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

Author: Eric Schlosser
Publisher: Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co, 2003
Review Published: May 2004

 REVIEW 1: Dianna Dilworth

Reading Eric Schlosser would be more like reading a good novelist than a social critic if it were not for his rigid attention to prevalent research and factual data. His style is as exciting as good fiction with an acute narrative form that keeps the pages turning. In his recent book, Reefer Madness, he explores America's economic and cultural underground, a place that exists seemingly both in contrast to and in conjunction with the overground legitimized economy.

The book is broken down into three essays: "Reefer Madness," exploring the marijuana trade in the US; "In the Strawberry Fields," a document of migrant workers in California; and "An Empire of the Obscene," a look at the history of the American pornography industry. Each essay intricately explores these topics through both general facts and figures combined with personal case studies.

The story begins with a look at the schizophrenic relationship between the public disapproval and the private consumption of pot, America's most popular drug. Schlosser claims that in actuality, marijuana is America's largest cash crop, beating out maize, the most lucrative documented cash crop. Though these figures are impossible to accurately concur, the book does successfully prove through lists of documented cases that pot is definitely a big player in the farming game in the US economy, highlighting the inconsistencies in social acceptability and punishment extremity from state to state and from person to person. For example, while a politician's son got off with a handslap, a blind patient was sentenced to death row for smoking medicinal marijuana.

"Reefer Madness" is an important social critique in the rhetoric of America's drug prevalence and resistance. According to the book, marijuana is illegal in most Western European countries outside of the Netherlands (there is Christiania in Denmark where it is legal), however the laws are much lighter and are not as actively enforced. There are also many places where on the books it is illegal, but is very commonly accepted in practice in public spaces.

The shortest and perhaps saddest essay is "Strawberry Fields," a look into the lives of hundreds of thousands of exploited illegal immigrants that keep produce alive and cheap in this country. What would seem like the tales of people living in a corrupt "third world" or the life of a feudal farmer from the Dark Ages is the tale of multiplying thousands in San Diego, Santa Cruz, and Los Angeles. Inactive law enforcers, exploitative growers, and their sharecropping systems keep the profit margins out of control, the illegal immigrants flowing in, and condemnable shantytowns growing into high end suburban backyards. Once again, Schlosser addresses a problem that is growing exponentially and spreading throughout the country. And once again, he highlights the mental illness suffered in a society that is willing to ignore human rights and long-term populations issues for high revenue.

"Empire of the Obscene" is the history of the spread of pornography in this country and is told by Schlosser primarily according to the tale of its founder, Reuben Sturman, from Cleveland, OH. Sturman was the founder of the distribution of pornographic materials. He got his start for his company, Premium Sales Company, which began was a comic book store/mail order distributor for pornographic magazines. Due to the illegal nature of his company and his tax evasion, he opened and closed over a hundred of different companies. Through his shrewd business sense and his knack for illegal distribution and tax evasion, and coupled with the rapid development of technology, he made pornography what it is today, a multi billion dollar business.

Schlosser's version of Reuben Sturman's story is the sad tale of an anachronistic man crushed by a new era. Sturman draws a great resemblance to Fiztgerald's last great tycoon, whose old world charming ways of conducting business were finally lost through the combination of vague obscenity laws and tax evasion, cheap home video's lowered standards, and big business media companies. What was once a relatively underground client base has become the household product of such major media corporations as EchoStar, DirecTV, AT&T Broadband, and AOL Timewarner, grossing as much annually from the sales of pornographic magazines, videos, and web sites as that of Hollywood films.

Especially interesting to readers of RCCS is Schlosser's link between the rise of pornography and a rapid development in media technology. Beginning with comic book stores' under the counter magazines and books, these periodicals were relatively easily distributed through the mail and mom and pop stores. Another instigator to the rapid popularity of "indecent" images is synonymous with the history of film. Schlosser notes: "Within a few years of the movie camera's development in 1890, the new technology was being used to film women in various states of undress" (126). The invention of the 35 mm projection equipment in the twenties gave rise to the popularity of public projections in high class brothels, and the affordable 16 mm cameras and projectors offered the technology for widespread production and viewing of stag films. Perhaps the most impacting invention was a machine designed to show children's cartoons at shopping malls, the peep booth: "The widespread introduction of peep machines in the late 1960s gave porn filmmakers access to a vast new market and created an unprecedented demand for new films" (129). The industry continued to change its bread and butter focus with the development of technology when in the mid seventies the porn film was literally brought home with the invention of the VCR. As Schlosser notes, "by 1979, 75 percent of all the videotapes sold in the United States were hard-core films" (148).

The low costs of video and DVD recording devices in recent years has fueled the widespread popularity of pay-per-view porn films running 24 hours a day, and the rise of the internet has turned pornography into a highly differentiated product for narrowly defined audiences. Consumers can now choose from thousands of different fetishized styles including: gay, straight, she-male, bestiality, and foot fetish flicks, leading Schlosser to observe that "America's sex industry offers a textbook example of how a free market can efficiently gear production to meet consumer demand" (169).

Reefer Madness is an articulate look at the schizophrenic nature that American overground and underground culture exhibits with itself. The inconsistencies in acceptable social mores and underground drug and sex product consumption demonstrates a serious mental illness within American society which is very far from being remedied. However, the work of Schlosser and others is a good start in the direction of opening the public's eyes.

Dianna Dilworth:
Dianna Dilworth has a BA in English from San Francisco State University, and is working on an MFA in Media Communications at the European Graduate School in Switzerland. She is based in Brooklyn, NY, where she works as a freelance journalist and photographer.  <dianna_dilworth@hotmail.com>

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