Seedy underground

The black market link between porn, pot, and cheap labor.

Jun 4, 2003 at 12:00 am
In Reefer Madness, Eric Schlosser, author of the best-selling Fast Food Nation, wields his reporting skill like a razor-sharp, but well-balanced, knife, cutting deep into the underbelly of American culture and exposing the guts of our hypocritical legal and financial systems. For the most part eschewing the titillation that would have been all too easy in a book about dope, porn, and worker exploitation, Schlosser instead uses the glaring light of meticulous research (67 pages of end notes and sources!) to illuminate the dark corners of the more than $1 trillion underground economy and the ways in which it intersects with our lives.

But it's not all dry facts; the yarns spun by Schlosser about the black market's cast of characters speak much louder than statistics. In a way that often escapes the business writers and academics posing abstractions from one side and the prurient hype-mongers on the other, Schlosser hammers home his lessons by juxtaposing personal closeups of people caught in the system with a larger picture of the shadow economy. From small-time potheads crushed under the boot of federal mandatory sentencing guidelines, to the mostly nameless migrants who literally slave in the strawberry fields of California, to the scions of the secretive porn world, Schlosser's words hit home because they are real stories of real people who run afoul of (or unprotected by) America's often capricious laws.

For Schlosser there is no getting around the problems of a system that publicly condemns while it privately, and prodigiously, consumes. From the first essay to the last, his reporting plucks at the tension between private vice, public condemnation, and, ultimately, corporate co-option. And it's this tension that leads Schlosser to the central lesson of his book, that we must "confront an awkward, underlying truth: sometimes the price of freedom is what freedom brings."

When our government kills thousands to bring "freedom" while striking back-room deals worth billions to rebuild what it destroyed, the moral contradictions in Reefer Madness perhaps won't shock as much as they would have in the past. For a book about hypocrisy, it's amazing that the word never appears. But it doesn't have to. Every time we get high, watch pay-per-view porn in a hotel room, pay a housekeeper in cash, or slice a strawberry into our breakfast cereal, Schlosser insists that we must confront the unpleasant consequences that underlie our actions and meet head-on the laws so out of touch with what freedom has brought.

Sean Carton writes for City Paper, where this feature first appeared. Send comments to [email protected].