Reefer Madness

Three long essays, and an extensive notes and bibliography section, make up this book that looks at the US’ illegal and semi-legal economy. Eric Schlosser studies the politics and economics of marijuana, the growing illegal immigrant worker army and one man’s domination of the porn industry.

For over a century American politicians and moralisers have demonised cannabis and all who smoke it. The emphasis has always been on the harmful effects of the demon weed could have on middle class white kids. Senences for handling, or aiding the handling of, marijuana have escalated to the point where you can get a smaller sentence for murdering someone than for dealing a little dope. Meanwhile the system of paying informants and seizing assets has encouraged massive corruption.
As with any ill thought out, reactionary policy it’s the poor who suffer the mostwhilst the wealthy get away with their crimes and the powerful demonise those least able to fight back. The US prison system is underfunded and incapable of coping and the whole war on drugs is failing.

Per acre, strawberries are second only to marijuana. It is also one of the few cash crops that still cannot be effectively mechanically picked. So the strawberry farms of California rely on Mexican workers, many illegal, to harvest the berries and keep the costs down.

Conditions today are almost worse than thosefor the Okies in Grapes of Wrath. Unions have been broken up and pickers and sharecroppers exploited by unscrupulous farmers and combines.

The last essay traces the career of Reuben Sturman, a Cleveland comic salesman turned smut peddler who, at his peak, was the most powerful individual in the US porn industry. Consistently the obscenity cases brought against Sturman collapsed. In one ruling the jury produced a multi-page response berating the government for wasting time and money.

Such high profile embarrassments made Sturman a target for the authorities and in the end they got him for tax evasion. Not wanting to give money to the system that was trying to put him out of business, Sturman operated through increasingly complex series of shell companies and off shore accounts. Only by alleging, based on evidence it still won’t release, that Sturman had connections to the Mafia could the IRS get access to his Swiss accounts and make their case.

Throughout the essays it is clear that Schlosser is exasperated by successive governments’ inability to set the right priorities and hypocrisy in ignoring the behaviour of Enron et al. He seems to have warmed less to Sturman than his other subjects, but it is harder to feel for a tax cheat who resorted to strong arm tactics at the end than a man who could die in prison because he tried to supply somne medical marijuana.

Like Fast Food Nation, Schlosser’s look at junk food culture, this book makes you despair for the state of the US. However, unlike the expanding waistline, it looks like some of the problems aren’t going to exported, as other countries, including Britain, adopt more civilised drugs laws and others can manage to be grown up about sex.

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