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

ISBN: 0965762645
ISBN 13: 9780965762649
By: Eric Schlosser

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Reader's Thoughts

Brandon T.

Eric Schlosser has made a name for himself by probing behind the scenes of popular American phenomena. He became famous for Fast Food Nation, which was later turned into a film.Schlosser's subject matter may trend towards the pop world, but his cross of investigative journalism and postmodernist sociology is both fresh and informative. It is obvious that he takes his material as seriously as any professional observer, and the reader reaps the reward of his work in the form of a much clearer understanding of the ways that American culture impacts the lives of real individuals.In this book, Schlosser explores the American black market trade, as it has developed around three much different parts of society - the world of marijuana cultivation and sale, the immigrant labor market in California's fruit fields, and the nearly legitimized pornography industry.Although there is a bit of a disconnect from section to section (which makes the book read almost like three), each is explored in detail, from multiple angles. He uses many reliable sources, interviews, histories, and his own observation to bring the reader into these rarely seen realms that nevertheless constitute indispensable columns of the American industrial/economic empire.


(written 6-03)This was a collection of three essays, one about marijuana law, one about immigrant strawberry pickers, and one about the porn industry. I had already read the first one, found it on the internet, and liked it. The other two were just as insightful and I agree with Schlosser on all points - that the black market is too large to be ignored, that marijuana should be decriminalized, that corporations need to be regulated and the market cannot be trusted to serve the best interests of humans.However, I was disappointed in this book. It was nowhere near as good as Fast Food Nation. Not as cohesive, and the book seemed to have been hastily put together as a follow-up to FFN, riding on the wave of its success. Did Schlosser sell out? At least he got lots of press exposure for these ideas.I learned a lot from these essays but feel they were more appropriate in the setting of the Atlantic Monthly than marketed as a cohesive piece of investigative journalism. But keep up the good work, Schlosser.


I had been meaning to read this book since it came out, so when I found it recommended at the back of my economics text, it gave me an excuse to pick it up. The marijuana chapter held no surprises - as a vancouverite, the insanity of pot laws is familiar territory. However, the middle chapter - about migrant labour in california agriculture - split open the immigration reality in america. there are whole industries in the united states economically dependent upon the reality of illegal immigrants providing dirt cheap migrant labour. Which is why so many conservative politicians in california look the other way when passing laws that allow this to continue. The immigration "debate" is a lot like the drug "debate". A debate without facts or history - based in hysteria and dishonestee. I shouldn't be surprised or disappointed, but, of course, I am.And the last chapter is about the rise of pornography in america. again, pornography is a political issue in vancouver as well, what makes it across the border sometimes depends upon the politics of the viewer. But I learned some fascinating things about the creation of america's porn empire, including the story of mr.reuben sturman - american folk hero of sorts. Mr. Sturman began porn as big business in america and as a result, he is an interesting study of a) law enforcement harassment techniques out to destroy you no matter how dirty they need to play b) how to fight the authorities on every legal front you can and sometimes win for the greater good even when selling dirty stories.quote:"as Gay Talese noted in 'Thy Neighbour's Wife" it was the publishers of sex pulps [including such titles as 'Sex life of a Cop'] - and not mainstream literary publishers in [elitist] New York - who won freedom of expression for America's novelists."The obscenity test developed by the Supreme Court arose from attempted porn prosecutions - the same test that liberated Ginsberg, Lawrence, Whitman, Tolstoy and Shaw. An informative chapter about how freedom can be won and by whom. In this case, unromantically - a smut peddler from Cleveland, Ohio.I enjoy books like this because I am tired of being sold platitudes by programs that please their sponsors and repeat beck, palin and talking points ad nauseum. Those people aren't finding solutions because they aren't really talking about problems in real terms.

Patrick McCoy

Eric Schlosser’s Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market is every bit as interesting as his excellent and informative previous book Fast Food Nation. The first section “Reefer Madness” looks at the underground economy of marijuana. It underscores the ridiculous mandatory sentencing drug laws that keep non-violent, low-level drug dealers in jail longer than murderers, rapists, and child molesters. Just another holdover form the overzealous Regan administration’s “War On Drugs”-just another misguided governmental policy like prohibition and anti-pornography crusaders (more on this later). Let’s just legalize it and tax the hell out of it like cigarettes and alcohol. The second section, ”In The Strawberry Fields”, is an investigative piece about the exploitation of illegal immigrants and the underclass as laborers in Californian strawberry fields, low pay, no benefits, improper housing, poor conditions, etc…It’s tantamount to slave labor, sweat shop style management ethic that we ignore now that most of it takes place offshore in developing countries like China and Vietnam. The whole book makes you want to become an activist, but it also details the system and mentality that you’re up against in these situations-so it seems futile. The last section details the folly of the government’s demonization of pornography, which seems ridiculous in retrospect since Disney has holdings in pornography these days where hard core images are just a mouse click away. What a waste of time, money, and resources that was. As usual, Schlosser has done an admirable job researching his subjects in revealing the folly of man.


Well written, but overall badly done....don't bother. This follows Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, which was an excellent, well-researched piece of journalism. But this book is very disappointing. It is supposed to investigate three illegal markets...marijuana, illegal immigrants, and pornography. The section on illegal immigration is less than 35 pages, which is pathetic and doesn't even skim the surface. (He confines his discussion to agricultural workers, leaving our all other categories of illegal immigrant labor.) The section on pot is detailed, but still misses a lot. But the most annoying (and longest) section is on porn. While trying to convince readers that the pornographer he's focusing on was treated unjustly, he criticizes the government for treating the man like 'organized crime'. Then he describes the guy's tactics for tax evasion, intimidation, threats, and even paying people who bombed his adversaries...if that isn't organized crime than I'm a natural blonde with a weight problem. Also, what have popular authors got against footnotes? He's got oodles of references at the back of the book, but you can't really link them to statements in the body. I don't recommend this at all.


This book is fun in the way that 'Freakonomics' is fun, discussing business practices that more conservative economists will completely stay away from despite the obvious fact that they help drive the economy in a big way. If you think libertarians are right on for inciting a radically de-regulated take on capitalism, you will love this book. The drugs section is probably the saddest, documenting the story of a down and out midwesterner sentenced to maximum security prison for his limited involvement in a large marijuana deal. Although it is nowhere officially documented, marijuana is estimated to be as high as the third biggest cash crop for small time midwestern farmers. I found that out from this book. The pornography section is pretty fascinating too, since it looks at 30 years of the industry's history through the rise and sort of fall of this guy whose genius at doing illegal business without getting prosecuted for it is truly amazing. It all starts with him hand delivering dirty photos at the corner store, moves on to a covert warehouse operation in Cleveland, and expands to become a network of production and distribution companies all owned by phantom businesses whose money is laundered through international banks and filtered back to the kingpin through yet other holdings without his name appearing on a single document. In other words, it's the American dream story retold in a way that no-one claimed to approve of but still helped support. I'm sure the movie will come out about this guy someday. Anyway, this book is well written and much more naughty than Fast Food Nation (which is also really good). Libertarians dig in!

Dennis Littrell

Schlosser, Eric. Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market (2003) *****Journalism as social criticism--or vice versaThere are three long, but very well-written essays in this book, portions of which previously appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone and the US News and World Report.The first, the title essay, is on the marijuana business in the United States with a concentration on the "killer weed's" legal history, its economics and how it is cultivated today. Schlosser presents the unembellished facts along with some vivid detail about the growers, the sellers, the law enforcement people, and the politicians. Reading this reinforces my belief that the "new prohibition" (not so new anymore of course) is really a full employment program for the law enforcement establishment endorsed by hypocritical social conservatives (Rush Limbaugh would be a fine example) and Christian fundamentalists, most of whom have little idea about what is going on.The second essay, entitled "In the Strawberry Fields," is about Mexican laborers in virtual peonage in California, the history of this phenomenon, its politics, its economic consequences, and the reality of today's conditions in the field and across the border. The endemic political and economic hypocrisy is illustrated by Scholosser's eye-opening observation on why Mexican migrants are routinely rounded up and sent back to Mexican in a kind of (wink, wink) revolving door policy. When migrants are allowed to settle here and raise their children, the states end up paying for their education and welfare. However by periodically deporting them we benefit from their cheap labor "while effect...[pays:] for the education, health care, and retirement of California's farmworkers." (p. 95)The third essay, "An Empire of the Obscene" is about the pornography business with the focus on porn king Reuben Sturman and his nemesis IRS agent Richard N. Rosfelder, Jr. who finally got Sturman for tax evasion. Although this is the longest essay in the book (longer than the other two combined), I found it the least interesting. That Sturman was able to launder and hide his profits off shore in the same manner as drug dealers (and, for example, Enron) was interesting, as was the way Schlosser chronicles how pornography has become such a huge business that it now accounts for a significant part of the revenues of some Fortune 500 companies.Holding the essays together is Schlosser's idea that the private morality of Americans is inconsistent with our public morality, and that the evidence for this is especially compelling in these three domains of the black market economy. He frames the essays with an introduction called, "The Underground," and a postscript named rather hopefully, "Out of the Underground."Some highlights:"Today approximately three-quarters of all $100 bills circulate outside the United States." As Schlosser notes, this "serves, in essence, as a gigantic interest-free loan" from them to us. (p. 7) (I just hope that George W. Bush's huge deficients don't lessen the world's love for the Yankee dollar and lead them to adopt the Euro instead!)"Import barriers [on marijuana:] drove prices high enough to make domestic production extremely profitable," allowing UCLA professor Mark A. R. Kleiman to note that this is "a rare instance in which protectionism actually worked." Schlosser adds, "Some American marijuana is now worth more per ounce than gold." (p. 36)"The new mandatory minimum laws [for marijuana possession and trafficking:] took...power from the judge and handed it to the prosecutor" who could decide who to prosecute and for what. (p. 45) This results in an uneven application of the law and "de facto sentencing by police and prosecutors." (p. 53) Added to the power the police have because of the forfeiture laws, and one sees that justice in marijuana cases can be anything but. Schlosser cites an example in Ventura County, California in which drug agents had first obtained an appraisal of a $5-million ranch and then raided it for marijuana cultivation only to find nothing growing there. (p. 62)A further point about the forfeiture laws (which I think are unconstitutional since they are seizures without due process) is that informers may get up to one-quarter of the proceeds. Schlosser claims that this has resulted in a "new business: the buying and selling of drug leads. Defendants who hope to avoid a lengthy...sentence...can now secretly buy information from vendors on the black market." (pp. 62-63)Recalling that justice Douglas H. Ginsburg (nominated by Reagan) declined nomination to the US Supreme Court "after confessing that he smoked marijuana as a young man," Schlosser recalls the McCarthy era's "defining political question"--"Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist party?"--with today's question that congressmen and political candidates have to answer: "Are you now, or have you ever been, a pot smoker?" (p. 49) On page 51 Schlosser notes however that "Legislation to impose drug testing on members of Congress has repeatedly died in committee and never reached the floor for a vote." One wonders why.Finally, Schlosser compares America's attitude toward the drug Viagra with its attitude toward marijuana. He recalls Bob Dole's TV commercial for Viagra and then notes that "Elizabeth Dole, now a US senator from North Carolina, apparently doesn't oppose this sort of recreational drug use."Bottom line: social conservatives will deplore this book, and right wing AM shock jocks will rant against it, while most of the rest of the country will ignore it. Too bad. This is a fine piece of work by Schlosser and everyone involved in the project, and an engrossing read. --a review by Dennis Littrell


It's hard to argue with any part of Schlosser's book. He does not, for the most part, espouse any particular agenda (though it's obvious where his sympathies lie); he merely marshals facts - lots of facts, backed up with copious though unobtrusive notes - and observes the effects of current U.S. policy on three specific areas of the underground economy that makes up such a huge, though ill-documented, portion of our Gross Domestic Product: marijuana cultivation, undocumented immigrant workers in California, and pornography.Hint: current policy isn't working very well, whether you believe the goal is to suppress the activity entirely or to minimize harm from it.As is usual with Schlosser's work, Reefer Madness is meticulously researched and brimming with specific numbers, facts and citations (as much as can be, given that the participants in these fields are breaking the law, and hence are often reluctant to provide too many details to any above-ground agency). The end notes and bibliography are not to be missed, either - and they do in fact, along with the acknowledgements and index, make up a good third of the book.This is an important book. It may not convert you to Schlosser's way of thinking, but it should shake the foundations of your worldview a bit.

Darcia Helle

This is a powerful book. Broken into 3 parts, it deals with the history of our approach to marijuana use; our use of illegal immigrants, specifically in the strawberry fields of California; and the development of porn in our country, how it grew, and how our government's attempt to suppress it only continued to spark the flame.Eric Schlosser's meticulous research is written in an easy to understand form. He states the facts without any bias. For instance, you'll learn that a young man, with no prior record, arrested for marijuana possession can receive a longer prison sentence than a convicted murderer or rapist. And, while our country is in an uproar over illegal immigrants, our government allows these people to be used like slaves when convenient. When they are no longer needed, they are rounded up like cattle and sent back to Mexico. In the end, whether you agree with his conclusions or not, a new light is shed on a world most of us pay no attention to. And perhaps tells us that we need to get more involved.


Like others who have read Fast Food Nation, I picked this up with great hope. Like others who have read this book, I was sorely disappointed.It is what it is: a gussied up textbook version of marijuana, porn, and migrant labor statistics that feels as sterile as a World Book encyclopedia. I would have been completely disinterested if the book was not peppered with personal accounts. Still, in pages where these stories were absent, reading became unbearable, as if I was in high school again and been given a horrid research assignment. I grit my teeth and read on, but at the end I felt really guilty; I could have spent my time reading something else worthwhile about te same subject matter.The only redeeming points about this book is the migrant labor section, especially during this immigration crisis the United States is enduring. Perhaps if all were made to read this section, along with researching other informative texts, instead of carrying uninformed and rather ignorant opinions based on no facts at all, we would be much farther along in the immigration issue than we currently are.


Fantastic history of marijuana and migrant farm workers. The theme of the book is the underground industries where people are paid "under the table". The 3 themes are the marijuana market, migrant farm workers, and the porn industry. Eric Schlosser has done some great research and has presented enough facts and data to make strong conclusions on these topics. The writer states his own beliefs and the end of each section but the facts are so compelling that the reader can figure it out on their own. I never really knew the real story behind the war on drugs and the mandatory sentencing for non-violent drug offenders. It's amazing that there are so many hundreds of life sentences based on non-violent marijuana offenders. It really has to do with how well they play ball and how many names they can give. One of the characters they examined had been a middle-man on a large marijuana sale but he received a life sentence because he had no names or people to rat out and he was too stubborn to play ball. A life sentence for no real reason is just a waste of millions of tax-payer dollars and is another sign of how America is in a state of decay compared to Europe. There have been something like 700,000 Federal sentences handed out for marijuana related crimes. Each one of them will cost at least a million dollars in prison costs and the damage becomes multiplied considering the damage done to family members. Meanwhile in the Netherlands, all drugs are legal and the amount of drug use is much lower that the US. There is much more to it than that but this book shows the war on drugs to be the worst sign of government incompetence. I was amused to read that the citizens of the Virginia colony were required by law to grow hemp and that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew marijuana plants as part of their farm. Yet today Virginians can receive multi-year prison sentences for growing marijuana plants.The section on migrant farm workers is also very informative and eye opening. Anyone who thinks these illegals are taking American jobs have no idea what these jobs consist of. The people picking strawberries are making good money in terms of Oaxacan peasants in the poorest area of Mexico. The idea of Americans happily taking jobs which pay a small fraction of minimum wage is silly. These migrant workers live in caves and shanty-towns filled with garbage. They work solely to send money back to desperately poor communities in places like the Mixtec indian areas of Oaxaca, Mexico. Picking strawberries is so hard that college students trying to make extra money couldn't last an hour. But the free labor is a major support for the economy of California and most people don't realize it. Americans can't do the work and it needs to be done meaning that we need those people. I guess everyone is better off but the treatment and exploitation of the migrant workers is disturbing. This is a must-read for anyone wanting to have a clear understanding of the immigration issue.

David Sarkies

By the author of Fast Food Nation, this book contains three case studies each dealing with an area of the black market in America, namely marijuana, immigrant workers in the strawberry fields on California, and the hard core porn industry. As one can expect from Schlosser, it is a thoroughly researched and objective view of these industries, and does not necessarily try to reach some left wing conspiratorial conclusion. Basically there are lots of books on marijuana in the United States and the nature of the war on drugs. Being an Australian where possession of small amounts (up to three ounces in some places) is pretty much a misdemeanor that results in a small fine, it is difficult to understand the nature of the war on drugs. In a way the war itself is scary, because it has been suggested that if you are caught with even one joint in the United States you can be classified as a dealer, locked up, and have all of your possessions confiscated, even before you have been convicted. In a way I believe that this is a really heavy handed approach, particularly since the laws date back to the 1930s, where Dupont pushed for the criminalisation of marijuana so that it could dominate the textile industry. Another argument is also that since it is only recently that marijuana has become a popular anglo-saxon drug (up until the sixties, marijuana was predominantly a Mexican pleasure, and its narcotic purposes were only used in cure-all potions made by chemists, who in those days, did not necessarily need a license to practice). Unfortunately, it is very difficult to access anything these days on the history of drugs and drug use since many of these documentaries are generally not made. In a way, it feels as if marijuana did not exists prior to the sixties, and that modern drugs such as meth-amphetamine did not exist until the late 90s (which is not true because Hitler used it during World War II and also apparently fed it to his troops). It appears however that this book is about the black market and how the market influences all of our lives and how in a way we are all exposed to it, whether we smoke pot, or rent dodgy videos from those dodgy video stores that have no windows. This is where the second case study comes into play and that is in regards to illegal immigrants. Schlosser looks particularly are strawberry growers, but this applies to a lot of industries across the United States (and while it happens in Australia, the fact that we do not have any land borders with poorer nations, we have a lot less illegal immigrants than do the United States). The reason illegal immigrants are so popular is because the laws do not apply to them, so they can be paid under the minimum wage, which means more profits for the corporation, and that they are not restricted by the unfair dismissal laws. While the section on the porn industry also applies to the black market as well, much of this has more to do with the freedom of speech amendment than it has to do with the black market (even though while they industry was fighting the obscenity laws the profits coming from the porn industry were effectively apart of the black market). Mind you this section surprised me because I was expecting it to deal with Hugh Heffner or Larry Flynt, but they barely made a mention in this section. I guess the reason is that we are dealing not with what is termed as soft porn (if there is such a thing) but rather with hard core pornography. Mind you, porn has been around as long as there have been people willing to pay for it (even though before photography, we had to pay for live shows, and then we might as well go to a brothel).


This book is divided into 3 parts, the common link being black market economics, politics and social implications of weed, farm labor and porn. The porn section was by far the most interesting, covering the fascinating life of porn kind Reuben Sturman, the Godfather of American porn long before the emergence of Playboy and today's current incarnations. Incredibly well-researched, and a fascinating study of a man who started from nothing, from when "porn" barely existed up to the modern era when organized crime eventually became involved with much adventure and intrigue along the way.An overlooked piece of American history, filled with background details of how the underground business evolved and was legally attacked.


Many of the themes in "Fast Food Nation" return here, particularly in the section on migrant labor: Reading it, you quickly become aware of the corner into which our economy has backed itself. As is the case with the fast-food industry, the low costs we take for granted are only possible at the expense of the workers who produce these products. The section on pot is particularly disturbing as well; among other things, it's yet another reminder of what a disaster mandatory minimum sentencing laws have created in the penal system, and what terribly thought-out political window dressing these laws are. I know you don't want to read it, but really, please do.


Another book on CD I listened to on the way to work - it was really fascinating... lots and lots of info on the taboo topics of the US underground trades of drugs, sex and illegal workers. I liked how the main focus was on the economic and legal impact of each of these issues and not so much on the morality surrounding it (although the laws are often impacted by that!). The author spent a lot of time on the drug trade (almost exclusively about marijuana use/sale) and way too much time on the sex trade (could have done without all the details on the life of Reubin Sturman (the supposed king of pornography distribution)... there was not as much info on the illegal immigration issue which I would have liked to hear more about. Overall it was a really good 'listen' although not as good as the author's class 'Fast Food Nation.'

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