Gov. Ned Lamont’s recent budget plan promoted marijuana and sports gambling as potential new revenue sources. These two issues have been the subjects of debate in Connecticut for several years. Although the concerns of critics and inevitable implementation obstacles must be acknowledged, we should not wait any longer to pass legislation while neighboring states continue to move forward.
The geography of the Northeast allows for quick travel through multiple states on a short car ride. Within an hour, a Hartford area resident can purchase legal marijuana in Massachusetts while a gambler in Fairfield County can wager on sports in New Jersey. There is risk in watching residents establish routines that involve spending money in other states while Connecticut methodically irons out details.
Less than a decade ago, Colorado and Washington became the first two states to legalize recreational marijuana sales. In the following years, states across the country followed with successful ballot initiatives. Traditionally conservative states like South Dakota and Montana joined the growing list in 2020.
Recently, the legislative process has become a realistic avenue for legalization which has led to a growing number of states passing or proposing legislation. As of early 2021, 15 states have already legalized recreational marijuana.
Critics of marijuana legalization initially warned of large increases in drug tourism, usage rates, teenage access, criminal behavior, and traffic accidents. Admittedly, research on some of these measures has been mixed so far, but the frightening doomsday predictions have not come true.
The expansion of regulated sports gambling has progressed at an even faster pace than marijuana following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 overturn of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act. About 20 states have already developed retail and/or mobile gambling options with around a dozen states considering active legislation.
We should know from the history of lotteries and casinos that gaming regulatory efforts cause a domino effect throughout entire regions. For much of the 20th century lotteries were forbidden in all 50 states and casinos were only found in Nevada. Today, both lotteries and casinos are ubiquitous across the U.S. with few states holding out.
For sports gambling, the original resistance from professional sports leagues has waned and past concerns about corruption have shifted toward compulsive gambling. While the devastation of problem gambling should not be overlooked, current alternatives for Connecticut residents include local bookies, offshore websites, and nearby states. These are viable options for prospective bettors that already exist.
In previous years, efforts to regulate marijuana and sports gambling have been derailed by the details despite overwhelming evidence that the public supports both movements. One of the biggest sticking points for marijuana legalization has been the inability to unite Democrats with questions lingering about whether new policies would heal the wounds of racial injustice from decades of targeted enforcement. Complicated agreements with the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes have been the main cause of delay for sports gambling.
The reality of Connecticut’s current predicament is that our state has few long-term options besides regulation. It is likely that every other state in the Northeast will regulate both marijuana and sports gambling within a few years. The passage of these important bills in 2021 will allow Connecticut to become a competitive force in the region rather than an island of legislative stagnation.
Steven Block, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Central Connecticut State University.