Story by Todd Peterson
Photo by Brian Jahn
Eric Schlosser’s best-selling Fast Food Nation provided an unsettling view of the ingredients in burger joints’ all-beef patties and of the iron grip these multinational corporations have on our culture, from slaughterhouses to ad agencies. His new book, Reefer Madness, focuses on the enterprises that drive America’s underground economy: illegal immigrant labor, pornography, and marijuana.
In Reefer Madness, Schlosser details the harms that have been perpetrated by the government in the name of fighting marijuana. While he avoids endorsing legalization, he poses what ought to become a fundamental question in the war on drugs: How does a society come to punish a man more harshly for selling marijuana than for killing someone with a gun?
His next book will be on the prison system.
In Reefer Madness, you chose to explore three aspects of the black market: marijuana, immigrant labor, and pornography. What led you to focus on these?
Eric Schlosser: I certainly could have chosen other areas, but I found these three really illustrated the underground economy. Marijuana is our largest cash crop; it may be worth $25 billion per year. In high school and college, smoking pot is like a rite of passage. Yet most people aren’t aware of the penalties being handed out for marijuana. It’s incredible. People are going to jail for a long time. I included immigrant workers as an example of what happens in a market that goes unchecked. It’s an economic problem. These workers are exploited by companies and employers that have found they profit from operating with a black-market workforce. Pornography shows how arbitrary our laws can be. This is a commodity that has completely changed in the public’s eye. A film that 30 years ago would have landed someone in prison today is being sold by Fortune 500 companies [via cable TV]. With all three issues, I wanted to make people question their assumptions.
You draw a parallel between the war on marijuana and the 1950s anti-Communist crusade. How did you come up with that comparison?
My thesis was on McCarthyism, so this was a topic I was familiar with. McCarthy had the names of all the suspected Communists; it wasn’t a question of rooting people out. What he and his supporters wanted was a public renunciation of the behavior they didn’t like. It was their way of enforcing conformity. And that’s what the government is doing with marijuana; it’s enforcing conformity.
The effects of a long-term racist policy are evident in the crisis of migrant workers, but weren’t many of the prevailing attitudes about marijuana built on racism too?
Yes, they were. I address that in the book. In the early 1900s, marijuana was linked to African Americans and jazz musicians, as well as Mexican immigrants.
Why did you decide to use the title Reefer Madness?
I tried some other titles: "Out of the Underground," for example. But I kept coming back to the "madness" of Reefer Madness. I think that works for more than just marijuana. With the reliance on "free" markets—and the illegal workers who suffer—we’re creating an economy that is mad. The same is true of porn. We have the strictest obscenity laws, but we’re making and watching more porn than any other country.
You tell the story of Mark Young, who was sentenced to life without parole for arranging the sale of 700 pounds of pot. As frightening as his story might be, how do you convince someone who may be a casual pot-smoker that they have anything like this to fear? For example, someone who has never had more than an ounce in his or her possession, or has never brokered any large-scale sale?
Since I finished the book, there was this case in Alabama where a high school student was sentenced to 26 years in prison for selling four ounces of marijuana. He sold it at his house to an undercover agent who was posing as a student. He didn’t sell it at school, but because his house was within three miles of the school, it was a felony and he was subjected to this harsh sentence. The judge said that he wanted to send a message to other kids that might sell marijuana. This kid didn’t have any prior record or anything. What kind of message do you send by sentencing a kid to prison for 26 years for selling four ounces of marijuana? It’s insane.
Otherwise intelligent, educated people who are opposed to marijuana are given a voice in your book and allowed to express their thoughts. Is pot always doomed to be an "us vs. them" issue?
I don’t think so. Eventually people are going to get sick of these laws. The US is moving so far away from the rest of the Western countries on the issue of marijuana. What’s going to happen when doctors in Canada are prescribing pot to their patients? The laws are going to change.
In your research, was there something you learned—about any aspect from growing to selling to prosecuting—that surprised you the most?
That someone could be sentenced to life in prison for selling marijuana. It’s unbelievable. The punishments don’t match the crime. And the Bush administration is cracking down even more. I don’t smoke marijuana; I do a much more dangerous drug—I drink. But because it’s sanctioned by society and the government, drinking is OK.
What would happen if marijuana were decriminalized?
That’s what I advocate in the book—decriminalization. But you can’t just legalize it. You can’t go from a society where smoking a joint can put someone in prison to one in which Hindu Kush is immediately advertised on prime time. That’s too much of a change. But it should be decriminalized immediately. We need to turn down the volume on the argument.
What about other drugs? Should they be decriminalized too?
I stick to speaking about marijuana because I want to know something thoroughly before offering an opinion. I haven’t researched other drugs the way I have marijuana. I think without a doubt some are bad: methamphetamine does all the things they used to say marijuana did.
If you had to hazard a guess, what would your long-term prediction be as to what will happen regarding marijuana?
I feel good about the long term. I think eventually people are just going to get tired of this. About the short term—I’m not so optimistic. Just be very, very careful. Know the laws in your area.