Is Sports Betting The New Marijuana?

When you look at sports betting, your first thought might not go directly to marijuana. But when you compare the fight that legalized marijuana had to face (and is still fighting) to the fight that legalized sports betting is now facing, you might see some shocking similarities. Which leads to the question – can sports betting be the next marijuana?

Marijuana was harpooned in the 60’s and 70’s as something that ruins societal integrity, something that tears families apart. An addictive substance that ruins people’s lives. So after a veritable war on drugs just a few decades ago, how have we made such a 180? Today, over half the states in the US have legalized either recreational or medical cannabis. So what changed?

A number of things. Perception, cultural attitudes, and of course, the ability to make money off of the sale and taxation of marijuana. The path to today’s attitude towards pot took a lot of legal battles, but over the past decade especially, the laws governing marijuana have finally changed, at least at a state level. So why can’t sports betting follow the same path?

I know, I know, that sounds kind of ridiculous. But hear me out.

Look at the similarities. Marijuana and Sports Betting both have federal bans on them (both of which are somewhat questionable on the constitutional level, but that’s an argument for another time). Both bans were put into place because the activities were looked at as detrimental to society and to the integrity of those involved, both directly and indirectly.

These federal bans then created giant black markets that have led to a great deal of money being spent outside of the country. To date, it is estimated that “illegal” sports betting brings in anywhere from $80-$360 billion to the black market. Compared to the $4 billion being brought in through legal channels in Nevada, that’s an insane amount of money that could be spent in the US but is instead being spent overseas.

Finally, for both sports betting and pot, there are already similar alternatives that have been legalized and regulated for decades. Tobacco and prescription drugs have both been legal for quite some time, and both have been proven to be much more detrimental than marijuana. Casino gambling, horse racing betting, and DFS are all legal within the US. So why isn’t sports betting?

It’s all about perception. And money, of course, but we’ll get to that later.

First, the perception of marijuana. Did you ever wonder why people hated it so much in the 60’s and 70’s? The battle against marijuana wasn’t waged because people though the drug was bad for you. It was waged because politicians – namely far-right conservatives – wanted to vilify several demographics so that they could win key elections. So they altered public perception on marijuana.

These demographics, generally young liberals who were vocally against the war, were tied to the drug, and then crucified on the nightly news and in the papers and basically everywhere. Think this sounds like a conspiracy theory? I’m taking it directly from an interview with former Nixon domestic policy Chief, John Ehrlichman.

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be against the war,” he told Dan Baum. “But by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana…We could arrest their leaders. Raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Granted, nothing so inflammatory has been said about sports betting as has been said about marijuana, that’s true. But the same tactics were used to make sports betting illegal. Sports betting was made illegal for two reasons. The first was because, for the longest time, this form of gambling was associated with organized crime, therefore casting a very dark shadow over the activity. Running sportsbooks was a big part of how crime rings made their money in the early to mid-20th century and a big part of why so many people wanted to stop it. I’m not saying that organized crime didn’t have a lot to do with scandal and sports betting – just look at the 1919 black sox – but things have changed. With the dawning of online sportsbooks especially, there are virtually no ties to organized crime when it comes to sports betting anymore. For lack of a better way to put this, they’ve moved on. So should we.

The second reason sports betting (and marijuana, but we touch on that in a second) was banned was because of money. The leagues weren’t operating the sportsbooks, the states were. So they were the ones making money. Just look at how Nevada flourished with legal sports betting. It turned a deserted town into a thriving metropolis. But the leagues didn’t see any of that money, so they sought to stop it on the pretense that it was harmful to the players and the integrity of the game.

So to sum up, everything’s about perception, and when it’s not about perception, it’s about money.

Do you want to know the biggest opponents to the movement to legalize marijuana? Tobacco and big Pharma. Why? They lose money when marijuana is legalized. Aside from recreational use – which would cut tobacco profits even more than they’ve already fallen over the years – marijuana has incredible medical uses. Curing epilepsy (or at least dramatically cutting down on seizures), relieving migraine headaches, helping glaucoma patients, and helping relieve pain in cancer patients while also helping them to regain their appetites during chemo are just a few of the amazing things pot can do. Big Pharma makes a killing selling hundreds of different, high-priced drugs that do what pot can do. So it’s not about the drug being harmful – which countless studies have shown it isn’t – it’s about companies and their profit margins.

When people finally started realizing this, marijuana became legalized much faster. Coincidence?

Back to the topic at hand. To follow the same path, there has to be something like that standing in the way of sports betting. Is there? You bet there is.

Look at it this way – Daily fantasy sports are legal in the US for the most part. They aren’t considered gambling and can operate freely in most US states. But you have to pay to play DFS, and you stand to gain or lose money based on a player’s performance. Sounds a lot like betting on a player prop, doesn’t it? (Ok, I know there is some nuance to DFS and that that was an oversimplified comparison, but go with me on this one). So what’s my point in bringing up DFS?

The point is most professional sports leagues have teamed up with and even endorse the use of DFS sites, but still stand firmly against legal sports betting (ahem, we’re looking at you, Goodell). Is this because DFS is not going to harm the integrity of the sport like sports betting is? No, it’s because professional sports leagues stand to gain money from their sponsorship of DFS, whereas it’s the stadiums or betting shops and bookmakers and states (through taxes) who would gain the most profit from legal sports betting. Now are you starting to really see why the leagues have stood so firmly against sports betting for so long? Let’s move on, then.

What finally got the ball rolling on marijuana and how will that help legalize sports betting?

Cultural attitudes.

Maybe it’s because we were raised by a bunch of “hippies.” Maybe it’s because people finally stopped believing everything the nightly news and the government were spoon-feeding them. But somewhere along the road, people started opening their eyes and forming their own opinions. First, they started changing the way they feel about marijuana. Now, eight states have recreational marijuana, and twenty more have passed legislature to legalize medical marijuana. At least a dozen other states are gearing up to pass similar pieces of legislature, both on the recreational and medical level. And it’s all because people finally came out of the closet about pot being okay.

How Will Sports Betting Follow The Same Path?

You might think this is all speculation from a biased writer. And in some ways, yes, it is all speculation. But based on the similarities between how sports betting and marijuana were perceived and treated, and the similar paths they’ve both traveled down legally, it’s safe to assume that sports betting will follow the same path to legalization that marijuana did.

First, a state will kick down the door. California did it for marijuana, and New Jersey is already on the case for sports betting, as they currently await an appearance before the Supreme Court. Several states are lined up behind New Jersey, preparing their own cases for legalization and regulation as well.

Along with states moving to change the law, a change in public perception should also help turn the tides much faster. For marijuana, it was the population as a whole. That’s important for sports betting as well, but the perceptions that most need to change are those of the commissioners of professional and collegiate sports – and we’ve already seen quite a few of them switch sides. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has already come out in favor for legalized and regulated sports betting in the US. MLS Commissioner Don Graber has also thrown his hat into the ring, stating that it’s time to bring the law out of the dark ages.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has repeatedly expressed his opinion that the league’s stance needs to be reexamined, and PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan has said he has an open mind to the topic. Only NFL and NHL Commissioners have stated that they have not changed their opinions. But actions speak louder than words. Both the NHL and the NFL have allowed teams to move to Las Vegas, the epicenter of American gambling. So even though they haven’t changed their opinion publicly, their actions say differently. Much differently.

With so many similarities, it’s hard to see how sports betting will remain banned for very much longer. Public perception, the ability to make money off of the activity, and the removal of the stigma surrounding the whole thing have already changed for the better. So, what do you think? Can sports betting really be the next marijuana? Or is this all a pipe dream?