Notes from the underground

How come porn is legal but dealing pot can get you a life sentence? Because the free market is a myth, says author Eric Schlosser.

Published May 15, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

In the United States, growing and selling the nation's largest cash crop can earn a farmer $70,000 a bushel, and life in prison without the possibility of parole, according to Eric Schlosser's new book, "Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market." But while growing a weed may draw a life sentence, "legitimate" agribusiness is equally suspect -- depending on illegal, migrant workers making as little as $5 a day to pick and pack stigma-free strawberries.

Eric Schlosser made his reputation with his gross-out, muckraking exposé "Fast Food Nation." Now, in his follow-up, a collection of three interlinked essays, Schlosser traces the estimated 10 percent of America's gross domestic product that exists in the "shadow economy": illicit, tax-free and underground.

Reporting from marijuana farms in Indiana and migrant labor shantytowns in California, Schlosser explores the question of what the black market can tell us about the free market. He concludes that what society considers illegal, immoral and shameful today has a lot to do with who is buying and who is selling. Yesterday's cardinal sin, for example, pornography, is today's legal, mainstream, titillating good time, brought to you by AOL Time Warner, Sheraton and Marriott.

In an interview with Salon, Schlosser explained what Bill Bennett's gambling habit has to do with that fat joint you've been saving to puff right before seeing "The Matrix Reloaded."

You report that 20,000 Americans are in federal prison for pot offenses, yet 20 million Americans smoke pot every year. Why do you think the public accepts the crackdown on pot?

I think a lot of it has to do with who is paying the price of the laws, and how much it affects middle-class America. People who have gotten just insanely long sentences for pot tend to be poor people and working people. It's remarkable how -- if your father is a congressman -- you're not likely to get one of those big, long sentences for pot.

I write in the book about one congressman's son who may have been tied to a conspiracy that shipped about 30,000 pounds of pot. It looked like he wasn't going to get any time at all, until he started failing his drug tests for cocaine while out on bail. He wound up getting two and a half years.

So, many people might not be aware how strict the laws actually are?

I wasn't aware at all. When I started reporting this in 1993, I had no idea that you could get life without parole for a nonviolent marijuana crime. Now, that was a while ago, and there's been more news about it since then, but I can guarantee you that most Americans who smoke pot have no idea what the possible penalties are.

Since the book went to the printer, I got sent a clipping from Alabama. This principal of an Alabama high school was pissed off that kids were smoking pot. So, he invited in cops ... One of the undercover agents at the school bought three ounces from a high school senior who had never been arrested for any crime, had never been charged with any crime before in his life.

He sold three ounces to an undercover cop, and they made an example of him. He got 26 years. That's a lot of time for pot, and it's based on this very moralistic view of what's permissible, and what's not permissible. I'm not telling anyone to go smoke pot, and I'm not waving the cannabis flag high. I'm just trying to look at this almost like an anthropologist from a different planet, and see what is going on here.

What do you think it's about?

It's clearly not about the plant. It's about other stuff. I mean, I'm sure you've been reading about Bill Bennett's gambling. And his explanation, I think, is a beautiful one when applied to many other things in life.

When asked about his gambling, he said: It's like drinking. If you can't handle it, don't do it. That's fine for him to say about gambling, which was illegal across the United States, everywhere except Nevada, as recently as 1978, but he clearly has no problem with marijuana offenders getting massive prison sentences. I think that smoking pot is probably not as harmful for you as compulsive gambling.

These are very arbitrary decisions about where the market is free, and where the market is restricted.

How do you think mandatory minimum sentences distort convictions under the drug laws?

We have witnessed an extraordinary increase in prosecutorial power. Once you have the power to charge someone for a mandatory sentence, you have an incredibly strong threat to make in your plea-bargaining sessions.

It's more likely that the prosecutor is going to get what he or she wants, not only from the person being charged but in terms of testimony against others.

In a lot of ways the war on drugs provided a template for how the war on terrorism is now being waged domestically. The PATRIOT Act is in many ways just an extension of the war on drugs that we've had here for the last 15 or 16 years, except that now they don't even have to charge you.

But you write that Democrats have actually been tougher on pot smokers than Republicans. For instance, more people were arrested for marijuana under the Clinton presidency than any other.

And more people were sent to prison under Clinton than any other. My next book is on prisons, and when you look at the war on drugs, and you look at the growth of our gigantic prison system, liberal Democrats bear an enormous responsibility for it.

One of the worst of all is Mario Cuomo. The great liberal hope of the Democratic Party opposed the death penalty on very moral grounds, but by opposing the death penalty he made himself vulnerable to accusations that he was soft on crime ... [So] Cuomo put more people in prison than all the other governors in the history of New York combined. And you see this again and again with liberal Democrats. It's like the McCarthy era. They want to seem tougher than tough, more American.

But meanwhile, New York Mayor Bloomberg has bragged, yes, I smoked pot, and I enjoyed it.

There are a number of very conservative Republicans -- William F. Buckley, George Schultz, Milton Friedman -- who think that the war on drugs, and particularly the war on marijuana, is a disaster.

Then you get someone like [Secretary of Health and Human Services] Donna Shalala, who was probably the most liberal member of Clinton's Cabinet, trying on the Nancy Reagan outfit, making it this moral thing, and it's very sad.

Democrats are afraid of looking like the pot smoker party, so they have to exaggerate in the other direction?

Absolutely. They are afraid of seeming soft on drugs, and soft on crime. And again the people who are getting screwed over are not people who are going to be major contributors.

Yet, pot may actually be the largest cash crop in the United States, without any federal agricultural subsidies. How did pot become such a big cash crop in the Midwest?

Well, no one knows for sure that it's all coming from the Midwest. But it's logical that it would, because this is the agricultural heartland. And marijuana grows very well in the same conditions that corn does. It's just worth a hell of a lot more.

A bushel of corn sells for $2, and a bushel of marijuana for $70,000. And those are the workings of the market right there. When you start sentencing people to life in prison for marijuana, you greatly increase the value of marijuana.

This is a weed. It grows wild in all 50 states. It's hard to kill. Most of us who couldn't grow a thing could probably grow some marijuana if we wanted to. So, in the absence of these really tough laws against it, it's not going to be a very lucrative commodity.

But the toughness of the laws correlate to the price, so a lot of marijuana is now worth more per ounce than gold, which is a huge incentive for people all over the United States to grow it, and sell it, and profit from it.

When you write about porn, you focus on the little-known Cleveland porn mogul Reuben Sturman, who dominated the industry for decades. Now that pornography is more mainstream, what does his story say about the black market?

In pornography you have an incredibly black-market commodity that becomes a mainstream corporate commodity.

It's not fully legal ... but for some reason when hundreds of millions of dollars are being earned by AOL Time Warner, Hilton, Marriott and Sheraton from pornography I think you're less likely to see pornography prosecutions than when the money was being earned by these fringe characters, organized crime figures, the Reuben Sturmans.

He is the transitional figure from the "stag films" being shown at Kiwanis Clubs and fraternities to Hilton and Sheraton and AOL Time Warner just beaming it right to your TV.

What's remarkable again is that Lenny Bruce was imprisoned for saying "fuck," for saying a swear word in his nightclub act, and that's nothing compared to what you can get most nights on HBO.

With so many states facing fiscal disaster right now, do you think that state governments will legalize more of the current black markets because they want the tax revenue? For instance, when you write about pot, you say that Americans currently spend more money on illegal drugs than they do on cigarettes. And that's all tax-free.

It's definitely in the states' interest to do so. I think that the ways in which states have been legalizing gambling is absolutely a first step. But I think that the states are not going to be able to do much on marijuana. That's going to have to come at the federal level.

Our current administration is amazingly in favor of states' rights. That's one reason why some Republicans want to make the federal minimum wage voluntary, so that the states can do whatever they want.

But on the issue of drug policy and counting federal election ballots, for some reason states' rights does not apply, and the power of the federal government is supreme.

But I'm oddly optimistic about it. I don't think that you're going to see packs of marijuana on sale next to Marlboros anytime soon. But if you look at our policies on marijuana, they're just so out of step with the rest of the civilized world.

Canada is right now planning to decriminalize marijuana, and Canada is supplying pot through the national health service to people who are sick, so it's kind of hard for the U.S. government to say there is no safe level of use of marijuana and it has absolutely no medical use when our neighbor to the north is providing it under the national health service. That's going to be the case throughout Europe as well.

When you cover black market labor, you write about the dismal living conditions in migrant-worker shantytowns: 22 people living in a two-bedroom apartment. But you also say that the American people have greeted recent revelations about the plight of migrants with indifference. Why do you think that is?

The average migrant nationwide earns about $7,500 a year. In Florida, it's about $6,500 a year. In the book, I talk about how in California, adjusted for inflation, migrant worker wages have dropped 50 percent. In Florida, adjusted for inflation, a lot of migrant worker wages have dropped 75 percent, since around 1980. So, you're having the poorest of the poor in America having their wages cut in half or cut by three-quarters.

Why don't people care? I think on the one hand, despite the bubble economy of the last 15 years, a lot of ordinary people have been working hard just to get by on their own, and spouses both have to work in order to maintain a stable income. So, it's been harder to be compassionate about people that you never come in contact with.

And I also think that the connection between having this second-class status worker and ordinary people's lives hasn't been clear ... I'm trying to show how this is a very corrosive phenomenon.

It starts in one place, and then it extends to other places, and you could pretty soon have autoworkers who are illegal immigrants. There's no reason that the kinds of shantytowns that are in San Diego County couldn't be all over the United States, like the slums outside of São Paulo.

What would help?

The states can do more in terms of minimum wages and enforcing labor laws. But there are a lot of mainstream Republicans who want to eliminate the federal minimum wage or make it voluntary, because a minimum wage law represents tampering with the market.

We have this government right now that is so committed to deregulation, to getting environmental laws and worker-safety laws and overtime laws off of business' back in the interest of the free markets, and yet the most important commodity that's traded in the world by far is oil, whose price and production levels are set by a cartel that meets every few months to literally decide: What do we want the price to be? And how much should we pump?

And I'm kind of surprised that the Bush administration has never made a peep about how OPEC violates the free market. They want trade sanctions against the E.U. because the E.U. will not accept genetically engineered foods, in violation of the free market, and not a peep is made about OPEC.

The free market is an absolute myth. Governments are intervening all the time, whether it's to buy new tanks or to build new roads, and I'm all in favor of that. But if the government is going to intervene maybe it should intervene on behalf of the poorest people every now and then, and maybe it shouldn't intervene on what grown-ups do in the privacy of their bedrooms that has nothing to do with anyone else.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Katharine Mieszkowski

Related Topics ------------------------------------------