Oct 2, 2021 - Politics & Policy

The end of vice

Illustration of handcuffs with a strikethrough bar crossing each cuff
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

All the old vices — from sex to gambling to drugs — are quickly becoming legal, as both society and the criminal justice system rethink their values.

The big picture: This amounts to an under-the-radar shift in how society treats what have long been thought of as victimless crimes — behaviors that might not harm anyone who isn't participating, but that are considered to offend social morals.

What's happening: When the NFL season began last month, fans in more than two dozen states and the District of Columbia were legally allowed to place bets on games. Five more states are projected to allow it by the end of the NFL season according to the American Gaming Association.

  • The Manhattan district attorney's office announced earlier this year that it would stop prosecuting sex work and unlicensed massage, joining a number of other jurisdictions that have moved to partially decriminalize sex work.
  • Last November, after the passage of a ballot initiative, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of all illicit drugs, while four more states — Arizona, New Jersey, South Dakota and Montana — joined 11 others that have legalized the recreational use of cannabis.

Background: The definition of "vice" is always shifting because society's morality is always shifting.

  • Generally, part of what makes a vice a vice is that a lot of society considers it questionable, but a lot of society also participates in it.

By the numbers: An estimated 45.2 million people — more than 12% of the country — plan to wager on the NFL this season, up from 32% the year before, according to the AGA.

Between the lines: Legalizing or at least decriminalizing activities that millions of Americans engage in — and millions more tacitly tolerate — can reduce arrests and prosecutions that disproportionately affect people of color, while also freeing up police and courts to focus on crimes that harm more people.

The other side: Opponents question whether vices are truly "victimless crimes" and raise concerns about the unintended consequences of allowing activities that, if taken to the extreme, can produce both individual and social harm.

  • A 2020 study found recreational cannabis legalization in Washington state in 2012 was followed by an uptick in the likelihood that teens would use marijuana, though other research has found no clear connection.
  • Between 3% and 6% of U.S. adults are considered to have a gambling problem, and one study found the rate doubles among people who live within 10 miles of a gaming establishment.
  • Experts also have long worried that legalizing sports betting can lead to more opportunities for fixing games, eroding the integrity of the sport.
  • Sex work presents the biggest questions of all. Some experts doubt that selling sex can ever be truly consensual and fear that decriminalization inadvertently puts sex workers at greater risk from clients.

What to watch... whether legalization and decriminalization are followed by additional support for the social and personal consequences of vices.

The bottom line: 50 years after President Richard Nixon declared the War on Drugs, American attitudes toward and laws about activities that have long been classified as vices are changing — and with it, the assumption that it's the government's role to police public morality.

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