MS. REBECCA SHEIR
I'm Rebecca Sheir and welcome back to "Metro Connection." This week our theme is "Against the Odds." And in just a bit we'll hear about a high-stakes gamble for many D.C. kids and parents right about now, the new citywide lottery for slots in public and charter schools. But first, we'll explore a different kind of gamble.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
In 2012, voters Maryland voted to expand casino gaming in the state. The idea was the added revenue would help fill up state coffers and create thousands of jobs. And indeed, in the past year gambling revenue in Maryland doubled, topping out nearly $750 million. But, as Jacob Fenston tells us, some of that money is coming from the pockets of so-called problem gamblers -- people whose compulsion to gamble can be just as powerful and destructive as a drug addict's desire to use cocaine or heroin.
MR. JACOB FENSTON
Michael Rosen started gambling long before casinos came to Maryland.
MR. MICHAEL ROSEN
My dad was an alcoholic and a compulsive gambler, and he thought it would be a neat thing to do to teach me the odds of various gambling games. So at eight years old, he gave me a toy roulette wheel, a felt replica of a blackjack table and a felt replica of a crap table, dice table.
At first, it was just a game. He would play for baseball cards instead of money. As he got older, gambling turned into something less enjoyable and more urgent.
In college I gambled, I would say, five to six days a week.
He became an omnivorous gambler, poker, horse races, betting on sports, playing the stock market, to the point where he was six figures in debt, he'd ruined his marriage, and his daughter wouldn't speak with him. It was like being addicted to drugs or alcohol.
To me, I got a high out of it. I mean really got -- I loved the action, the challenge, the competition. Really a high, absolute high.
DR. CHRISTOPHER WELSH
As with other addictions, changes have happened in their brain that make it very hard for them to just to stop.
Christopher Welsh is an addiction expert at the University of Maryland and he's the medical director of the Maryland Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling. He says gambling addicts, like Michael Rosen, aren't alone. Statewide, there are something like 150,000 people categorized as problem gamblers. But compared to other addictions…
Gambling is more hidden. You don't have an equivalent really, of an overdose.
A 2011 survey found problem gamblers in Maryland spent an average of $1,200 a month. While there is no hard data connecting Maryland's casino expansion to an increase in gambling addiction, there is some anecdotal evidence, and some research from other states.
The Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling runs a free helpline, staffed by licensed counselor Evonne Nelson-Gershon.
MS. EVONNE NELSON-GERSHON
A lot of times when people are calling, they're pretty depressed. They've gotten to the point where they've spent all their money, or they're in trouble with the law.
The helpline got started in July of 2012, and saw a big bump in the number of calls last year, around the time that casinos started offering table games.
It's definitely going to have an effect. But I think more than that, I think going to 24 hours.
Twenty-four-hour casino operation, which was authorized by the same 2012 voter referendum that allowed table games. Now, gamblers can stay in the casinos all night.
They don't leave, they're there 17, 18 hours.
Several studies have found a correlation between someone's proximity to a casino and their likelihood of developing a gambling problem. One study found that communities within 50 miles of a casino had double the rate of problem gambling. Tom Coppinger is a spokesperson for Maryland's largest casino, Maryland Live. He says he can't comment on the connection between casinos and gambling addiction, but says it is an issue the company takes very seriously.
MR. TOM COPPINGER
One, it's law, but it's also engrained in our code of ethics.
By law, casinos have to provide training to staff and information to customers. They also help fund things like Maryland's helpline. Casinos pay the state about $3 million a year toward problem gambling programs. That's roughly the same amount Maryland casinos rake in every 36 hours. Stephen Martino, director of the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency, notes that's a lot more money than the state was spending on gambling addiction before the casinos were built, and far more than neighboring Virginia and D.C. are spending.
MR. STEPHEN MARTINO
There's very little public policy emphasis or finances put towards addressing this until casino gaming comes to a state.
Maryland's funding formula means that gambling addiction programs don't get funded until after casinos are up and running. Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, says that's backwards.
MR. KEITH WHYTE
Yeah, we don't wait to say, "We're going to increase the amount of alcohol bars, so that we can do more drunk driving prevention."
Whyte says Maryland and other states aren't spending enough to prevent problem gambling.
The cost of gambling addiction can be about $1,200 per addict, per year. And the majority of those costs are criminal justice and healthcare related, so they fall directly on not just individuals, but on the state.
Gambling addict Michael Rosen sought out help for the first time in 1981. After he found himself on the wrong side of a very big bet, he made his way to his first Gamblers Anonymous meeting.
The first six months that I stopped gambling in 1981, I had physical pain. And there were many times I had to grab my right hand with my left hand -- because I'm a righty -- to stop me from picking up the telephone and calling a bookie or calling a stock broker. It was definite, without question, withdrawal.
Over the years, he had several relapses, but since 2008, he hasn't stepped inside a casino or placed a bet. Rosen is now devoted to helping others in distress. He works for the Maryland Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling, and runs a Gamblers Anonymous group in Baltimore. I'm Jacob Fenston.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 FM American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and international law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.