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1 Burnside American Studies- Popular Culture

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


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



Author Q & A

In your first book, FAST FOOD NATION, you exposed the practices and history of the fast food industry, an incredibly visible and popular aspect of our society. Why did you decide to write about the underground economy next?

I wanted to write this book on the underground economy before I wrote FAST FOOD NATION. It didn?t work out that way, and in retrospect, I think the two books appeared in the right order. FAST FOOD NATION was an attempt to look behind the cheery façade of America?s service economy. REEFER MADNESS goes a step further, looking at some of the highly lucrative but much less publicized services that Americans seek out.

In both books, you seem to be focusing on the last twenty-five to thirty years of American history. Is that a coincidence?

The book I?m writing at the moment, which is about the American prison system, covers roughly the same period. The three books are linked in many ways, and without sounding too pretentious, I view them as a trilogy. The United States has undergone some fundamental changes in my lifetime. I?m trying to offer an alternative history of the last thirty years.

How big is America?s underground economy? What factors in American history led to its growth?

Nobody really knows how big our underground economy actually is ? but most economists agree that it?s vast. A conservative estimate would be perhaps 9 to 10 percent of our gross domestic product. That?s about $1 trillion. A number of factors encouraged the rise of the underground: the growing traffic in illegal drugs, the increase in illegal immigration, and various economic hardships that encouraged people to work off the books. Most of all, I think, the size of the underground reflects a widespread sense of alienation in America.

In what ways is the average law-abiding American affected by it?

The average law-abiding citizen is affected by the underground every day. You pay higher taxes when your neighbor?s not paying his. You earn lower wages when illegal immigrants enter a job market. And the illegal drug trade is responsible in one way or another for much of the nation?s violent crime.

Why did you decide to focus on sex, drugs, and illegal immigrants?

These three subjects seemed a useful means for exploring the larger themes of the underground. Marijuana is a black-market commodity, a common weed now worth more than gold because of the harsh drug laws. Illegal immigrants are black-market labor, and their plight illustrates what can happen when employers exert unchecked power over their workers. And the recent history of pornography in America offers an interesting case study of how a deviant black-market commodity can enter the mainstream.

Why the title REEFER MADNESS?

There is a deep element of unreason in our culture. We tend to swing wildly between extremes. We grow more pot than any other country, smoke more pot, write more songs about pot ? and yet have some of the world?s toughest marijuana laws. We also have some of the toughest obscenity laws in the Western world ? but watch more porn and produce more porn than any other country. Although Reefer Madness was the title of an old movie about how marijuana can drive teenagers insane, I think it has a broader meaning, too.

What is the prevailing attitude of the American public toward marijuana today? How about the attitude of our government? What factors do you think shape these attitudes?

American attitudes toward marijuana vary tremendously. A lot of kids now think smoking a joint is just the same as drinking a beer. But other people think that smoking pot is dangerous and morally wrong. That sort of thinking pervades the Bush administration, which has launched a nationwide crackdown on marijuana. It?s remarkable how attitudes toward pot are usually based on its symbolism ? as a countercultural, outlawed intoxicant ? and not on its actual harms or effects.

Do you think marijuana should be decriminalized? Who would benefit most from decriminalization? What would be the biggest danger if marijuana were decriminalized?

I think marijuana should be decriminalized immediately. Everyone would benefit, even people who never have and never will smoke pot. The billions of dollars currently being wasted in our criminal justice system by locking up pot smokers could be used to prosecute much more serious crimes. I don?t see any dangers whatsoever from decriminalization. States that have decriminalized pot don?t have higher rates of pot use. I guess the biggest risk would be that if common sense prevailed in one area of government, it might spread to others. I don?t know how much common sense the federal government can withstand.

Why has the illegal immigrant workforce become so large in this country? What are the effects of this growing workforce on the workers themselves and on the rest of the country?

There are more illegal immigrants in the workforce today because employers have been allowed to pay them lower wages and exploit them. If the nation?s labor laws were strictly enforced and the minimum wage was increased to a decent level, the black market for labor would shrink. The rise of this black market has lowered wages at the bottom of our society and made working conditions much worse.

How important or valuable is the strawberry business? Why is illegal labor important to the industry?

The value of our strawberry crop is exceeded only by that of our apples, among the fresh fruits produced in the United States. The strawberry industry is huge ? and since every berry has to be carefully picked by hand, the industry requires armies of poor workers at harvest.

Why do you think the plight of immigrant workers goes so unnoticed? In what ways is the government involved in helping or hindering the situation?

If today?s migrant workers were blond-haired and blue-eyed instead of being dark-skinned and Latino, the American people would never tolerate their exploitation. We would not stand for it. You cannot separate the current mistreatment of migrants from our longstanding racism toward Mexicans. The government has traditionally sided with growers, not farmworkers. The former can afford to make large campaign donations; the latter can?t.

How has America?s perception of pornography changed throughout history?

American attitudes toward porn have changed more in the last thirty years than in the previous two hundred. People were sent to prison in the early 1960s for selling material much tamer than what HBO now shows on a typical night.

Historically, what has been the government?s role in regards to sex? What is it now in the United States? What do you think it should be?

The nation?s obscenity laws give the federal government enormous power to crack down on things it doesn?t like. The Bush administration has promised a renewed crackdown on pornography, and we?ll see how successful it is. I think the government should let adults read or view whatever they want in the privacy of their own homes ? with the exception of child pornography and violent pornography.

Is all of America?s sex industry within the underground economy? Why are some things considered legitimate and others not?

Prostitution, the largest sector of the sex industry, remains part of the black market. Some of the nation?s leading hotel and cable companies, however, are now earning millions from porn. They view it as just another profitable form of entertainment. The obscenity laws leave much of porn in a poorly defined gray area. It?s legal until a jury decides that it?s not.

What can the ordinary person who is outraged by the issues you raise in your book do?

The first important step is to become aware. The next is to make your views known. Speak out, work to change unjust laws, vote for candidates who don?t peddle old lies, refuse to give your money to companies that exploit their workers. I?ve written about a lot of depressing subjects, but it?s left me feeling oddly optimistic. Things don?t have to be the way they are.

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ltobin, December 23, 2010 (view all comments by ltobin)
After reading Fast Food Nation, I was on a mission to find any other book written by Schlosser. I find Schlosser an excellent writer, well-versed and well-researched. Of course, he has a point and a bias, but he does an excellent job of supporting his arguments and backing up his opinion with numbers and rational conclusions. In Reefer Madness, Schlosser addresses the impact marijuana laws have had on the US pineal system (and recreational users), the rise of the porn industry, and day labor issues in California. Overall, Schlosser does a fantastic job when describing how the US's focus on unimportant issues tears our focus away from the real problems faced by our nation. A great (and eye-opening read), I highly recommend this book.
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Product Details

Schlosser, Eric
Mariner Books
c Schlosser
Popular Culture
Popular Culture - General
Economics - General
Informal sector (economics)
Illegal aliens
Migrant agricultural laborers -- California.
Marijuana abuse - United States
Sociology - General
Edition Description:
Trade Paper
Publication Date:
April 2004
Grade Level:
from 9
3 chapter openers - halftones
8.38x5.56x.93 in. .79 lbs.
Age Level:
from 14

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Related Subjects

Arts and Entertainment » Humor » Featured Titles
Featured Titles » History and Social Science
History and Social Science » American Studies » 80s to Present
History and Social Science » American Studies » Drugs and Culture
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History and Social Science » American Studies » Popular Culture
History and Social Science » Economics » General
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Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market Used Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
$7.50 In Stock
Product details 352 pages Mariner Books - English 9780618446704 Reviews:
"Review A Day" by , "Hypocrisy is one of the indictments Eric Schlosser levels against America in Reefer Madness, his smart, levelheaded look at the unpleasant truths that emerge when you turn over the rock of mainstream American business and check out what's underneath. The other is that our worship of the almighty free market leads us to ignore injustice — because, as he points out in his discussion of illegal laborers, 'giving unchecked freedom to one group usually means denying it to another.' It's hard to argue with these conclusions. But Schlosser's analysis takes a back seat to the vivid portrait he paints of three funny-money zones where punitive moralism, venality and Puritanism grow as luxuriantly as 10-foot-high Humboldt County sinsemilla." (read the entire Salon review)
"Review A Day" by , "Schlosser, justly famous for Fast Food Nation, stares the stats down. He's very much the 'interpretive' journalist, deftly sketching historical roots and sociological implications and bringing it all to life with narrative portraits of ordinary people, then summing up with a frank statement of his policy recommendations." (read the entire Esquire review)
"Review" by , "Schlosser is a fine and diligent reporter with a real gift for description, and his three dispatches are fascinating pieces of work.... This is very good journalism..."
"Review" by , "What ties Reefer Madness together is Schlosser's passionate belief that America is deeply neurotic, a nation divided against itself into a sunny, whitewashed mainstream and a lusty, angry, deeply denied subconscious. He just might be the shrink America needs."
"Review" by , "Like Fast Food Nation, this is an eye-opening book, offering the same high level of reporting and research....A solid-and timely-second effort from Schlosser."
"Synopsis" by ,
Americaand#8217;s black market is much larger than we realize, and it affects us all deeply, whether or not we smoke pot, rent a risquand#233; video, or pay our kidsand#8217; nannies in cash. In Reefer Madness the best-selling author of Fast Food Nation turns his exacting eye on the underbelly of the American marketplace and its far-reaching influence on our society. Exposing three American mainstays and#151; pot, porn, and illegal immigrants and#151; Eric Schlosser shows how the black market has burgeoned over the past several decades. He also draws compelling parallels between underground and overground: how tycoons and gangsters rise and fall, how new techonology shapes a market, how government intervention can reinvigorate black markets as well as mainstream ones, and how big business learns and#151; and profits and#151; from the underground.

Reefer Madness is a powerful investigation that illuminates the shadow economy and the culture that casts that shadow.

"Synopsis" by , Includes bibliographical references (p. 284-292) and index.
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