Saturday, June 7, 2003

Brian Preston

p. D8.

Getting the dope, sort of, on porn

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

By Eric Schlosser
Houghton Mifflin
310 pages, $24.99

I remember talking a few years ago with one of the Rolling Stone editors who is mentioned in the acknowledgements of Eric Schlosser's new book, Reefer Madness. The magazine had just published a huge, two-part excerpt of Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, a meticulously researched exposé of "the dark side" of America's love affair with burgers and fries.

"It's fantastic, it's shocking," the editor enthused. "Did you read it?"

"Uh, no. I'm Canadian. We've been kinda David Suzukied to death up here. We already know fast food is bad."

Apparently, that didn't stop us from buying the book. Fast Food Nation has gone on to become a deservedly huge bestseller in Canada, as well as America. And now Schlosser has followed it up with Reefer Madness, which purports to shine light on America's massive underground economy.

Allow me to speculate on the genesis of this book by offering an imaginary conversation between writer and publisher:

"Eric, while you're so hot we need to get another title out there. What've you got?"

"Well, I'm researching my next book, a scathing indictment of the American prison system. But given my thorough and meticulous reporting style, it'll take me years."

"No, Eric, we need something now. Got any stories filed away, things we could dust off and recycle?"

"Well, I have articles I wrote years ago for The Atlantic Monthly. Stuff about pot growers in the midwest, or illegal Mexicans picking strawberries in California, or how about the rise and fall of America's leading porn merchant?"

"Great. Good. Love it! We need a theme to link them up. Drugs, porn and illegal labour — how about 'America's Black Market?'"

"Ah, okay, maybe. Except that porn isn't really underground any more. It's corporate now, a business like any other. If Reuben Sturman, who pretty much monopolized the hardcore-porn business in the '60s and '70s, had paid his taxes willingly and promptly like everyone else, he'd have never gone to jail. No jury ever convicted him on obscenity charges. His downfall was that he had all these coin-op, video peep-show booths, and he gave in to the temptation faced by any businessman with large amounts of unreceipted sales — he started skimming. It was tax evasion, not the nature of his merchandise, that got him in trouble."

"Now you're splitting hairs, Eric. Drugs and tax evasion doesn't have the ring of sex and drugs in a title. Just go with it. No one will notice that kind of subtlety."

Reefer Madness is a cobbling together of three stories: a 60-page chapter, with much of its material gathered in the early 1990s, that walks us through the well-trod terrain of America's absurd hypocrisy toward marijuana; then, a 40-page chapter, with much material from the mid-1990s, on exploited Latino labour in the farm fields of California; and, finally, a more recent, 100-page chapter about the rise and fall of the aforementioned Reuben Sturman, the one-time king of American porn. It's not clear why a book that is less than a third about marijuana and more than half about a pornography tycoon takes for a title one of the most tired clichés of the pot world.

Which is not to say that Reefer Madness isn't enlightening and readable, or that it won't make your blood boil at various well-argued examples of American injustice. You'll hear about pot dealers serving longer sentences than murderers. You'll read how Mexicans are used and abused in quasi-legal sharecropping arrangements, and forced to sleep in hidden shantytowns a stone's throw from gated, affluent Californian suburbs. You'll meet a major seller of erotica and sex toys facing constant harassment from federal prosecutors kowtowing to the Christian right, perhaps because this porn merchant, a former Peace Corps volunteer, funds birth-control clinics in India.

Schlosser's strength is research. His avalanche of data spills plenty of fascinating tidbits, for example, a suggestion that the American $100-bill, traditional currency of the world's illegal economy, may, some day, be supplanted by the new, 500-Euro note. Think of it: five times more cash per smuggled suitcase.

In the end, the parts of Reefer Madness remain greater than the whole. The book doesn't hang together. Schlosser attempts to link his three disparate stories with two short opening and closing chapters that raise the spectre of Adam Smith's invisible hand of the free market. "If the market does indeed embody the sum of all human wishes," he writes at the start, "then the secret ones are just as important as the ones that are openly displayed." If so, then prostitution, which still relies on clandestine cash transactions, would have made a more fitting subject than porn, which the Internet has rapidly rendered credit-card friendly, and so unsecret as to be utterly ubiquitous and banal.

— Brian Preston is the author of Pot Planet: Adventures in Global Marijuana Culture.

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Created: January 8, 2004
Last modified: January 14, 2004
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