Clips from Newsday stories about gambling busts on LI, including...

Clips from Newsday stories about gambling busts on LI, including the Oct. 20, 1949 report, left, on the Riverside Inn raid. Credit: Newsday archives

In Smithtown, where the imposing statue of a large bull stares out at passing traffic, there was once a notorious gambling resort known as the Riverside Inn.

During Prohibition in the 1920s, the Inn along the Nissequogue River was favored by celebrities and wealthy guests traveling from New York City to the East End beaches. Along the way, they could enjoy a few illegal drinks and illicit bets on horse races.

Capturing the rather puritanical mood of Long Island, a 1949 hidden-camera investigation by Newsday later exposed what everyone seemed to know about gambling and other vices going on at the Riverside Inn.

“Politicians, police officials from out of town, and powerful clergymen have visited the spot that has made Smithtown another name for horse-betting, where millions have changed hands in the last two decades,” reported Newsday in a front-page story with the headline “Big Bet Den Bared on L.I.”

The Riverside Inn is long gone, but the human desire to indulge in the once forbidden is still very much with us.

These days, several activities once considered illegal vices have been decriminalized — notably sports gambling on much more than horse racing and the use of marijuana. To some extent, these moves were for the better, taking these vices out of the realm of lawbreakers. But as with most societal changes, there are also consequences to consider. And we seem at that point today.


The big boom in gambling is a direct result of a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a 1992 federal ban on commercial sports betting as unconstitutional. It opened up a huge door for several big companies to cash in on the estimated $150 billion in previously illegal wagers made annually on pro and amateur sports games in the U.S.

Proponents of the old law said it was vital to safeguarding honest outcomes in sports, and avoiding the scandal of game-fixing influenced by gambling. Such fears reached back to the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal, in which eight members of the Chicago White Sox were banned for life by Major League Baseball because of accusations that they lost the World Series on purpose in exchange for money from organized crime. The NBA Wednesday banned a Toronto player in a similar case.

But since 2018, when the Supreme Court decided it was up to the states, not Congress, to regulate sports betting, the burgeoning number of bets placed with media and sportsbook companies has filled government coffers with added tax money. Encouraged by TV ad campaigns, new audiences use smartphones or laptops to bet on NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB games and other sports. Since January 2022, sportsbook operators have gained $3.54 billion in revenue while the state has collected $1.81 billion in taxes. Needless to say, this amount of money comes along with sizable clout in Albany.

Today’s promulgation of online sports betting is also coming with a societal cost. Bankruptcy lawyers say increasingly, clients struggle with debt because of betting losses that overwhelmed their credit cards and savings accounts. For some, online apps for betting on sports spurred a compulsive gambling addiction that ruined their personal credit rating and family finances.


Similarly, the 2021 legalization of marijuana use, with the gradual proliferation of shops, was long overdue in New York but with consequences still being sorted out. For years, too many Long Islanders, particularly those of color, faced criminal charges involving small amounts of marijuana that cluttered the criminal justice system, filled up jails, and hurt their chances for getting a job when an employer asked, “Have you ever been arrested?” Legalization of marijuana has yet to put a dent in the illegal trade. But it should ensure that cannabis offered in licensed shops is safe and not grown in a nearby swamp, as Suffolk police discovered a few years ago.

New York State collects 9% in taxes on sales from a licensed adult-use dispensary while 4% goes to local government.

But the decriminalization of marijuana has carried its own set of adverse reactions. Nonsmokers complain about the pungent odor of marijuana outdoors. State law forbids smoking pot before or while driving a car, but police find it difficult to crack down on stoned drivers because current testing devices are not as accurate as those used with drivers impaired by alcohol. The long-term health impact of chronic marijuana use also is not clear, mainly because its illegal status until recently discouraged such medical studies.

The consequences of legalizing gambling and marijuana must be evaluated. We must find ways to avoid or mitigate the added addiction problems. Government and health officials should examine these results without the blinders of ideology or the millions in tax revenue. While we should no longer be condemning the petty vices that everyone enjoyed at the old Riverside Inn, we should make sure that they don’t cause even bigger societal problems.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.


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