Addiction a sure-fire winner if Md. expands gambling

Petula Dvorak
Columnist October 15, 2012

They are preparing for the onslaught, because they know it’s coming.

While Maryland voters grapple with whether to dramatically change gambling in their state, the folks who pick up the pieces when gambling addiction rips apart lives are gearing up.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

At a new state center devoted to problem gamblers, there are new carpets, phone lines, offices and even a school outreach program (because all the treatment experts know the kids are next).

Based on statistics that show the percentage of adults addicted to gambling and the clinical evidence that shows those numbers are two to three times as high in places within 50 miles of a casino, the experts expect that they will soon have about 60,000 people with severe gambling problems in Maryland.

And Joanna Franklin is going to figure out how to help them.


A worker makes his way through the gaming floor earlier this year at Maryland Live! Casino. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Franklin is the program director at the new Maryland Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine. The center is opening thanks to a three-year, $5 million grant from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Since 1979, as America has radically changed its relationship with gambling, Franklin has been there to witness the social wreckage in 45 states. And now she’s here in Maryland, getting ready to treat the sadness, chaos and collapse that come when gambling addiction takes hold.

She doesn’t spend time with the smiling, sequined high-rollers you see in all those casino ads.

She hears stories about people like the husband who lost his family’s entire retirement savings to gambling. When his wife finally learned the scope of his problem and promised she would stick by him, she said, “That’s okay, we’ll just sell the house.”

But he’d already taken out three mortgages on the house. They lost everything.

And there was the nun who eventually confessed her wicked gambling addiction and led her mother superior to a storage facility packed with wide-screen TVs and other stuff purchased with her winnings.

Or the Baltimore cop who robbed a bank to pay his bookie.

Treatment of this problem isn’t easy to get. Gambling addiction is defined as an impulse control disorder, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. That makes it more like kleptomania than alcoholism.

The group that is revising the nation’s bible of psychiatric diagnoses is proposing a revision; it says gambling addiction should be a disorder related to substance abuse. Like addiction to drugs or booze.

That reclassification will make it easier to arrange and get treatment. But the fact is, only two big, comprehensive studies have been done in America on the effects of problem gambling — one in 1976 and another in 1999. Meanwhile, we’ve added hundreds of casinos, with gambling venues in nearly every state.

A shorter Maryland study done last year showed that state lottery players come “disproportionately from census tracts populated by African Americans and low-income residents,” specifically those “with less than a high-school education, and people age 65 and older,” according to the report “Gambling Prevalence in Maryland: A Baseline Analysis,” prepared by a team from University of Maryland Baltimore County’s Maryland Institute for Policy Analysis and Research.

In other words, the populations least ready to take another financial blow or social disorder are the most likely to be devastated by problem gambling.

Even scarier? Another Maryland study found that the 11 percent of the state’s kids are getting hooked on gambling before they are old enough to get into casinos. There’s street dice, card games and sports betting.

The “lost” iPod? The “stolen” jacket? Those “forgotten” shoes? Maybe paid off a gambling debt.

These are kids raised on ESPN World Series of Poker and lotto tickets in the grocery store. It’s a new era, a different culture.

“In every high school, there was a bookie,” said Carl Robertson, who joined Maryland’s Center for Problem Gambling to create a school program similar to the one he founded in Pennsylvania, where he met all those kid bookies.

He is working with elementary-school kids who get lotto tickets for Christmas and put together their March Madness brackets for various betting pools.

If Question 7 passes next month, a huge casino will be built in Prince George’s County, most likely at National Harbor. Blackjack and other table games will be allowed in the five casinos already authorized in the state. All six casinos will be open 24/7. By the middle of 2016, reports The Washington Post’s John Wagner, motorists traveling a 44-mile stretch of Route 295 would pass three casinos, each with more slot machines than any single casino on the Las Vegas Strip.

Proponents argue that the millions in revenue will be funneled into Maryland’s public schools. But it also guarantees a future generation of gamblers and a future generation of addicts.

These children will have a different childhood than the ones our current lawmakers had. When they grew up, gambling was a little backroom, a little sinful and not everywhere.

In just 30 years, we have changed America. Now the casino kings are pushing to change the landscape even more.

In Maryland, voters have to decide whether it’s worth the gamble.

Follow me on Twitter at @petulad. To read earlier columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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