- - Tuesday, October 20, 2020

In November, Maryland voters will weigh in on whether sports betting should be legal in the state. Question 2 would allow certain licensed facilities to offer patrons a way to legally wager on sports and direct the bulk of the new revenue toward public schools.

The few voices advocating a “no” vote on legalizing sports betting have some valid concerns, like the fact that the referendum doesn’t guarantee how the revenue is used. But other concerns, like assertions that legalizing gambling increases gambling addiction, amount to fear-mongering.

And let’s be real. Opponents of legalized sports betting in Maryland inaccurately frame it as a choice between letting Maryland residents bet on sports or not. But that is not what will be decided by Question 2. We will be choosing whether we want residents to bet on sports legally in Maryland or illegally in other states.

Betting is popular among Marylanders, with nearly 20% gambling on a monthly basis or more. After lottery, casino games and horse racing, the most popular type of betting is sports. Since they can’t legally bet on sports, that means one of two things: They rely on unlicensed bookies or drive across state lines to where it is legal.

As of August 2020, all of Maryland’s neighboring states have legalized sports betting, already available in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia and operations in Virginia set to come online soon.

The good news is that people prefer to gamble legally and, as a recent report from the American Gaming Association indicates, are migrating away from illegal bookies into these newly legal markets. But illegal bookies remain available, on and offline, for those residents unable or unwilling to make the cross-border drive.

Forcing people into the arms of organized crime is not what anyone should want. Illicit bookies do not care about age restrictions or mitigating problem gambling. Their profits also tend to fund other, more dangerous criminal activities, like the trafficking of people, drugs and weapons.

Maryland’s ban on sports betting also costs the state money and jobs. Since states began authorizing the activity in 2018, legal sports betting generated more than $230 million in new tax revenue to state and local governments. Depending on how it is regulated, legalizing sports betting could spur as many as 4,000 new jobs in Maryland and $70 million in tax revenue for the state annually. Maryland is missing out on that opportunity and money. Many people may worry that this economy boost is not worth negative effects they believe legalizing betting will cost society. However, most of these concerns are not based on evidence but, rather, outdated, morality-based fears.

As with any debate over gambling legalization, opposition talking points foment worry that expanding legal betting opportunities will mean increases in problem gambling. But according to evidence collected around the globe for decades, this is simply not how it works.

Worldwide, about 1% of the population currently meets the clinical definition of pathological gambling, with another 2% or 3% displaying signs of disordered gambling. But, despite increased access to gambling around the world, including online, rates of pathological and disordered gambling remain virtually unchanged since first studied in the 1970s.

Surveys taken in Maryland before and after casino gambling show the same trend. In 2010, when Maryland had no casinos, surveys found 3.4% of adults were disordered gamblers. Seven years and six casinos later, that prevalence of discorded gambling appeared to decline to 1.9%. As a 2017 study commissioned by the Maryland Department of Health noted, “Marylanders’ gambling habits have not changed appreciably: they spend approximately the same amount of time playing the same types of games, but they now do it at Maryland venues.”

The availability of gambling may impact individuals with gambling disorders. But evidence indicates legalized gambling impacts a small subset of the population. More importantly, we do people vulnerable to problem gambling and everyone else in the state no favors by pretending that just because sports betting isn’t legal in Maryland, people aren’t betting on sports.

The better approach for state coffers, residents and vulnerable individuals is to ensure people who want to gamble can do so responsibly, and those who need help have access to it. Legalizing sports betting gives lawmakers the opportunity to develop a regulatory environment that encourages gambling operators to respect self-exclusion lists for self-identified gambling addicts, train employees to spot problem gambling and work with authorities on ways to protect the public.

Instead of sending millions of dollars to neighboring states — or illegal bookies — Maryland could use some revenue generated by legal betting to fund programs aimed at monitoring, preventing and treating disordered gambling. None of this can happen while sports betting is in the illicit market and over state lines.

So, the real choice on the November ballot is: Are we going to let residents gamble on sports at licensed, regulated facilities in Maryland? Or, are we going to continue pretending that just because sports gambling is illegal in Maryland, Marylanders aren’t gambling on sports? 

• Michelle Minton is a senior fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market public policy organization based in Washington, D.C.

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