In 1968, during my first term in the Virginia General Assembly, the hot issue was liquor-by-the-drink. It had been simmering for years, with restaurateurs lobbying for its passage and moralists in opposition prophesying dire results for Virginia.

The opponents' scenario went something like this: the wage earner would pick up his pay at the factory, stop by the local saloon for "one" drink on the way home and hours later stagger home -- penniless, of course, leaving a wife and destitute children to the mercies of public welfare. Clergymen, including a bevy of bishops who rarely spoke up on the real moral issues of the day, lined up in droves to testify against the evils of alcohol.

Its day, however, had come. The legislation passed, went to local referenda, and today most of the Old Dominion has liquor-by-the-drink. The days of brown-bagging are over, and we are none the worse for wear.

Almost 20 years later we have another issue for the saviors of our morals to sink their teeth into. A bill authorizing a binding referendum for a state lottery has finally been approved by the legislature and will be on the ballot in November.

As with liquor-by-the-drink, the scenario, and even the cast of characters, is similar. People who cannot afford it will waste their money on gambling, former Virginia attorney general Marshall Coleman and others say {Close to Home, May 31 and June 7} . And worst of all, this gambling will not only be sanctioned by the state -- the state will actually run this enterprise and reap a profit to boot. In the process, so the argument goes, organized crime will run rampant, welfare rolls will increase dramatically, and our social environment will be irreparably tarnished. The something-for-nothing philosophy will triumph.

What is being left out of this dialogue is the undeniable fact that if our citizens want to gamble, they will find a way to do it -- legally or illegally. They will gamble legally by playing the horses and lotteries in neighboring states (or bingo in Virginia churches) or illegally by playing the numbers or engaging in a friendly game of cards.

This is not meant to be a defense of gambling; gambling to excess can be harmful, like overeating and smoking. But just as Prohibition proved unworkable, the state should not stand in the way of the public's urge to gamble.

Perhaps the most unctuous case being made against the lottery is that it will hurt the poor more than any other socioeconomic group. Isn't it about time that we stopped patronizing those in less fortunate economic circumstances and telling them how to run their lives?

More than half the states now have lotteries, including Maryland and the District of Columbia, which annually collect tens of millions of dollars from Virginia residents who take a chance on improving their lot. In fact, the largest Maryland Lottery outlet is actually situated on a pier on the Potomac River off Colonial Beach, Va. Since the river belongs to Maryland, betting there is legal, as are the Virginia bettors who make up its clientele.

There's also the revenue factor. Admittedly, the odds aren't very good on striking it rich for the average wage earner, but the state could reap substantial revenues -- up to $375 million a year.

Critics claim that the lottery is a form of taxation, but as Thomas Jefferson said, a lottery is a "wonderful thing . . . it is taxation on the willing." Yes, Virginia in its prosperous early years did have lotteries. After all, it was settled by Cavaliers, not Puritans.

With all this said, I probably won't play the lottery myself. I think it's a sucker's game. But let's leave moralizing and hyperbole aside and let Virginians make up their own minds on this one.

Vincent F. Callahan Jr.

is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates from McLean.