"It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues." - 16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln
Vices are as American as apple pie - tobacco, alcohol, gambling, pornography and many others absolutely saturate today's society. Just as prevalent are government policies to control them. Laws crafted to regulate the salacious appetite of the public are among the most controversial public policies - take the American alcohol prohibition failure as a prime example.
Online gamblers today find themselves in a predicament similar to our forefathers who brewed moonshine in their basements. Placing wagers online is an activity that causes no real harm to those around us, but the government has decided that it must be stopped with little rhyme or reason to their decision. But we don't need to go back 90 years to sympathize with a group similarly denied the ability to freely pursue a mostly harmless activity. We can instead look to a similar situation that has existed in this country for decades: marijuana law reform.
The prohibitions on marijuana and online gambling are remarkably similar. Both are recreational activities that consenting adults practice, for the most part, in the privacy of their own homes. Both are essentially "victimless" crimes. Both are also generally accepted (if grudgingly) by society at large. Just as medical marijuana use consistently has 70% or higher approval ratings in polls, online gambling also has generally had broad public tolerance.
It is also widely held that the real dangerous or criminal element of both marijuana and gambling is caused primarily by the prohibition itself, not the activity. If legalized and out in the open, we wouldn't have to worry as much about money laundering to terrorists or underage access. There are plenty of solutions to those problems, but prohibition only drives these things further underground when we should be trying to get them out in the open.
Bill Maher remarked that marijuana is one of the only vices where we base public policy on the worst segment of the population. Online gambling is another. Sure, online gambling will have some addicts. But it already does, and those addicts are certainly not going to call it quits just because it is a little harder to get money out to the Caribbean. They will find a way to get it there, and, if not, they will find another way to get that same gambling fix, whether it be horseracing down the street, lottery at the corner bar, or feeding a few 20's into an Indian casino the next county over.
If prohibition is designed to protect the small fraction of people who will harm themselves, then there should be a lot more bans forthcoming. Alcohol (almost 17,000 DUI deaths in 2005 alone) and tobacco (kills about 1200 people per day) should be first on the ban list, far ahead of marijuana and gambling. Then of course we have to ban spray paint and gasoline (someone might "huff" them), cold medications (might be used to make methamphetamines), and, of course, the real killer, trans-fat. Fortunately, New York City is well ahead of the rest of the country on solving that problem.
The fact is, it is downright silly to assume that you can get rid of our vices through prohibition. The "War on Drugs" is evidence of this. The federal government has spent tens of billions of dollars per year for the past three-and-a-half decades on the "War on Drugs". And for what? To arrest over 5 million Americans in the past decade for marijuana possession? So that over 12% of the current prisoner population is incarcerated on marijuana crimes? Yet the prevalence of drug use has not significantly changed over the past 35 years. The war is failing, folks. Notably, the same thing happened during the Prohibition era, when alcohol use actually increased. So even with all the evidence on the table that prohibition doesn't work, we are going down the same path again with the new threat, internet gambling.
Online gambling is NOT the "internet version of crack cocaine", as Senator Jon Kyl has alleged. Online gambling is apparently not even the "crack cocaine of gambling", a term usually reserved for electronic gaming machines such as video slot machine and remote lottery terminals. Funny how we don't see those dangers disappearing so quickly. In fact, video lottery terminals are now legal in 6 U.S. States and almost all Canadian provinces. Slot parlors and "racinos" are popping up at a frantic pace. And let's be realistic for a minute - lotteries are not exactly charities giving away money to try to help some lucky chosen few achieve the American dream. No, they exist to raise money so that politicians can fund legislation to name highways after themselves. Offshore sportsbook 5Dimes pays me 900-to-1 for the same "Pick 3" that Pennsylvania pays me 500-to-1 on. And the offshore one is the illegal of the two?
So what then can the history of the marijuana anti-prohibition movement tell us about the future of internet gambling?
Well first of all, if change comes it will be painstakingly slow. NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) has been advocating for marijuana law reform for over 35 years, and they don't have a whole lot to show for it. The progress that NORML has made has come mostly at the state level, not the federal level. Currently 12 states allow the use of medical marijuana, and new bills are constantly being introduced in other states. However, the federal government is standing strong in its classification of marijuana as a schedule I drug (high potential for abuse, no valid medical use) even in the face of piles of evidence to the contrary.
NORML's actions should shed some light on what the online gambling fight will require. Due to the actions of groups like NORML, public support for medical marijuana is overwhelming. Whether the online gambling patrons have the same enthusiasm is another matter. Since the money is flowing into the sports books, we might expect them to be the initiators of lobbying efforts and palm-greasing in Washington. Unfortunately, none of the industry leaders have shown much interest in doing so. The industry is going to need to start organizing Political Action Committees and cozying up to allies on the federal level in order to survive in the U.S. We once had an ally in Rep. Jon Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), who advocated for online gambling for many years and compared the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act to Prohibition. Now might be the time to push for change, with Conyers recently installed as Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
So while we wait on the governmental blessing for online gambling, I guess I will walk across to the corner store and pick myself up some lottery tickets. The PA State Lottery was kind enough to mail residents "buy 1, get 1 free" coupons good for the next 6 months. Of course, I still expect to lose money even buying the tickets at half price, but at least the state gave a generous kick start to my gambling addiction.