REEFER MADNESS: SEX, DRUGS AND CHEAP LABOUR IN THE AMERICAN BLACK MARKET
Eric Schlosser Houghton Mifflin, 310 pages, $34.95.

In his 2001 bestseller Fast Food Nation, investigative journalist Eric Schlosser documented the darker side of the quick-and-crappy food industry that supplies one in four American meals. Now he sets his sights on the darker side of America itself, with three related but not quite connected stories on the American underground economy: drugs, migrant farming and obscenity.

Bookended by an introduction and conclusion, which paint the broad strokes of the US$650-billion black market with the palette of Adam Smith, are three obsessively documented and well-crafted essays that began life in the Atlantic Monthly.

The title essay is the most damning, a meticulous skewering of America’s War on Drugs. “A society that can punish a marijuana offender more severely than a murderer is caught in the grip of a deep psychosis,” Schlosser writes, illustrating the point by taking us into the lives of pot smokers and growers who’ve been caught and severely punished.

Less successfully, he takes the same biography-as-argument approach in his final and longest chapter on obscenity, walking us through the life and times of Reuben Sturman, who dominated the pornography market in the ’70s and ’80s. Sturman’s constant outfoxing of district attourneys and the Internal Revenue Service makes for riveting reading — if a movie of his life isn’t already in the works, it should be — but it doesn’t quite add up to a survey of the porn world.

Schlosser doesn’t editorialize much, but when he does it seems thrown together and not entirely thought through. His strength is as a reporter, and the world could use a few more that approach their job this rigourously.

“The underground is a good measure of the progress and health of nations,” Schlosser says in conclusion. “When much is wrong, much needs to be hidden.” It’s a sensible statement not entirely borne out by the supporting material. No matter. While Reefer Madness isn’t comprehensive, what it looks at is scrutinized in detail. The result is entertaining, sometimes enraging and ultimately fascinating.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on June 5, 2003.

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