Black Market Bonanzas Exposed-A Secret History of Our Times

Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market , by Eric Schlosser. Houghton Mifflin, 310 pages, $23.

Eric Schlosser, author of the muckraking instant classic Fast Food Nation , has returned with a collection of three new exposés. In the earlier book, Mr. Schlosser took the simple, ubiquitous hamburger patty and traced out the damage it has wrought on the American landscape. In Reefer Madness , Mr. Schlosser picks three other American favorites-marijuana, strawberries and porn-as entry points into America’s vast underground economy. The black market has apparently doubled in size over the last 30 years, and may now be as large as $1 trillion, or roughly 10 percent of the G.D.P.; it represents, according to Mr. Schlosser, a kind of royal road to the American political unconscious.

As a reporter, Mr. Schlosser still possesses great legs, a sharp eye and an instinctive grasp of intricate social realities; and Reefer Madness is filled with the sort of rapier factoid that helped make Fast Food Nation a blockbuster. But he’s a more openly polemical writer this time around, in possession of a darker vision of American hypocrisy. “The enormity of today’s underground,” he pronounces somewhat ominously, “reveals the extent to which American society has become alienated and at odds with itself, like a personality beginning to decompose.”

The book opens with our peculiar hang-up concerning marijuana. As Mr. Schlosser points out, every statistic indicates that we Americans love our Alice B. Toklas. Of the major narcotics, only marijuana is homegrown-in open fields, camouflaged by surrounding corn, or in clandestine greenhouses, rigged out with blue lights and elaborate hydroponic troughs. Credible estimates for the value of America’s annual pot crop range as high as $25 billion-surpassing corn at $19 billion.

Your people call it marijuana. My people call it herb, skunk, giggles, chronic . Over the years, demonizing weed has become a venerable sport of-to use Philip Rahv’s old term-“Palefaces” everywhere; but starting in the early 80’s, the stakes were ratcheted up precipitously. Playing off swing-voter fears-and once again, when it comes to victimless pleasures, checking their every libertarian scruple at the door-Reagan-era jihadists launched an attack on marijuana, culminating in today’s compassion-free mandatory sentencing guidelines. Mr. Schlosser lays out the numbers-10 million arrested, 250,000 of those sent to prison for at least a year-as well as the grim story of one Mark Young, an affable no-account who received a life sentence for being caught on the outer fringes of a pot deal. “A society that can punish a marijuana offender more severely than a murderer,” Mr. Schlosser concludes, “is caught in the grip of a deep psychosis.”

And so the day of the fully tax-deductible three-blunt lunch is hardly upon us, public rabidity having been so exercised against even modest decriminalization. To wit: In 1981, a young Congressman named Newt Gingrich introduced a bill supporting the medicinal use of marijuana. Fifteen years later, in 1996, House Speaker Gingrich was championing the death penalty for anyone carrying more than two ounces into the country. While getting ever more medieval on your grass, however, elected officials have been busy crafting ever more tear-jerking appeals for their own dope-toting children. Conservative attack dog Dan Burton, another ardent supporter of executing dealers, helped engineer the legal defense of his son after he was caught with eight pounds of marijuana. And Representative Randy (Duke) Cunningham, four months after delivering a blistering anti-drug jeremiad against President Clinton, discovered that his own son had been nabbed with 400 pounds of pot. Fighting back tears, Mr. Cunningham testified, “My son has a good heart” (not to mention one killer case of the munchies.) In an atmosphere of hang ‘em high, both children somehow got away with exceedingly merciful sentences.

“Innocent as strawberries,” the poet Dylan Thomas once wrote-but, alas, not so innocent after all. On the silver screen, California has manufactured a junk aristocracy; out in the fields, it cultivates a modern peasantry. Strawberry consumption has boomed over the last 30 years, in large part because strawberries are one of the most profitable row crops. They are, however, Mr. Schlosser tells us, one of the most fragile. Rain tears their delicate skin, frost burns it and mold quickly sets in. As consumers, meanwhile, we prefer our fruit as firm and unblemished as Courteney Cox. And so entire crops go to waste, a cost that has been assiduously passed down to the lowest rung, the farmworker, who has been cleverly set up as an independent operator. In one stroke, agribusiness avoids labor and immigration laws and transfers business risk to its own workers. The result is a grotesque admixture of an entrepreneurial rhetoric of hope with the feudal reality of sharecropping.

If marijuana is illegal but relatively harmless, and strawberries are legal but devastating to the workers who produce them, then pornography seems to occupy every ambivalent niche in between. Mr. Schlosser again takes up an industry that has exploded over roughly the last 30 years, from its origins in trench-coated despair to honeymooners dialing up Pamela and Tommy Lee on the hotel pay-per-view. His way into the world of retail salacity is a man named Reuben Sturman, whose shady empire dominated the seediest end of the business: coin-op peep shows and adult bookstores. A variation on that one-man stock character known as Larry Flynt, Mr. Sturman fought the U.S. government for a generation. But as Mr. Schlosser is too smart either to sanctify or moralize, the chapter never coalesces strongly enough around a central indignation. His reporting is once again painstaking-he seems intent on dragging us through every hard-luck day and boogie night in the history of Mr. Sturman’s business-and his eye for bad faith and cant remains sharp. But in the end, public morality has relaxed (or collapsed, depending on your point of view), a burgeoning nation of carefree Portnoys and Portnoyettes has emerged, and the old obscenity battles have started to seem dreary.

Nonetheless, with Reefer Madness Mr. Schlosser has consolidated his position as America’s premiere post-theoretical muckraker. Setting himself up at the crossroads of commodity and taboo, he has taken hold of the most important question a journalist can ask: In a world filled mostly with strangers, what do we owe one another? In the end, Reefer Madness is a social history, dating from roughly January 1981, when the Reagan White House took down the portrait of Thomas Jefferson from the Cabinet Room and replaced it with one of Calvin Coolidge. Since then, both the breathtaking shallows of Coolidge’s intellect and his love of unfettered markets have set the standard for our political life. But something else has been brewing. As Mr. Schlosser puts it, “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.”

Stephen Metcalf reviews books regularly for The Observer.