Originally created 07/01/03

Book review: Fast-food investigator now probes pot, porn and produce-pickers

"Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market." By Eric Schlosser. Houghton Mifflin. 310 Pages. $23.


No matter what adherents of economist Adam Smith believe, "the workings of a market are ultimately subject to human, not divine, intervention," Eric Schlosser asserts in a new book.

"Reefer Madness," his wildly entertaining and scrupulously researched analysis of the American underground economy, questions whether markets are ever free. Schlosser shows people and government all too often choosing to intervene in destructive ways.

More important, he reveals the human stories hidden behind legal and economic theories.

As he did in "Fast Food Nation" (2001), his imaginative and sobering account of the pursuit of cheap eats, Schlosser proves to be a brilliant cultural historian. Vibrant storytelling lays the basis for an array of statistics as he examines marijuana prosecutions, illegal labor in California agriculture and the decades-long investigation of a king of pornography.

Pot and porn are linked by not only their outlaw status but because they mean big bucks. The United States grows as much as $25 billion worth of marijuana a year, Schlosser says, while Americans spend upward of $10 billion on "adult entertainment."

He opens "Reefer Madness" with the story of Mark Young, an Indiana man who was sentenced to a life term without parole for brokering the sale of - but not actually selling, buying or growing - 700 pounds of marijuana.

Schlosser says laws that apply a high minimum sentence, like the one applied to Young, often hand the judiciary's role to overzealous prosecutors. No physical evidence linked Young to the crime, and he was convicted by testimony from conspirators who made deals for reduced jail time.

The human toll of the war on drugs can be shown by statistics, Schlosser says: About 20,000 marijuana offenders are in federal prison, with that same number in state and local jails.

But he's not content to go by the numbers, as he visits Young in prison and a range of others caught up in the industry - pot gurus, drug enforcement agents, prosecutors and affected families.

Keeping marijuana illegal means maintaining a high price and diverting coveted federal dollars to law enforcement. Schlosser prefers strict regulation, focusing on the protection of children.

Schlosser's freewheeling and engrossing section on pornography shows that prosecutors have targeted it as they have marijuana, but on two fronts: obscenity and financial impropriety.

Reuben Sturman, a porn magnate, was investigated for decades but never convicted on obscenity charges. Instead, he was brought down by fraud and tax prosecutions, which Schlosser documents in sometimes hilarious, sometimes heart-rending detail.

Ironically, Sturman's downfall and the simultaneous high-tech boom sparked competition in the porn industry. More people can now produce and consume the product, in private settings outside the purview of government.

"In 2001, Americans spent about $465 million ordering adult movies on pay-per-view," Schlosser notes. "Most of the money was earned by well-known companies that don't boast about their links with the sex trade."

Schlosser again focuses on colorful characters, but he plays down the plight of porn-industry workers. This is odd because one of the most affecting parts of the book is his report on the use of illegal immigrants by California strawberry growers.

He describes a sharecropping enterprise where workers shoulder debt for growers and Mexicans work long hours for little pay. "Illegal immigrants, widely reviled and often depicted as welfare cheats, are in effect subsidizing the most important sector of the California economy," he says.

Schlosser disputes the idea that people won't pay the prices necessary for higher wages. "Maintaining the current level of poverty among migrant farmworkers saves the average American household" only "about $50 a year," he asserts.

Cheap labor affects markets in other ways. It discourages innovation, which is crucial to remaining competitive with foreign producers. Also, when growers suggest creating low-cost housing in areas such as San Diego, homeowners lament the possible decrease in property values.

The essays collected here are fascinating as much for how they diverge as for how they link, and the questions they raise far outnumber the answers they provide. It's to Schlosser's credit that he's not afraid to loose the reins and let the subjects drive the stories, rather than try to fit them all into one tidy conclusion.


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