Instead of slots, why not legalize prostitution?

The Baltimore Sun
March 10, 2005

THE CONTINUING deficits facing Maryland are of grave concern to all of its citizens.

It is vital that we fully fund such important initiatives as the Thornton education reform program, yet we are hard-pressed to find the money. Both houses of the legislature have passed versions of slot machine legalization, for which Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has worked so hard. But even this may not provide enough return to the state to meet the need.

To solve this problem, we must be bold and imaginative. It is not enough merely to ape the measures taken by neighboring states in an effort to keep the discretionary spending of Marylanders within our own borders; we must instead do something truly new that would give Maryland a competitive advantage. We must do this in a way that would produce an adequate revenue stream in good times and bad, while simultaneously improving the business climate.

Let's face it: The underlying rationale for legalizing slot machines is that the state can solve its financial problems by promoting vice. If this proposition has now been accepted, we should pursue it to its logical conclusions. Gambling is only one of many possible vices from which the state can profit, and not necessarily the one providing the richest pickings. Why not consider alternatives? Legalized prostitution, for example.

Whether the new brothels are operated directly by the state or licensed private businesses is a technical detail that can be worked out. We can keep them out of Timonium and Ocean City, if families object. Either way, they'd be much better than gambling for solving Maryland's fiscal woes, and as the attention given to slots has shown, the only consideration that appears to matter is profit to the state.

As the only state east of the Rocky Mountains offering this perennially popular entertainment, Maryland could become a mecca for commercial sex services. In Nevada, where prostitution is legal and regulated, the state health department estimated two years ago that about 1,000 potentially taxable sex acts take place per day. Surely Maryland, so much closer to the nation's population centers, can expect a far greater rate of use.

There's good reason why there's so much money in professional sex: It appeals to everyone. Although only a small fraction of the population gambles regularly, nearly every adult participates in sexual activity.

Numerous studies have shown how state-sponsored gambling amounts to a tax on the poor. Commercial sex, by contrast, has appeal across the entire financial spectrum. Moreover, unlike gambling, which depends in part on economic desperation for its motivation, sexual desire is a staple part of human nature that persists under all economic conditions.

Legal brothels would also provide a shot in the arm for many other businesses. When customers travel from a distance, they will need tourist accommodations, stimulating the Maryland travel industry.

Considering the numerous benefits to be garnered by the legalization of prostitution in Maryland, we believe that this plan will be far more advantageous for our state than any of the proposed versions of legalized gambling. If our plan is adopted, the Free State could truly become the national leader in financing state government through encouraging vice.

Julian Krolik is a professor in the physics and astronomy department at the Johns Hopkins University. Jonathan Zenilman is a professor in the university's medical school.