Marijuana, pornography and illegal labor have created a hidden market in the US which now accounts for as much as 10 percent of the American economy, according to a study. As a cash crop, marijuana is believed to have outstripped maize and hardcore porn revenue is equal to Hollywood's domestic box office takings.
Despite laws that punish marijuana cultivation more strictly than murder in some states, Americans spend more on illegal drugs than on cigarettes. And despite official disapproval of pornography, the US leads the world in export of explicit sex videos, according to Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market, by Eric Schlosser.
Although the official American economy has been suffering a downturn, the shadow economy is enjoying unprecedented levels of success, much in the way that the prohibition period fuelled the illegal markets in the 1930s.
Schlosser found that three specific industries accounted for a major portion of this boom.
No aspect of farming has grown faster in the US over the past three decades than marijuana, with one-third of the public over the age of 12 having smoked the drug.
While the nation's largest legal cash crop, maize, produces about US$19 billion in revenue, "plausible" estimates for the value of marijuana crops reach US$25 billion. Steve White, a former coordinator for the US Drug Enforcement Administration's cannabis eradication program, says that the drug is now the country's largest cash crop.
Schlosser writes: "Although popular stereotypes depict marijuana growers as ageing hippies in northern California or Hawaii, the majority of the marijuana now cultivated domestically is being grown in the nation's mid-section -- a swathe running from the Appalachians west to the Great Plains. Throughout this Marijuana Belt drug fortunes are being made by farmers who often seem to have stepped from a page of the old Saturday Evening Post."
Some of the most expensive crops are grown indoors on the west coast using advanced scientific techniques but the American heartlands account for the largest volume. Some estimates suggest 3 million Americans grow marijuana, although mostly for their own or their friends' use, but between 100,000 and 200,000 are believed to do so for a living.
The laws against the drug are strict. There were 724,000 people arrested for marijuana offences in 2001 and about 50,000 are in prison. Commercial growers can serve sentences far longer than those for murder, but the high risks appear to have had little effect on production or availability: 89 percent of secondary school students surveyed indicated that they could easily obtain the drug.
The annual number of hardcore video rentals in the US has risen from 79 million in 1985 to 759 million in 2001. Hardcore pornography in the shape of videos, the Internet, live sex acts and cable television is now estimated to generate around US$10 billion.
Americans spend more money at strip clubs than at Broadway, regional theaters and orchestra performances combined. The industry has mushroomed since the 1970s, when a study found that it was worth only US$10 million.
Now the US leads the world in pornography; about 211 new films are produced every week. Los Angeles is the center of the film boom and many of those in the trade are otherwise respectable citizens.