A tale of two vices | On Politics | Chicago Reader

A tale of two vices 

Let’s pit reefer vs. gambling to see which is worse.

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click to enlarge Weed was recently legalized for recreational use in Illinois. - MARCO VERCH/FLICKR
  • Weed was recently legalized for recreational use in Illinois.
  • Marco Verch/flickr

Quick question . . . Which vice is more destructive: gambling or reefer? I've been posing this question for weeks, ever since our state legislators expanded one and legalized the other.

The overwhelming response is gambling, of course. In fact, when I broadened the vices we legalize and tax, most people place marijuana third in destructiveness, behind liquor and cigarettes. And yet?

Well, let me start with the good news. Yes, state legislators finally got around to voting to legalize marijuana—something they should have done years ago,

And, yes, Governor Pritzker signed the bill. So yes, you can legally smoke as of January 1.

So congratulations one and all.

But man, oh, man, the hypocritical anguish and agony of legislators as they made their vote was almost too much to take.

In contrast, they whipped that gambling expansion bill through the statehouse in the last days of the session that had already gone overtime and when most reps and senators wanted to go home.

I haven't seen such rapidity on passing a major bill since the City Council passed the parking-meter deal with almost no thought, much less debate.

If you want to know more about the consequences of the 816-page gambling bill, I urge you to read the stories by Dan Mihalopoulos and Jason Grotto—a tagteam of investigative reporters for WBEZ and ProPublica, respectively, who proclaim the new bill will "transform Illinois into the gambling capital of the Midwest."

Here's a sampling . . .

"The legislation legalizes sports gambling; sanctions six new casinos, including one in Chicago; increases the number of video gambling machines . . . and transforms the state's horse racing tracks into 'racinos' by permitting casino operations at the state's three existing tracks."

"The number of state-sponsored gambling 'positions'—seats to place a bet inside a casino, bar or racino—will grow from almost 44,000 to nearly 80,000. That's about four times the number of positions in any neighboring state. . . . Within two years, Illinois could have more than 7,000 video gambling establishments, 5,000 lotterylike sports betting kiosk locations, 16 casinos, five racinos and online sports gambling accessible on millions of mobile phones."

Place your bets, suckers.

Look, I'm not calling for a prohibition on gambling. I'm a libertarian when it comes to vices—legalize them all, with proper oversight, of course.

But why are we so cautious about the consequences of one vice and so cavalier about the other?

I blame it on the "War on Drugs" we spent the last 50 or so years fighting. It was a horrific waste of time and energy that destroyed countless families and communities—especially Black ones.

There were many reasons to support the legalization of marijuana—not the least of which is that it's so freaking hypocritical to throw Black people into jail for the high crime of doing something that white people do every day without a second thought.

But Republicans dedicated years to the War on Drugs, cheered on by Bill Clinton Democrats who were determined never to let the Republicans make them look "weak" on crime.

Obviously, they couldn't just let it go overnight. Got to pretend they truly believed all that antidrug nonsense they've been spouting for years. Hence, the antireefer breast-beating in last month's legislative debate by legislators who, for all I know, went out afterwards and got staggeringly drunk.

But gambling? Well, there's never really been a war on that. The state instituted the lottery years ago. Churches and not-for-profits have been having raising money with bingo and casino nights forever.

Hardly any Republicans voted to legalize reefer. But the gambling bill had widespread bipartisan support.

So apparently it's OK to smoke, drink, and gamble. But reefer? It's the demon drug!

Oh, there was anguish over the recent gambling expansion bill. But it had almost nothing to do with whether turning Illinois into Vegas made it easier for suckers to go broke playing games that were stacked against them.

No, it had to do with which team of billionaires—with their armies of lobbyists—would prevail over the other.

In the end, in-state gambling interests largely beat back attempts by out-of-state online sports betting sites to get a toehold in Illinois.

Bottom line: the operators who run the gambling industry wanted to make more money, and the politicians who run the state needed more tax dollars to, you know, run the state. And that was that.

That brings me to the recent "fair tax" initiative that also passed the house and senate last session. This is an initiative to replace the current flat tax with one that makes wealthier people pay at a higher rate.

Not one Republican legislator—including those who voted to expand gambling—voted for it.

Apparently, Republicans don't mind raising taxes so long as someone else pays them. In this case, gambling addicts and other suckers.

While I'm on the subject, check out Inside the Edge, an enlightening new documentary that can be downloaded from many sites.

Directed by Chris Buddy, it tells the story of KC, a card counter. That's a guy who's smart enough to beat the casinos at blackjack by predicting safe bets to make by studiously keeping track of what cards have been played.

Thanks to his card-counting capabilities, KC, not the casinos, has the upper hand. So how do casino operators treat him? They kick him out of their casinos.

If they ran the NBA this way, my beloved Bulls would get to ban LeBron or Kawhi or Curry from playing. That way they might actually win a championship, as it's hard to lose if you keep the better guys from playing.

I'm not sure how it can be legal to ban card counters from casinos. But it's riveting to watch KC donning disguises to sneak past the casino's thuggish security guards.

Again, I'm not calling for a gambling ban. But there's got to be a saner way to fund government than soaking the suckers who are foolish enough to think they can beat the odds that are stacked against them.   v

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