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Pot, Porn and Pickers 

Fast Food Nation author explores the black market

click to enlarge Americas leading muckraker dives into the black market.
  • Americas leading muckraker dives into the black market.

You might remember Eric Schlosser from his best-selling book Fast Food Nation, where this muckraker extraordinaire held up Colorado Springs as the apotheosis of suburban-sprawled, fast-food-dominated, strip-mauled America.

The good news is that we're off the hook in his latest effort, a mysterious triptych called Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market. What's mysterious is the common thread that unites three seemingly disparate chapters on: the federal government's war against marijuana, the plight of migrant strawberry workers in California's central valley, and the life and times of the biggest porn peddler you've never heard of, Reuben Sturman.

The Independent spoke with Schlosser recently about the ties that bind these chapters together and what unites Fast Food Nation, Reefer Madness, and his forthcoming expos on the American prison system.

Indy: How did you decide on these three facets of the black market?

ES: There seemed in my mind to be a logic in the sense that marijuana is a black market commodity, illegal immigrants are black market labor and the porn piece is a case study in how the black market becomes mainstream --how a black market commodity gets transformed into a corporate commodity and how it's treated very differently when it's a corporate commodity than when it's people on the fringes who are selling it.

Indy: You state that private marijuana use should be decriminalized because it does not harm adult users. I know it wasn't the thrust of your investigation, but do you think the effects of pornography are as benign as adult marijuana use?

ES: The big studies that have been done on porn suggest that violent porn -- a combination of sexual situations with violence -- does encourage violent behavior. There is a connection between watching violent porn and people wanting to act out violently. So violent porn, I think, should really be restricted. When you look at most mainstream hardcore porn today, there is much more of that kind of mixture of sexuality and violence in R-rated movies than there is in hardcore porn.

Child pornography, which by definition involves the exploitation of somebody who shouldn't be exploited, porn involving animals who can't give their consent, violent pornography, these things should be absolutely, strictly banned. The other stuff ... I'm not going to defend it, I'm not going to support it, I'm not going to say it's a good thing, but I think if consensual adults -- male and female -- want to perform in these things and other consenting adults want to watch them, it's part of their private life and I don't think the government has any business in it whatsoever.

How it's distributed, who's allowed to buy it, how it's marketed, [these are] the kinds of things that really do impact the public. But there has to be a trade-off. Right now, the obscenity law that dates back to 1873 allows a jury to make whatever they want obscene. You get before the wrong jury and you could be convicted today for Catcher In The Rye.

Indy: With President Clinton's "I didn't inhale" saga and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's comment that he smoked pot and enjoyed it, the pot taboo has been lifted significantly. At the same time, no politician is going to get any mileage from championing the cause of pot legalization. Do you think we'll see any movement on marijuana legalization/decriminalization in, say, the next 10 years?

ES: I'm not in favor of legalizing it. Theoretically that's a wonderful idea, but the position I'm supporting is decriminalization. I think you could decriminalize marijuana next week without causing any harm to society and reduce a great deal of harm and save a lot of criminal justice money.

Legalizing, that's a vast experiment that nobody knows what the answer is. If you legalize something then why not advertise marijuana on the Super Bowl? Why not have Philip Morris selling marijuana at 7-11s all across America? I don't know if that's a good thing, but there's no question in my mind that if the United States government were to decriminalize marijuana next week, the republic would not fall and it would be remarkable how little difference you'd notice in people's behavior -- except that some people wouldn't be getting busted and sent to prison.

What's that going to take? I just think it's going to take some common sense and some politicians that are willing to say publicly what they'll admit to privately, which is that this current system is terrible. Unfortunately, the only politicians who are willing to do that are some conservative Republicans who are in many ways the most outspoken and honest opponents of the war on marijuana. Whereas it's a lot of the liberal democrats who have to act like they're tough on drugs.

Indy: You talk about how the war against marijuana is a cultural thing, that the government has always been threatened by people associated with marijuana. Is that still true?

ES: The mainstream generally has not liked the kinds of people who smoked pot and are associated with marijuana culture. It started out with poor Mexicans at a time of really anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican sentiment and then poor blacks and then jazz musicians. It's amazing looking back how despised jazz was and how jazz was seen as this jungle threat to 'pure American culture.'" And reading the anti-jazz articles, it's so similar to the anti-hip-hop articles and also very racist. Beatniks, hippies, and today the hip-hop community, the people who have alarmed the mainstream parents, have smoked pot and that's why the laws are the way they are. There's nothing about the substance itself, there's nothing about the plant itself that possibly justifies the death penalty for a first-offense marijuana crime under federal law. It's incredible that you can get the death penalty -- no one has --but the idea that that's even on the books is insane.

Indy: Moving on to strawberry pickers, would this chapter have been substantially different if you had decided to focus on workers who pick a different fruit or vegetable?

ES: No, and as a matter of fact there was just a terrific piece in The New Yorker about tomato pickers in Florida. I've actually been working with a group that's trying to help them out called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. They're doing a boycott of Taco Bell because Taco Bell is buying tomatoes from these growers. The wages in California, adjusted for inflation, have fallen 50 percent for many migrants since 1980. In Florida the wages, adjusted for inflation, in some cases have dropped 75 percent. I used strawberries because it's the most labor intensive but you could have looked at broccoli and all different kinds of crops and looked at it in other states and this is [emphasis added] what's going on.

Indy: Is union organizing too much of a risk for illegal strawberry workers simply because they risk not only their jobs -- where, as you point out, they can earn about 10 times what they could back in rural Mexico -- but deportation as well? Is there just too much fear among these workers?

ES: It's the employers in California who I think should start being afraid right now because, especially in California, the political tide is starting to turn. The Latino population is growing; their political influence is growing, and there was a real success recently organizing janitors, many of whom are illegal immigrants in Los Angeles.

In California, legislation was signed into law just before the new year that's going to impose mediation on farm labor disputes. So it's going to be a lot easier for unions to get in.

Indy: I understand that this book, Fast Food Nation and your forthcoming book on the prison system are part of a trilogy. Could you comment on what connects them?

ES: I didn't set out 10 years ago with grand plans, but as I've been working I realized that these three books are connected and they're connected by a number of themes. In the simplest sense they cover the same period of history [discussing] how America has been formed since the early 1970s. They look at what's happened to ordinary people and what's happened to the power of the state and the power of large corporations. A lot of Reefer Madness is about the links that aren't always clear between the underground and the mainstream and trying to show you that it's not like there are two different worlds; there's one world. There's this one country and these are just different aspects of the same culture, the same place.

I'm trying to look at prisons not as this separate world that is totally distinct from the mainstream, but that is intimately connected to our culture and even if you are a very nice upper-middle-class person who never breaks the law, doesn't know anyone in prison, one of the arguments I'm going to make is that your life is really being affected by what's going on in these prison walls, sight unseen, far away from your nice comfortable house.

Hopefully -- knock on wood -- if you were to start at Fast Food Nation and get to the end of the prison book, you might see America a little differently and think about what's going on and what's happened to this country.

-- John Dicker

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