There is an old adage that says, if you cannot beat them, join them. This catchphrase well describes policymakers' attempts to open casinos in Thailand.
The likelihood has come close to reality recently, after a House committee published a feasibility study about casinos in Thailand.
While casinos are legally permitted in many countries -- even neighbours such as Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia and Laos -- betting is a criminal offence in Thailand.
The Gambling Act 1935 banned any forms of cash betting, except for the state lottery and horse races at state-licensed race courses.
According to the study, Thailand could accommodate five casinos -- one in each of its five regions. In the North, the location could be Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai. In the Central region, the targeted site is Pattaya.
In the South, Phuket, Phangnga or Krabi have been seen as ideal spots. In the Northeast, the choices are Ubon Ratchathani, Udon Thani or Khon Kaen. The prime location is either Bangkok or one of its surrounding provinces.
Casino supporters have lobbied policymakers for the past decade without much success, thanks to strong campaigns by anti-gambling groups. Yet the idea of opening casinos in Thailand is gaining weight in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic.
The country is desperate for cash; casinos are pitched as a new golden goose to bring in tax revenue to the government and lure more tourists to the country.
Many lawmakers are reported to be inspired by the achievement of the Bhumjaithai Party in decriminalising cannabis, albeit for medical research.
While the idea of opening casinos in Thailand is worth exploring, the matter must be handled with extreme caution. Policymakers must learn from mistakes which occurred during the legalisation of cannabis. Under this policy, cannabis misuse by young consumers has emerged as a major problem because of a lack of safeguard measures.
It would be tragic if, in similar fashion, local people, especially low-income earners and the young, were lured into gambling.
First and foremost, the government must be clear that the purpose of a casino is to serve tourism and make sure that only tourists, foreign investors and local gamblers free from financial problems are let into casinos.
The government must prepare preventive measures in advance. Among them are casino zoning and a local entry fee to ensure only viable local gamblers can get in, and non-targeted groups are kept out.
Secondly, the government must realise that legalising betting will not end underground gambling dens, at least in Thailand. Law enforcers must work harder to close illegal gambling dens, especially online betting platforms that lure many young people.
The government must be crystal clear about what the gambling law in Thailand will be. If the casinos are for target groups only, what will be the response if the general public asks for equal treatment?
Without clear direction, the result will be more gamblers, more debts and more social problems.