and head underground. That zealous legislator, by the way, was Newt Gingrich, a man who fought to legalize medicinal marijuana back in 1981.
Schlosser, author of the widely acclaimed Fast Food Nation, has a proven track record for investigating the inconsistencies between private behavior and public policy. In Reefer Madness, he continues to explore this disconnect as it shapes three underground activities central to the American way of life: smoking dope, hiring illegal aliens, and consuming porn. His essays have nothing directly to do with each other. They are essentially three lengthy magazine articles that can be read in any order without losing narrative flow or analytical coherence. Schlosser’s stories move rapidly and avoid over-generalizations. His revelations hinge on poignant anecdotes and unnerving statistics. As discrete essays, they shine. Collectively, they allow these seedy subcultures to widen into a maddening panorama of hypocrisy. For all of their strengths, though, these stories do not add up to anything like a larger argument. This lack of conceptual consistency would hardly matter were it not for the fact that Schlosser himself imputes to his impressive findings larger claims that they don’t support. What he ultimately delivers in Reefer Madness is a superbly investigated, vividly written, but intellectually soft book of essays.
But back to the dope. Gingrich wasn’t the only legislator to propose anti-drug laws that made him sound stoned out of his gourd. Senator Mitch McConnell advocated federal penalties for marijuana possession and distribution equivalent to those for cocaine and heroin. Congressman Bob Barr condemned supporters of medicinal marijuana as a “subversive criminal movement” conspiring to “enslave citizens.” Barr’s erstwhile colleague, Dan Burton, wrote legislation requiring death for drug dealers. Four years later–oops!–his son was busted for hauling eight pounds of pot from Texas to Indiana.
The anti-drug legislation that graduated into law isn’t a far cry from the Extremists’ proposals. In Oklahoma the possession of .005466 of an ounce of pot led to a felony conviction and life sentence for one hapless petty crook. Alabama sent a Vietnam vet to a maximum security prison with a life-without-parole sentence for buying a pound of pot from an undercover cop. Schlosser hangs the bulk of his narration on Mark Young’s Kafkaesque journey through the criminal justice system. Young is an Indiana man who was sentenced to life without parole in 1992 for introducing three marijuana buyers to two marijuana sellers. The police never found a single bud of weed on him. Throughout his short stint in the drug underworld, he was nothing more than a middleman. For that he will spend the rest of his life in prison.
Heinous miscarriages of justice in and of themselves, these cases illuminate the deeper inconsistencies marring the pathetic attempts to reign in marijuana’s sprawling black market. In Indiana, Young’s conviction outweighs the average sentence for rape or murder. In 2001, 724,000 people were arrested for violating U.S. marijuana laws. The high volume of convictions, many of which are inflated by mandatory sentencing requirements, further lowers sentences for violent criminals in order to clear cell space for minor drug offenders. In 1970, there were 3,384 drug offenders in federal prison; today there are 68,000.
The laws addressing marijuana consumption belie the reality that a large minority of our country takes Dylan’s imperative to heart when he sings “everybody must get stoned.” And they do so with total disregard of the law’s severity. In 1976, one out of 12 high school students smoked pot daily. As anti-drug legislation became more punitive, pot usage spiked. Almost 90 percent of high-schoolers today report that the drug is “fairly easy” or “very easy” to obtain. The real proof of consumption, however, is in the production. America grows a massive amount of doobage. In fact, many drug enforcement authorities estimate that pot is the largest cash crop in the United States, “right up there with corn and soybeans.” Some agents guess that America harbors about 100,000 to 200,000 commercial pot growers. Chances are that someone you know is currently stoned.
Predictably, the gaping fissure between law and reality leads Schlosser to advocate pot’s legalization. “The decriminalization of marijuana,” he writes, “should be the first step towards a rational drug policy.” Less predictable, however is Schlosser’s refreshing justification for his position. Unconvinced by libertarian rationalizations for legalization, he works from the more sophisticated premise that “the expansion of America’s underground economy stemmed . . . from a growing sense of alienation, anger at authority, and disrespect for the law.” In other words, he suggests that the criminalization of a culturally acceptable product encourages otherwise law-abiding folk to flaunt the law. By linking the legalization of pot to the establishment of civic order, Schlosser cleverly couches his argument in terms that force conservatives to put down their golf clubs and scratch their heads. As Schlosser frames it, to oppose legalization is to support civil unrest, however subversive or quiet that unrest may be. And can’t civil unrest become a gateway to more serious modes of rebellion? (Recall, as Schlosser does not, the slippery slope in the 1920s between frequenting speakeasies and participating in mob activity.) With legalization, moreover, the demand for effective federal regulation would automatically increase, as a governmental apparatus would have to establish drug education programs, substance abuse organizations, and distribution systems. And although Schlosser never mentions it, enormous tax revenues would also have to be collected. (Can you imagine what kind of public schools we’d have if they were funded with tax revenue from the sale of marijuana? Okay, then how about a voucher system?)
Schlosser’s next essay investigates the illegal immigrants working California’s strawberry fields. Whereas the underground participants in his first essay suffered the overzealous attempts at law enforcement, they were a fairly mellow cohort. Not so the migrant workers, who are categorically distraught, overworked, indebted, and injured. Statistics bear out their pain. Although they “are in effect subsidizing the most important sector of the California economy,” migrant workers in the strawberry industry make about $7,500 a year. They live on average to be 49 years old. Typical living arrangements are four men to a 120-square-foot room with a bathroom down the hall or outside. Historically, the wages that an illegal worker smuggled back to Mexico far exceeded what he would have made at home. Now, however, migrants routinely fall into in crippling debt. Growers have rigged up an especially insidious employment arrangement whereby Spanish-speaking workers sign elaborate contracts written in English allowing growers to smother them in debt at a 19-percent interest rate. “Under the old arrangement,”
Schlosser writes, “if things went wrong sharecroppers would simply not be paid for their hard work; under the new one, they are being saddled with thousands of dollars in debt.” “Every sharecropper I met,” he adds, “was in dire financial straits.”
There ought to be a law. Well, turns out there are dozens–all designed to benefit the growers. Theoretically, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), passed by Congress in 1986, should have protected immigrant workers from the most egregious forms of economic exploitation. But with only 200 federal inspectors to California’s million private employers, enforcement remains lax at best. In the unlikely event that an employer is in fact busted, fines run from $250 to $3,000–a miniscule fraction of what it would cost to do honest business. IRCA further contradicted its purported mission by including an amnesty waiver for illegal immigrants who could prove that they had worked on a farm the year before. This provision spawned a frantic and successful quest for phony documentation that granted a million illegal immigrants legal status, thus insuring the oversupply so essential to union busting and exploitation. “Instead of stemming illegal immigration,” Schlosser writes, “IRCA actually encouraged it.”
The juxtaposition of the marijuana and illegal workers’ underworlds reveals the arbitrariness of regulation and, as Schlosser sees it, “America’s wildly split personality.” On the one hand, we spend billions of dollars to suppress what for many Americans is a routine (and relatively harmless) activity that makes you giggle a lot and eat potato chips. On the other, we do practically nothing to regulate the kind of labor exploitation that would have made an ante-bellum cotton planter proud. Of course, as Schlosser suggests, it’s really not so arbitrary. At the end of the second essay, he ratchets up the rhetoric and approaches something of a generalization. In short, he finally gets mad:
We have been told for years to bow down before “the market.” We have placed our faith in the laws of supply and demand. What has been forgotten, or ignored, is that the market rewards only efficiency. Every other human value gets in the way . . . . Left to its own devices, the free market always seeks a work force that is hungry, desperate, and cheap–a workforce that is anything but free.
Bravo. But as powerful as the point may be, this apt conclusion to the second essay does not apply to the first essay. In fact, it contradicts it. As Schlosser repeatedly affirms, Americans do not obey the divine orchestrations of the invisible hand when it comes to smoking pot. The forces preventing American agribusiness from commercializing marijuana are strictly cultural inhibitions that run counter to the economic logic defining Schlosser’s rigid view of the free market. Economists from Max Weber to John Kenneth Galbraith have struggled to explain the complicated ways in which capitalism and culture tangled throughout modern history. Limiting himself to the free market as defined by Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, a book written before the era of mass media, Schlosser sometimes delivers categorical pronouncements without assessing their applicability to all of his case studies. The “free market,” after all, must make sense of the common perceptions that pot saps motivation and makes men grow boobs. Call it the marketplace of irrationality, for these ideas hardly breed efficiency.
Schlosser’s final essay on the porn mogul Reuben Sturman engages the familiar themes of law enforcement, market regulation, and the underground economy. The story, a version of which appeared in an April New Yorker, has it all: a man who made billions on the quarters that ran his peep show booths, a quixotic young FBI agent, an underworld teeming with thugs (mostly mafia), tax evasion, and even a prison escape. You won’t learn much about crazy sex acts, though, because the bulk of this tale deals with the least titillating factor on the list: taxes. Sturman was indifferent about pornography as a moral issue. He got off on making money, so much so that he couldn’t part with a dime it. His evasion schemes were foxy and brilliant. His persona was defiant and bold. He repeatedly fended off obscenity charges, mocking the agents on his tail. He gave handwriting samples in big block letters. He wore a Groucho Marx mask to court. Sturman eventually went down, consumed by greed, and as he did, the porn industry left the underworld and exploded into the mainstream, where, writes Schlosser, “a free market can efficiently gear production to meet consumer demand.” Tracing this development, he concludes, “The critics of porn may not like what they see, but must confront an awkward, underlying truth: sometimes the price of freedom is what freedom brings.”
Here, here–freedom of expression! But wait a second. Now we have the third essay’s conclusion bucking against the second essay. With respect to migrant workers, Schlosser wants intensive governmental regulation. With porn, though, he wants the government to stay out of his pants. I understand the distinction, as would any liberal. However, Schlosser impugns conservatives for doing precisely the same thing, albeit in the other direction. “Certain things cannot be sold because they are immoral,” he disapprovingly writes, “while other things–such as the exploitation of illegal immigrants, their poverty and poor health–hardly raise a moral qualm.” What do you know? I guess when it comes to governmental intervention, we all want to have our cake and eat it too.
Which brings us to this book’s main strength and weakness: Schlosser’s brilliant case studies reveal the free market’s bi-polar relationship with the government. It has been with us throughout history and it’s a relationship so fraught with tension on both ends of the political spectrum, that even Schlosser himself gets trapped in its vacillations. Swerving back and forth, however, allows him to understand the underworld from many perspectives, and while it may take a mind like James Madison’s to unify the vast mess of the underworld into a coherent political and economic theory, for now we can rest easy that Eric Schlosser has told us why it matters in the first place.
James McWilliams is a law-abiding resident of Austin.