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In 2012, voters Maryland voters chose to expand casino gaming in that state. The idea was that the added revenue would pay for education, help fill up state coffers, and create thousands of jobs.
Since then, gambling revenue in Maryland doubled, topping out at close to $750 million. But some of that money is coming out of 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.
Michael Rosen started gambling long before casinos came to Maryland.
“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, a felt replica of a blackjack table, and a felt replica of a crap table, dice table. By the time I was ten years old, I knew everything there was about those three games," he says.
That’s what it was at first — a game. At summer camp, he impressed camp counselors by organizing a casino to entertain the other kids on rainy days.
“I taught three 12-year-olds how to be dealers. And we, every time it rained, our bunk, we had a casino. But we didn’t use money as currency, we used baseball cards," he remembers.
But as he got older, it turned into something less enjoyable and more urgent. “In college I gambled, I would say, five to six days a week," he says.
He became an omnivorous gambler, playing poker, betting on sports or horse races, or playing the stock market, to the point where he was six figures in debt, he had ruined his marriage, and his daughter wouldn’t speak with him. It was like being addicted to drugs or alcohol.
“I got a high out of it. I loved the action, challenge, the competition. Really a high, absolute high," he says.
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 that brain scans of gambling addicts look very much the same as brain scans of drug addicts.
“As with other addictions, changes have happened in their brain that make it very hard for them to stop, just because they’ve recognized that they have a problem," he says.
Gambling addicts like Michael Rosen aren’t alone, he argues. Statewide, there are something like 150,000 people categorized as problem gamblers.
“Gambling is more hidden. You don’t have an equivalent really, of an overdose," he says.
A 2011 survey found about one in five Marylanders gambled monthly, spending about $150. About one in seven gambled each week, and spent $550 a month. But those are the healthy gamblers — the equivalent of two glasses of wine after work. Problem gamblers 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.
“A lot of times when people are calling, they’re pretty depressed,” she says. “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 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," she says. "But I think more than that, going to 24 hours.”
The same 2012 voter referendum that allowed table games also authorized 24-hour casino operations. Now, gamblers can stay in the casinos all night.
“They don’t leave, they’re there 17, 18 hours,” says Nelson-Gershon.
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 fifty miles of a casino had double the rate of problem gambling.
Tom Coppinger, vice president of risk management for Maryland’s largest casino, Maryland Live!, says he can’t comment on the connection between casinos and gambling addiction, but says it is an issue the company takes very seriously.
“One, it’s law, but it’s also engrained in our code of ethics," he says.
By law, casinos have to provide training to staff and information to customers. They also help fund things like Maryland’s helpline.
Maryland’s four currently operating casinos pay the state about $3 million a year toward problem gambling programs. That’s roughly the same amount those 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.
“There’s very little public policy emphasis or finances put towards addressing this until casino gaming comes to a state," he says.
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.
“You know, 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,’” he says.
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 health care-related, so they fall directly on not just individuals, but on the state," he says.
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 after 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 stockbroker. It was definite, without question withdrawal," he recalls.
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.
[Music: "Winning Streak" by Unbunny from Moon Food]