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Derek Montgomery

Eric Schlosser, author of “Fast Food Nation” and “Reefer Madness,” spoke before a full Union Theater Monday night as part of the Distinguished Lecture Series, starting with the social conundrums of mandatory marijuana sentencing and concluding with a call to action on the part of audience members.

After being introduced by University of Wisconsin professor Bret McKowen, Schlosser opened his speech with revelatory feelings about the 2004 election rather than reciting passages from his books.

“All I could think of the next morning was about the futility of what I’ve been doing as an investigative journalist the past 10 years,” Schlosser said.

The writer said he had been in a “profound depression” since Bush’s re-election, and this mood had caused him to think about his latest work-in-progress, an investigative work about the U.S. prison system. He then linked statistics from his latest book, “Reefer Madness,” to social issues being addressed by his current work-in-progress, framing them as “a 20-year attack on freedom.”

Schlosser criticized both Democrats and Republicans and their constituencies for not being more engaged with the issues he discussed.

“What I have seen over the course of [my] 10-year career is that more people believe the direction we are going in is an inevitability,” Schlosser said. “Left or right, things are not inevitable.”

Schlosser’s opening, an impassioned fair warning, wrapped up with the author telling the audience, “Things are going to be getting worse in the next four years.”

He then switched his focus to the social costs of the war on drugs, inviting the audience to think about how it related to immigration and the working poor.

Uniting facts from “Reefer Madness” and his current research on the prison system, Schlosser said the first marijuana laws were enacted in the southwestern United States to control Mexican immigrants.

“If you can’t control them, criminalize their favorite recreational drug,” Schlosser said.

Using this as an anchor, Schlosser rooted the emergence of the War on Drugs in these early marijuana laws and blamed the criminalization of the plant to the staggering population of the U.S. prison system that, according to Schlosser, now stands at 2.2 million behind bars.

“American prisons hold 100,000 sex offenders, can’t disagree with that,” Schlosser said. “But 1.6 million aren’t rapists or they aren’t armed — they’re nonviolent drug offenders.”

The author said the average income of people when they enter prison is $10,000, and 70 percent of the substance abusers in U.S. prisons have a history of mental illness.

Schlosser spent very little time discussing topics covered in his best-selling book “Fast Food Nation,” with the exception of his engagement with the role the meatpacking industry plays in the life of America’s working poor, an issue he said he engaged several times in his career.

UW senior Kristen Jordan and junior Nora Dinneen said they were both a little “disappointed in Schlosser’s politically slanted” speech.

“His research is impressive and I was hoping that he would speak more in the voice of his books,” Jordan said. “I also wish that with all the bad organizations he talked about … he would have given us contacts for organizations making a difference.”