"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Thursday, July 24, 2003

sorry, just archiving stuff from the yomiuri site

The power of sex, drugs and cheap strawberries



Kevin Wood Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Reefer Madness

By Eric Schlosser

Houghton Mifflin, 310 pp, 23 dollars


Those picking up this book expecting a collection of lurid tales from the counterculture--after all, it is named for a 1937 propaganda film about how smoking marijuana turns clean-cut kids into ax-murdering maniacs--may be in for a surprise.

Having exposed the "dark side of the all-American meal" in his 2001 best seller Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser turns his considerable talents to an examination on the trillion dollar underground economy of the United States.

The book is built around expanded versions of three previously published magazine articles on marijuana laws, illegal immigrant labor and the pornography business, bracketed by an introduction and conclusion that discuss the role and nature of the shadow economy.

By and large, Reefer Madness is a damning debunking of the free market mantras and moral hypocrisy of pro-business political conservatives.

Schlosser begins with a look at the economic and legal consequences of the largest U.S. cash crop--marijuana.

Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan declared the opening of the "War on Drugs" in 1980 and in 1982 appointed the first "Drug Czar," Carlton Turner, who believed smoking pot was responsible for young people being involved in "anti-military, anti-nuclear power, anti-big business, anti-authority demonstrations" and that marijuana use caused homosexuality.

Schlosser points out the inconsistencies in the way offenders are sentenced in different parts of the country. "In New York State, possessing slightly less than an ounce (28 grams) of marijuana brings a 100 dollars fine, if it's a first offense. In Louisiana, possessing the same amount of pot could lead to a prison sentence of twenty years." He details the way some law enforcement agencies have become financially dependent on the income derived from property seizures connected to drug investigations.

In particular, Schlosser highlights the way the political race to demonstrate how tough candidates are on drugs has resulted in penalties that far outweigh the crimes they claim to punish.

"A conviction for a marijuana offense can mean the revocation or denial of more than 460 federal benefits, including student loans, small-business loans, professional licenses, and farm subsidies... federal welfare payment and food stamps. Convicted murderers, rapists and child molesters, however, remain eligible for such benefits."

He exposes the injustice of mandatory minimum sentencing rules that send people to prison for more than 20 years, and often for life, for offenses as minor as selling drug paraphernalia such as water pipes.

The second section details the plight of migrant workers in the California agricultural industry, mainly through an examination of the use of illegal immigrant labor in the strawberry farming business. Schlosser contends that the farm industry in the United States (and to a growing extent the meatpacking, textile and other industries that rely on cheap, semi-skilled labor) has become dependent on illegal immigrants. The underground economy relies on untraceable, untaxable cash transactions, and Schlosser asserts that nearly 30 percent of workers in Los Angeles County are now paid in cash.

Large agribusiness corporations skirt labor laws through sharecropping arrangements straight out of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, while the law punishes illegal immigrant workers far more severely than those who employ and exploit them.

"Left to its own devices, the free market always seeks a work force that is hungry, desperate and cheap--a work force that is anything but free" concludes the author.

The final section traces the history of the pornography industry in the United States by looking at the various attempts over the years to legally define obscenity and rule on what people can or cannot legally see, while telling the story of the founding father of modern porn, a former comic book salesman who built an industry that generates the same revenue as Hollywood's domestic box office receipts.

This section also serves as a primer on the fine art of tax evasion, tracing the efforts of porn magnate Reuben Sturman to skim off and hide hundreds of millions of dollars to avoid funding the government's long-running campaign to convict him on obscenity charges.

While the section is somewhat outdated in that it lacks much information on the financial impact of the Internet on the porn industry, it does provide a revealing look at a legal industry that is largely subterranean.

Overall, the strength of Reefer Madness is Schlosser's ability to put a human face on abstract statistics and tie dry historical facts to interesting human drama.

The only real complaint is that each of the main sections of the book could, and should, have been expanded to fill entire volumes of their own.

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