Reefer Madness

I expected to get a lot more reading done in Canada, having entered the week wondering if my two books — Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask and Gregory Colon Semenza’s Graduate Study for the 21st Century — would sustain me. And while I did dig a bit into the latter, I jettisoned The Ask once I tore into the intro to my wife’s second pick for the week: Reefer Madness, Eric Schlosser’s focused, investigative look at the American black market.

Anyone who reads regularly (or breathes) should recognize Schlosser as one of two leading authors on contemporary food politics (the other being Michael Pollan). I haven’t read his main claim to fame, Fast Food Nation (FFN), but remember liking “Why McDonald’s Fries Taste Good” from the Atlantic in the early oughts, and of course I’ve seen Food Inc., which I imagine is a hybrid product of Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and FFN. But after reading Reefer Madness, I might read it. (I’m also now sorry I missed Schlosser’s visit to Syracuse last March.) Reefer Madness is a little outdated with drafts appearing as early as the mid 90s in national magazines like the Atlantic, but I had a difficult time putting it down, toting it to doctors offices, boat rides, etc. The book persuasively executes wide and narrow scopes using data and narrative to explore the black markets of marijuana (“Reefer Madness”), illegal migrant labor (“In the Strawberry Fields”), and porn (“An Empire of the Obscene”).

My quick take on the content:

“Reefer Madness” – The decriminalization of marijuana is a no brainer and it’s maddening to read about hemp prohibition’s effect on our legal system. The discrepancies in penalties in particular, is distressing. (Here’s a shortcut.) Twenty grams or less in New York will lead to a $100 fine, while the same amount in Florida can lead to a misdemeanor and 1 year in jail. And mandatory minimum sentences essentially move sentencing power from jurors and judges to prosecuting attorneys, subverting our basic legal system.

“In the Strawberry Fields” – Schlosser’s shortest chapter, on California’s illegal migrant strawberry pickers, is a helpful digest on immigration issues in the US prior to 2003 and good starting point for folks like me who know very little about immigration reform. Since 1980, Schlosser notes, the hourly wage of the California farmworker dropped by 50%, mostly thanks to policies that have encouraged growers to hire the cheapest laborer possible. And that’s really still the issue today. Most folks agree that the deplorable wages ($6-8 per hour in California) preclude most Americans from even considering these strenuous jobs. It’s a given. So introducing any strict, serious immigration reform would create a worker vacuum that would harm specific economies in central California and beyond. But instead of raising wages or trying to protect migrant’s from exploitation (“There’s nothing more permanent than temporary workers” says one economist), states like Arizona and South Carolina have instead adopted cat/mouse local enforcement policies that try to catch as catch can. And House Republicans just introduced the Legal Workforce Act (AKA the E-Verify Bill), which would require business owners to use an expensive federal database to check workers’ SS#s against a central database to see if they’re legal. The LA Times has good coverage on the bill, which has several of its own problems.

“An Empire of the Obscene” – The last essay in Schlosser’s book explores the rise of the porn industry after 1950 through the captivating story of Reuben Sturman, a distributor first of adult magazines, but later of peep machines and films. When various local, state and federal agencies could not bring Sturman down with obscenity charges, they went after his tax record. Eventually he was caught hiding millions of dollars in offshore accounts and served time for tax evasion, and later extortion. Of the three essays in the book, the last one is the most narrative driven. After reading his story, readers should feel amazed that hadn’t ever heard of Sturman, who died in 1997 (about the same time Schlosser was crafting early versions of this essay).

As I finished Reefer Madness, I wondered how well the book would hold up in an undergraduate research writing class. The book could be used as an interesting springboard for various inquiries into capitalism or the black market (and all could use some updating), or the chapters could be treated as separate essays used in more focused inquires on sex workers, marijuana, or illegals. A predictable but major issue comp instructors would have to address is Schlosser’s soft documentation. Presumably to aid with readability, Schlosser cites vaguely, using 60+ back pages for “notes” on methods and sources, which I admit I probably could have spent more time with. Otherwise, though, the books successfully blends numbers with characters, establishing shots with close-ups, and manages to check self-righteousness at the door and let the muckraker’s research do the talking.