The Washington Post

As Maryland’s casino market expands, a gambling foe wants the focus on addiction

“While you and Midas Maryland are counting the gambling gross,” began an e-mail from Marc “Kap” Kapastin, “let’s not lose sight of the woes experienced by the contributors of their precious treasure.”

Kapastin was responding to a brief story I’d done on the Horseshoe Casino in Baltimore, which is expected to generate $425 million to $454 million in gambling revenue in its first full fiscal year. The Horseshoe’s haul would push Maryland’s casino revenues past the $1 billion-a-year mark, according to a pair of independent studies.

For Kapastin, the revenue figures are irrelevant. His concern is with “the evils of state-sponsored gambling” — particularly the human fallout.

“Slot machine gambling preys upon the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society,” he argued in his e-mail. It’s an argument he’s been making for a while: In 2008, as casino legislation was being debated in Maryland, Kapastin produced a 33-minute anti-gambling documentary that includes testimony from a recovering addict.

I wrote about compulsive gambling earlier this year, in a front-page story. Addiction experts feared that the state’s expansion of casino gambling would set off a wave of self-destruction among Maryland’s compulsive gamblers, who were estimated in a study to number roughly 150,000.

I profiled one of them: “Ray,” a binge craps player whose addiction cost him his family, his savings and his career. He was especially vulnerable, with Maryland Live opening eight craps tables barely two miles from his house.

As I was reporting the story, I also spent time with Dee, a member of Ray’s support network whose own gambling addiction nearly destroyed her.

I didn’t include much about Dee in the story, but her addiction was to slots, which she played frequently, for long stretches — 10 or 12 hours at a time.

So many losses; so many lies, she said.

Sometimes, she’d call in sick to her job in federal Washington, saying she had migraines, when she was just exhausted because she’d gambled all night. Instead of sleeping it off, she frequently went back to gamble more.

Once, after her husband fell asleep, she quietly left their house and headed to Hollywood Casino in Perryville. She was dismayed to learn that the casino was closing at midnight, leaving her just 45 minutes to play. “A normal person would turn around and go home,” she told me. “I was not normal. I was sick.” So she drove up I-95, to Delaware Park Casino, where she played the machines into the next afternoon. She hadn’t bothered telling anybody where she was, and she didn’t answer the frantic calls from her family because she was in her gambling zone and nothing else mattered.

Her husband and children searched for her at several casinos. They worried that something horrible had happened. In a way, it had. She’d triggered a switch, she said, “that wouldn’t shut off.”  Finally, after a months-long binge, she played her last slot machine on April 2, 2012. But the damage was done.

At the time the story was published, 230 people had joined Maryland’s Voluntary Exclusion Program, an extra deterrent for addicts who agree that they can be arrested and prosecuted if they enter any of the state’s casinos. The self-exclusion program has since grown to 353.

Ray, by the way, told me this morning that he’s “doing well” and ignoring the siren call of casino craps, the game that broke him. “Participating in the GA program helps me,” he said, referring to Gamblers Anonymous. He attends two GA meetings each week — including one he started this year in Glen Burnie, about 15 minutes from Maryland Live.

A sad postscript: Joanna Franklin, program director at the Maryland Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling, died in early October. Franklin was a national expert on compulsive gambling with a long history here: She began working with Maryland’s problem gamblers in 1979, when Johns Hopkins created the country’s first state-financed residential treatment program. She has not yet been replaced at the center.

J. Freedom du Lac is the editor of The Post's general assignment news desk. He was previously a Local enterprise reporter and, before that, the paper’s pop music critic.



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