Upon initial observation, “Reefer Madness” seems
diminutive in comparison to the topic it tackles — the
American black market’s giant sex, marijuana and labor
industries. Then again, it is an almost perfect analogy for the
market itself. On the surface it’s hidden, unacknowledged or
underestimated, but in reality, it is enormously significant.

Book Reviews
Schlosser signs autographs at Angell Hall on Thursday night. (TREVOR CAMPBELL/Daily)

Eric Schlosser, in what he called “old-fashioned
investigative journalism,” deals with one of the rising
concerns of the domestic economy in his new book. He concentrates
on three huge industries in this underground world: marijuana,
migrant labor and pornography. By focusing individually on each, he
calls attention to the expansion of the cumulative market itself,
one that he described as a symptom of “a society that’s
fundamentally unhealthy.” The book demands recognition and
forces acknowledgment of the illegal, illogical and often dangerous
world that is right beneath our noses. Schlosser spoke about these
themes and his new book in Angell Hall last Thursday.

In the marijuana section, the author clearly presents the facts
and figures of the marijuana industry, estimating its annual
monetary intake to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Scientific studies show it to be non addictive, with fewer harmful
side effects than tobacco or alcohol and with potentially useful
medicinal qualities. Yet, he argues, the drug retains a powerful
social stigma and is associated with a destructive, rebellious
subculture. The legal penalties for marijuana offenses, even
involving miniscule amounts, are sometimes extremely harsh.
Marijuana offenders can face life sentences without parole
alongside murderers and rapists.

Schlosser presents a particularly disturbing example of a
paraplegic who smoked marijuana in order to relieve the phantom
pains in his missing limbs and was prosecuted and sent to prison
for the tiny amount hidden in his wheelchair. 54 percent of
college-age students, he says, may legally be considered criminals
for marijuana usage. “If you have over half of young people
technically criminals that’s a bad law,” Schlosser
commented. “You could decriminalize marijuana next week and
no harm would result. A lot of money that is being wasted …
could be put to better use.”

Schlosser’s voice is most poignant when he speaks of the
plight of migrant farm workers. He uses California’s
strawberry industry, which is almost completely dependent on
illegal labor, as a case study. During his appearance at Angell
Hall on Thursday, Schlosser vividly outlined the need for better
labor laws to help the illegal Mexican laborers who are underpaid,
overworked and living in conditions well below the poverty level.
He sketches a disturbing picture of the labor process behind
America’s low-priced produce. Schlosser succeeds admirably in
jarring complacency and provoking thought about one of the most
dangerous and overlooked issues in today’s economy.

The last section of the book chronicles the pornography industry
through the story of Reuben Sturman — one of porn’s
revolutionary pioneers and one-time corporate giant. Schlosser
analyzes the changing face of America’s obscenity laws and
the enormous revenue drawn from the industry of secret desires,
pleasures and shames. America’s obscenity laws have done next
to nothing to check the growth of the burgeoning sex industry, a
fact Schlosser sees as extremely unsettling. He descibed it, saying
“We have a very complicated culture when it comes to
sexuality. The obscenity laws we have now are based on all kinds of
religious notions of sin and blasphemy. Eventually, hopefully, we
will have a more grown-up attitude towards sex, but right now
it’s pretty crazy.”

Schlosser’s attempt to get at the truth stems from a
personal sense of necessity. He said “I just thought that
there’s a need for this kind of investigative
journalism.” His book is well-written, well researched and
matter-of-fact, with an undertone of sympathy. When asked what, in
his opinion, was the most critical issue, Schlosser didn’t
hesitate: “If there’s one thing that unites
them,” he said, “it’s a culture that firstly is
in denial of what’s really happening and secondly is one that
for all kinds of reasons has lost a sense of compassion.”

“Reefer Madness” is a fascinating, probing
investigation of contemporary American society. Commenting on his
intended audience, Schlosser smiled a little and quietly suggested
that those who should read his book are “people who care
about what’s happening in this country right now.”
Schlosser knows that nothing will happen tomorrow or next week to
change America for the better, but he’s optimistic about the
impact of his book on readers. “At least if I’ve made
them think … if I’ve raised these issues —
that’s the goal.”

 

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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