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A muckraking ride through the free market

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

June 01, 2003|Emily Bazelon | Emily Bazelon is a senior editor at Legal Affairs magazine.

You read Eric Schlosser to get mad. Or better yet, because you're already mad and you want to be able to explain why everyone else should be. With his bestseller "Fast Food Nation," Schlosser became the go-to guy for anyone inclined to rail against McDonald's. Forget about tasteless and fatty hamburgers -- Schlosser's reporting showed that the rot in the industry goes much deeper, into the slaughterhouses and restaurant kitchens where poor immigrants and teenagers toil. If I were to give this book to my mother, a committed McDonald's hater, she'd have the ammunition to make sure that my dad never eats another hamburger.

"Reefer Madness" promises a similarly penetrating investigation, this time into America's black market, the umbrella for every unreported or illegal transaction, from paying off the Mafia to paying the nanny off the books. Schlosser's new book is a cleverly repackaged version of older magazine articles he has written on marijuana laws and migrant labor in the strawberry industry and also includes a more recent piece on a porn mogul who mass-marketed peep shows. Schlosser makes a thin effort to tie up the book's disparate pieces with an introduction and conclusion about what the underground economy teaches about the failings of the free market. But his exhortations about the limitations of Adam Smith's theories and the need for the state to rein in the market's excesses don't make the book hang together.

That flaw shouldn't stop you from appreciating each piece on its own terms, though. At its most compelling, "Reefer Madness" is a great, muckraking ride. There's no hype in Schlosser's prose. Instead, he lets a cascade of facts make his points. When the longest chunk of the book bogs down, in the "sex" part of the subtitle, it's because Schlosser lines up facts that lack an arc of outrage or indignation. Without a clear culprit to expose and denounce, his storytelling doesn't have the same force.

But before sex, drugs. In 1992, Mark Young was sentenced to life in prison (later reduced to 12 1/2 years) for introducing a couple of marijuana growers to a few buyers. The sale was for 700 pounds at $1,200 a pound -- not exactly a few dime bags. But Schlosser frames these chapters to say that Young in no way deserved what he originally got. "How does a society come to punish a man more harshly for selling marijuana than for killing someone with a gun?" he asks, after showing that murderers and rapists get relatively shorter sentences.

The answer begins with the shifting history of the regulation of pot, from a 1619 Virginia ordinance that required farmers to grow hemp (it was essential for making sails, rigging and the caulking for wooden ships) to the tough federal penalties for trafficking marijuana enacted in the 1980s. When Ronald Reagan declared war on drugs, Congress agreed to treat pot with the same approbation as heroin. Some of those lawmakers were hypocrites -- Schlosser tells us which ones campaigned for harsh sentences for drug offenders while getting breaks for their own pot-dealing kids. But the real bad guys are the prosecutors who continue to mount the full power of the federal government against an unlucky few offenders (the vast majority are pursued in state court).

Schlosser portrays most of these offenders as hapless victims. This book isn't the place to go for a discussion of the potential advantages of lengthy sentences. (Prosecutors say the possibility of harsh penalties gives them leverage to flip small-time drug dealers, who then lead them to big ones.) Like other successful muckrakers of today -- Barbara Ehrenreich comes to mind -- Schlosser is squarely on the side of the powerless and not much interested in opposing viewpoints, except to set them up for skewering. His muscular prose pushes you, pell-mell, toward a single conclusion.

Sometimes, the one-sided drumroll is frustrating. But Schlosser's advocacy remains as pertinent as it was when he won the National Magazine Award for a pair of 1994 Atlantic Monthly articles that became this portion of the book. Congress passed a law in April that's designed to strip federal judges of their discretion to give sentencing breaks. And later this month, one of California's best-known advocates of medical marijuana, Ed Rosenthal, will be sentenced to up to 85 years in prison for cultivation and conspiracy. Federal prosecutors brought the case against him even though he was growing pot in accordance with a 1996 law approved by California voters.

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