The Bookworm: Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market

Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market, by Eric Schlosser. 336 pages. Mariner Books. 2003.

In at least twenty states, federally mandated “smoke a joint, lose your license” statutes now suspend a person’s driving license after a conviction for any marijuana crime, regardless of where that person was arrested. A person who has never operated a vehicle under the influence of marijuana may still lose the right to drive. Indeed, being caught smoking a joint on the couch of your living room, with your car parked safely in the driveway, can lead to a harsher punishment than being arrested for driving drunk. (p. 27)

After reading Eric Schlosser’s Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market, I will never look at strawberries the same way again.

Divided into three parts, Reefer Madness is an informative, entertaining, and at times enraging examination of the black market in the United States. Schlosser delves into the shadow economies revolving around marijuana, illegal immigration, and pornography. Though it’s a little outdated now — it was first published in 2003 — it is still an engaging and enlightening read. And the underground industries Schlosser examines are still chugging along, bigger than ever, meeting our voracious demand for the things we buy in the store, online, or in dark corners from people we would never otherwise associate with.

First of all, it took me way too long to read this book. My excuses: a lack of time and laziness when I did have time. Reading, much like blogging and writing, has taken a far backseat in my life because of other obligations. This fall, though, I hope to have a lot more time. I decided to stop writing longer stories and event notices for the LV, which should free up a lot of time and sanity, and clear away the deadlines weighing on my conscience. Plus, I have not taken any time off and could use some evenings — or perhaps a week or two — to recover from a hectic spring and summer. The best time of year is approaching and I want to enjoy it without burdening myself with so many unnecessary obligations.

Anyway, I picked up Reefer Madness at The Haunted Bookshop. I was mostly interested in its coverage of drugs, especially marijuana. To me, our federal prohibition on marijuana is ridiculous and I have thought about getting involved with the local NORML chapter. (The overarching “war on drugs” is, I think, a colossal waste of money that benefits nobody but the prison-industrial complex and pharmaceutical companies. I’m not sure how I feel about ending the prohibition on all drugs, though. If whatever my neighbor sensibly enjoys in the privacy of his own home does not adversely affect anyone else or the environment, then I suppose I have no problem with it. Some drugs, of course, do not pass that test.) Reading Reefer Madness bolstered my current opinion and resolve to affect change. Schlosser did an incredible job of outlining the debate regarding legalization and medicinal benefits, the differing policies toward marijuana across the globe (including north of the border in Canada), its legal history in the US, the government’s crackdown on users and producers with mandatory minimum sentences, and humanizing the impact of our current policies.

The second section on the exploitation of migrant farm workers was eye-opening. Schlosser chronicles the hardships and servitude suffered by strawberry pickers in California. Growers rely heavily on cheap migrant labor, which is exploited to no end. Some workers, who dream of owning their own land, are systematically entrapped in debt through the false promises of sharecropping. Lax labor laws and large corporate interests veiling the eyes of public officials mean workers have no recourse. Immigrants who slept inside on beds in Mexico now live in caves and sleep on the ground in the United States. As bad as life is for the strawberry pickers in California, Schlosser reveals how much worse life can be for the migrant farm workers in Florida. Schlosser writes that Florida Governor Jeb Bush and state legislators were given large donations from Florida’s agricultural interests in the early-oh’s and conveniently turned a blind eye to the essential enslavement of migrant workers by labor contractors. One “kept hundreds of farmworkers in captivity, forced them to work six days a week, sometimes for free, and threatened to cut out their tongues (p. 230).” Even worse is this:

Illegals are being forced to pay off their debts in all sorts of ways, amid a thriving trade in human cargo. A Florida smuggling ring lured dozens of teenage girls from Mexico with promises of jobs as housecleaners, babysitters, and waitresses. Instead they were put to work in brothels to pay off their debts. The brothels were filthy old trailers set near citrus groves and tomato fields to service migrant workers. The young women were forced to have sex with twenty to thirty men a day and were paid just $3 for each customer. They were charged for room and board and kept constantly in debt. At least one of the girls was fourteen. Those who tried to escape were often beaten and raped. (p. 233)

And Jeb Bush wants to be our president…

The third and longest section in Reefer Madness focuses on pornography. Schlosser recounts the story of Reuben Sturman, the man who essentially controlled the entire US porn industry for decades — from Cleveland — and the battles he fought against the government, much like Larry Flint. Sturman’s story was masterfully braided with pornography’s rollercoaster ride of legality and efforts by government officials and administrations to censor material it deemed obscene. Though pornography isn’t as much a part of the black market as it was at one time, and I wish Schlosser would have focused on prostitution, too, the third section was a good read.

Though a little outdated now, Reefer Madness is a well-written, informative, and excellent book.

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