Sex, drugs and cheap vegetables

In his new book, "Reefer Madness," Eric Schlosser rips into the American hypocrisy that drives pleasures of the flesh underground -- and turns a blind eye to exploited labor.

Published May 15, 2003 7:50PM (EDT)

America is a monumentally two-faced country. We love to smoke reefer, but our laws treat marijuana as if it's the same as heroin, and we sometimes hand dope dealers longer sentences than murderers. We love to ogle pictures of people having sex, but our national line is still that we're shocked, shocked by the unspeakable vileness of pornography. And to save $50 a year off our grocery bills, we close our eyes to the fact that our choicest fruits and vegetables are picked by illegal immigrants who are among the poorest workers in the country.

Hypocrisy is one of the indictments Eric Schlosser levels against America in "Reefer Madness," his smart, levelheaded look at the unpleasant truths that emerge when you turn over the rock of mainstream American business and check out what's underneath. The other is that our worship of the almighty free market leads us to ignore injustice -- because, as he points out in his discussion of illegal laborers, "giving unchecked freedom to one group usually means denying it to another." It's hard to argue with these conclusions. But Schlosser's analysis takes a back seat to the vivid portrait he paints of three funny-money zones where punitive moralism, venality and Puritanism grow as luxuriantly as 10-foot-high Humboldt County sinsemilla. Although Schlosser is a meticulous reporter who rakes the muck with the best of them -- his bestselling "Fast Food Nation" emptied out the grease trap of the fast-food industry -- "Reefer Madness" is more of a guided cultural tour, by turns infuriating, depressing and weirdly entertaining, than a polemic. "If the market does indeed embody the sum of all human wishes, then the secret ones are just as important as the ones that are openly displayed," he writes. "Like the yin and yang, the mainstream and the underground are ultimately two sides of the same thing. To know a country you just see it whole."

It isn't a pretty picture.

The title of Schlosser's book is somewhat misleading -- but in a way that proves his point about American hypocrisy. The book is ostensibly about black markets, so why is pornography one of his subjects? After all, peddling graphic images of people having sex is a more or less legit business now, an $8 billion to $10 billion industry in which stolid, respectable, often Republican-run companies rake in a lot of swag. The three groups Schlosser looks at -- marijuana dealers, growers who hire illegal immigrants to pick their crops, and porno-film magnates -- actually have very little in common other than that they all probably avoid bringing up the details of their business practices at their kids' school events. But porn has only emerged from the underground recently -- and Schlosser's point is that the unreflecting ease with which we have gone from prosecuting it and persecuting those who distribute it to consuming it en masse reveals how changeable our moral standards can be, and how wide the gap between our public pieties and private pleasures. It also shows how the almighty free market, worshipped by conservatives, opens a Pandora's Box of thoughts and desires that many of those same conservatives claim to abhor. (Although, as the case of Bill "hit me again" Bennett proves, sin is hard to eradicate from even the most spotless souls.)

Schlosser says that "the proper role of the state and the proper limits on the free market are central themes of this book." A classic liberal, he's for government control when economic justice is involved, and for individual freedom on most issues involving private moral choices; he thinks our laws should reflect a public morality that's consistent with our private one. The free market should be reined in when it perpetrates economic injustice, but marijuana and porn should be allowed to march under the banner of Adam Smith: he calls for decriminalizing marijuana for personal use and getting rid of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, and he seems open to legalizing porn altogether, like Denmark. (Schlosser notes that after porn was legalized there it briefly flooded the market, then dwindled to a trickle. But since porn is for all intents and purposes legal, absurdly ubiquitous and largely free here already, it's unclear what effect formally legalizing it would have.) But on economic crimes, like the use of illegal labor and the slick accounting tricks, overseas incorporations and other underground-economy type scams that, as Schlosser points out, mainstream companies have increasingly adopted, he believes in government intervention -- and strict sanctions. "Economic crime should be punished much more severely than behavior that is considered merely unconventional or distasteful," he writes.

Of the three classic American sins Schlosser explores -- sex, drugs and the desire for cheap vegetables (had he done a chapter on file-sharing, he could have completed the unholy trinity carved into a million high school desks) -- the best and most hard-hitting is the one on the war on marijuana. The American political establishment seems utterly impervious to reason on this issue: We continue to lock people up, invade their privacy and seize their property for possessing a drug that practically everybody has tried and most Western nations have decriminalized or legalized. Democrats refuse to touch it for fear of being accused of being "soft on drugs"; indeed, some of the bravest statements on marijuana have been made by conservatives like William F. Buckley Jr. But the ascension of Bush and Ashcroft has not helped: The sanctimony, ignorance, bad science, rage at the "cultural left," and political cowardice that has kept America benighted seems only to be getting worse.

Still, one has to believe that sooner or later the gap between America and the rest of the developed world will become so embarrassing that our policies will change. When they do, clear-thinking, quietly passionate analyses like Schlosser's will deserve much of the credit.

Schlosser starts by pointing out that the so-called war on drugs -- an intentionally misleading and hysteria-inducing phrase -- is mostly a war on marijuana. "Marijuana is and has long been the most widely used illegal drug in the United States," he notes. "It is used more frequently than all other illegal drugs combined. Approximately one-third of the American population over the age of 12 have smoked marijuana at least once. About 20 million Americans smoke it every year. More than two million smoke it every day ... The value of America's annual marijuana crop is staggering: plausible estimates start at $4 billion and range up to $25 billion. In 2001 the value of the nation's largest legal cash crop, corn, was roughly $19 billion."

Marijuana, in short, has become almost as American as apple pie. But that doesn't mean that the powers that be are prepared to wink at smoking a joint -- at least not outside of a few areas. The statistics Schlosser amasses are staggering and shameful -- even more so considering how many middle-class white people smoke the odd joint at home with impunity, while an army of poor people and minorities are being warehoused behind bars for doing exactly the same thing. "There are more people in prison today for violating marijuana laws than at any other time in American history," Schlosser writes, including 20,000 inmates in federal prison and perhaps 25,000 to 30,000 more in state prisons and local jails. An incredible 724,000 people were arrested in this country in 2001 for marijuana offenses, of which 90 percent were for simple possession.

Schlosser holds no brief for marijuana or marijuana use, and he wisely argues that it should be kept away from young people. But he refuses to accept the thin, propagandistic arguments, based on dubious science, that hard-liners use to support America's draconian marijuana laws. The notion that it is a "gateway" drug leading to heroin or cocaine use is bogus, a classic case of confusing correlation with causation. And marijuana is considerably less dangerous to one's health than alcohol. Schlosser notes that "not a single death has ever been credibly attributed directly to smoking or consuming marijuana in the 5,000 years of the drug's recorded use."

Schlosser focuses on the case of an Indiana man named Mark Young, who received a life sentence without possibility of parole for brokering the sale of 700 pounds of marijuana grown on a nearby farm. (One of the more surprising tidbits in "Reefer Madness" is that most domestic marijuana is grown not on the West Coast but in heartland states like Indiana, Illinois and Michigan. It's not surprising: He notes that a bushel of corn sells for $2, a bushel of marijuana -- which admittedly requires several hundred times more labor to produce -- for $70,000.) By contrast, the average length of incarceration for an American convicted of murder is 11 years and four months. "How does a society come to punish a man more harshly for selling marijuana than for killing someone with a gun?" Schlosser asks. The answer is not flattering to a society that likes to think of itself as enlightened.

After the harshness of the penalties themselves, perhaps the greatest injustice of the marijuana war is how unevenly they are dispensed. Class and race play a role, as do harsh sentencing laws, as does blind luck. Schlosser relates a few of the many cases in which the children of politicians got a slap on the wrist for offenses that could have earned less connected individuals 20 years. Mark Young got life (his sentence was later reduced on appeal and he is now out of prison) because of a random confluence of events. He had been convicted of two previous felonies, one more than 17 years old. His first felony was for trying to obtain diet pills with a fake prescription; his second was for possession of "a few amphetamines and Quaaludes." These heinous offenses made him a three-strike offender and a "career drug offender" -- liable to be sentenced, at the U.S. attorney's discretion, to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Schlosser follows in the footsteps of Wendy Kaminer and other writers in savaging harsh mandatory minimum and "three strikes" laws, which he argues have degraded the judicial system by putting unprecedented power in the hands of prosecutors, taking sentencing discretion away from judges and encouraging defendants to turn informer. One of the reasons that Young got life was that he refused to betray a fishing buddy who played a minor role in getting the deal together. "This guy has nothing ... This guy couldn't buy half an ounce of marijuana, okay?" Young said in a jailhouse interview with Schlosser, explaining why he didn't turn him in. Asked if he would turn him in if he had another chance, Young said, "No, I wouldn't do it any other way." In the brave new world of mandatory minimums and hysterical demonization of "drugs," Young's moral rectitude, instead of earning him a favorable evaluation and a lenient sentencing, assured that he was sentenced to life.

Young's story is chilling, but no more so than the following statistic: "The number of drug offenders imprisoned in America today -- more than 330,000 -- is much larger than the number of people imprisoned for all crimes in 1970." It is impossible to finish Schlosser's account of the failed and ruinous war on marijuana without thinking that with regard to its attitude toward drugs, American society desperately needs an intervention.

Schlosser's exploration of the burgeoning use of illegal immigrants is important in a completely different way -- because it is so underreported, and because no one cares anymore. The "Harvest of Shame" that Edward R. Murrow exposed on the day after Thanksgiving so many years ago has never gone away -- but our awareness, and our shame, have long disappeared. "The rise in the number of migrant workers in California, along with the growth in the proportion who are illegal immigrants, reflects a national trend that has passed largely unnoticed," writes Schlosser. In the days of Cesar Chavez, there were perhaps 200,000 migrant farmworkers; today, their numbers swollen by the gross disparity between what a worker can earn in Mexico and what one can earn in California, there may be a million. (Membership in the UFW, meanwhile, has plummeted.) And they are being paid far less than they were before: "The hourly wages of some California farmworkers, adjusted for inflation, have dropped more than 50 percent since 1980. Migrants are among the poorest workers in the U.S. The average migrant is a 29-year-old male, born in Mexico, who earns less than $7,500 a year for 25 weeks of farmwork. According to one estimate, his life expectancy is 49 years."

The crops most picked by illegal, exploited migrants are high-value specialty crops -- strawberries, avocados, lettuces, peaches, plums. Schlosser focuses on the strawberry harvest -- a brutal job that must be done by hand. The risks of growing strawberries are great -- an entire crop can be wiped out by a few days of rain -- which encourages growers to save money on labor costs by hiring illegals, who they underpay and don't put on the books. The real scam, though, is "sharecropping" -- the practice of letting workers become fake "owners," who are responsible for hiring workers and getting in the crop. What happens, all too often, is that the sharecropper inherits all of the risk and little or none of the reward. Schlosser exposes how this benign-sounding practice actually often condemns the sharecropper to a lifetime of debt peonage.

Schlosser acknowledges the intractability of the problem: As long as a strawberry picker in California can make far more than he could make in Mexico, illegal immigrants will flock to the California fields. (Indeed, he points out that illegal workers are increasingly moving into nonagricultural work in America's heartland, becoming meat packers and doing other jobs at wages that undercut American workers.) His solution is to raise minimum wages and enforce existing labor laws.

Schlosser makes a harrowing visit to a squalid migrant shantytown in San Diego County, where he meets an 18-year-old Mixtec man named Francisco. Francisco got up every day at 4:30 to pick strawberries for 10 or 12 hours a day. He sleeps on the ground in a 5-by-7-foot shack with two other men. In four months he saved $800, which he sent home to his parents. In the most passionate passage in the book, Schlosser writes, "Driving back to my motel that night, I thought about the people of Orange County, one of the richest counties in the nation -- big on family values, yet bankrupt from financial speculation, unwilling to raise taxes to pay for their own children's education, unwilling to pay off their debts, whining about the injustice of it, and blaming all their problems on illegal immigrants. And I thought about Francisco, their bogeyman, their scapegoat, working ten hours a day at one of the hardest jobs imaginable, and sleeping on the ground, so that he could save money and send it home to his parents."

Schlosser concludes, "No deity that men have ever worshipped is more ruthless and more hollow than the free market unchecked; there is no reason why shantytowns should not appear on the outskirts of every American city ... Left to its own devices, the free market always seeks a work force that is desperate, hungry, and cheap -- a work force that is anything but free."

The wild-card chapter in "Reefer Madness" is the final one on pornography -- specifically, on the long, strange, sad saga of a man named Reuben Sturman, a former comic book salesman from Shaker Heights, Ohio, who became the father of the modern porn industry after he discovered that people were buying more sex magazines than anything else. Sturman built his empire, in large part, by pioneering the use of peep booths, which advanced beyond "stag films" by allowing customers to watch skin flicks in private. (Hilariously, Schlosser notes that watching stag films was a completely accepted practice, sponsored by Kiwanis Clubs and other respectable organizations. As long as only men were present, the cops and judges looked the other way.) But Sturman drew the attention of the morality police, who repeatedly tried to bust him on obscenity charges -- and lost every time.

What finally did in Sturman was the same thing that did in Al Capone: taxes. Schlosser tells the engrossing tale of how a dogged federal tax investigator named Richard Rosfelder chased the elusive Sturman for almost 15 years, a convoluted cat-and-mouse game spanning several continents in which the porn mogul tried to hide his assets by using fake holding companies, picking names of "directors" out of phone books and a host of other tricks. His foes, besides just-the-facts-ma'am tax investigators like Rosfelder, were such apostles of morality as Charles Keating, a towering anti-porn crusader who was later brought low by the savings and loan scandal.

It's a pathetic tale: Sturman was sent to a minimum-security prison, escaped, but refused to flee the country because he wanted to see his wife and child. He was recaptured and ended up dying in prison. The moral of the story: sell no porn before its time. Yes, Sturman deserved prosecution for tax evasion, but he was subject to a vendetta that went far beyond his tax crimes. Today Fortune 500 companies make billions of dollars by selling graphic sex, a fact that will probably prevent America's ubiquitous scolds and bluestockings from driving it underground ever again. But it's useful to remember that just a few years ago, with great fervor and the full support of the government and the citizenry, the hounds were set loose on those who sold exactly the same thing the men in the penthouse suites are selling now.

"American society has become alienated and at odds with itself, like a personality beginning to decompose," Schlosser concludes after his tour of the underbelly of American business. It would be naive to expect America, or any society, to cease to be hypocritical overnight. But American morality is more two-faced than most nations'. After reading Schlosser's book, it's hard not to think: Wouldn't it be pleasant if this country acknowledged the facts of life, just a little?

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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