Reefer Madness Summary

Eric Schlosser

Reefer Madness

  • This summary of Reefer Madness includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

Reefer Madness Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature  detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Reefer Madness by Eric Schlosser.

Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market is a nonfiction book by American author, Eric Schlosser. First published in 2003, it is an examination of the three pillars of the underground economy of the United States, which is believed to provide up to ten percent of the American GDP. Divided into three parts, the book looks at the historical context of the prohibition of marijuana; the exploitation of illegal immigrants as cheap labor, particularly in agriculture; and the history of pornography in American culture. The book explores themes including criminal justice, drug culture, and the intersection of the American economy and corruption. A best-seller, Reefer Madness was widely praised for its in-depth look at the American underground economy and is considered one of the defining texts of the marijuana legalization movement.

Reefer Madness begins with a brief introduction, titled “The Underground”, that looks at the history of black market activities in the United States. While Prohibition led a massive boom in the illegal trade of alcohol, since then, the black market has evolved into a multipronged system estimated to account for ten percent of the United States economy. However, Schlosser argues that the human cost of this underground economy is massive. The first chapter of the book, titled “Reefer Madness”, expands on previous essays Schlosser has written on the subject. He highlights the case of Mark Young, a young Indiana man sentenced to life in prison for playing a minor role in a marijuana dealership. He looks at the history of marijuana, the events that led to it being criminalized, and the major role it plays in the criminal justice system. Schlosser shows that a disproportionate number of US prison inmates are there for marijuana-related crimes, and an even more disproportionate number of those prisoners are minorities. He makes the case that both justice and the economy would be better served by decriminalization of marijuana and treatment for addicts, combined with aggressive prosecution of high-end drug dealers and an information campaign to turn young people away from trying it. Schlosser argues that this would free up valuable criminal justice resources for prosecuting other crimes and massively reduce the incarceration rate.

The second segment of the book, titled “In the Strawberry Fields”, focuses on immigrant labor in central California, particularly the towns of Guadalupe and Watsonville. Although Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers made huge strides in improving the conditions of farm workers, there is still a large and complicated problem regarding the abuse and overwork of undocumented immigrant workers. Schlosser addresses the harsh economic circumstances that growers face, focusing on the strawberry crop, where demand has risen sharply. However, the notoriously troublesome and pest-ridden crop is very vulnerable to climate changes. Thus, being in the strawberry business requires a significant amount of capital, and competition is fierce. As a result, growers can cut costs in only one area–labor. They avoid paying overtime, Social Security and Medicare taxes by employing undocumented immigrants, and have developed under-the-table contracts for those workers that resemble sharecropping contracts. They contract with operators who transport workers into the country and then hand them over to the employers. Schlosser ends the essay by challenging the reader to think about how much corruption they’re willing to accept in the name of a free market and easy access to goods.

The final chapter of the book, “An Empire of the Obscene”, focuses on the pornography industry and its impact on the economy. The chapter opens with a profile of Reuben Sturman, who dominated the production and distribution of pornography around the world until his death in 1997. The son of immigrants, he built a small business selling comics and dirty magazines into a massive business that made him wealthy. Separating his personal and business lives, he maintained a respectable front and worked to keep his business away from the eyes of the IRS. It took twenty years before the IRS caught up to him, and he eventually died in prison. Schlosser also looks at key moments in the development of the porn industry, including the most famous films, the government’s attempts to shut the industry down, and the way technology changed the way pornography was distributed. Schlosser ends the chapter by calling for a frank, national discussion about the way pornography has been normalized. He believes it should be brought out of the shadows so that it can be treated as a part of the American economy and regulated more effectively, to eliminate the abuse and corruption that still plague it.

Eric Schlosser is an American journalist and author best known for his books of investigative journalism. His 2001 book, Fast Food Nation, was made into a 2006 film directed by Richard Linklater, and his 2013 book, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for History.