I once noticed a Washington cabdriver anxiously writing down the winning numbers of the Maryland Lottery as they were broadcast over the radio.
"Have you been playing the lottery long?" I asked.
"Ten dollars a day," he replied. "Ten dollars a day, every day, seven days a week for the last four years."
"And how much have you won?"
"$3,000 . . . once," he said.
My cabdriver friend has invested about $16,000 in the Maryland Lottery for a payoff of $3,000.
The odds of winning will be no different with a Virginia lottery, if it is passed by the voters in November. The chance of ever breaking even will be remote at best. Why then is it so important that we be like Maryland, where the average lottery wager per capita is $175 per year?
Give up, it's argued. People have always gambled. True, but why does Virginia have to sanction and even encourage its citizens to gamble?
The lottery creates a whole new set of law-enforcement problems that the taxpayers will have to pay for one way or another.
The Presidential Commission on Gambling in America identified a clear correlation between legal gambling and the level of illegal gambling in a community. There is more of the latter whenever citizens approve the former.
Why? Because once government says it's okay, the cultural stigma against gambling erodes, and we find more and more people willing to take a chance. For many new gamblers, and for the experienced hand too, the illegal bookie offers much better odds than the state. Further, a bookie works outside the tax system, thereby adding another incentive to gamble illegally.
And the bookie offers something else the state never will: credit. That's where organized crime steps in and when lives are endangered because gamblers will wager far more on credit than they will if it's cash up front.
Loan sharking with outrageous interest rates is a mainstay of organized crime, and when the crime boss doesn't get paid, people get hurt. This is not a red herring. It is a costly reality Virginia law-enforcement authorities will have to deal with if Virginians approve the lottery.
Here is another: unauthorized lottery ticket brokers.
These guys offer a 10 percent premium to lottery winners because they are looking for convenient ways to "launder" cash from other criminal enterprises. Once again, the otherwise law-abiding citizen avoids paying taxes while aiding and abetting criminals. A winning lottery ticket gives a crime figure a fool-proof cover story for large deposits of cash, which are frequently connected to illegal narcotics. High-ranking officers of a Chicago-based bank went to jail recently for participating in such a scheme.
We don't hear much about lottery-connected scandals in Virginia, but if gambling is institutionalized we will, and the news won't be from other states. It will originate in Virginia.
I cannot recall an issue with as much po-tential to alter our social environment as November's lottery referendum. If it's approved, Virginians will be giving away a little wholesomeness we all have taken for granted. -- J. Marshall Coleman is the former attorney general of Virginia.