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Coming to grips with problem gamblers

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A gambling court has been established in Nevada. That’s new, but it’s an idea that obviously could have happened many moons ago.

The establishment of the court made national news and immediately got some gears churning around the United States. With the continued inroads the gaming industry is making nationwide, might gambling courts start to pop up elsewhere?

There is no such court in Maryland – the state’s District Court confirmed that the judiciary does not have a gambling treatment program – but could it happen here, too?

Maybe. Judge Cheryl Moss, the presiding judge in Clark County, Nev., has already been “talking to people in Seattle and the state of Louisiana.”

Going Nationwide

While Moss said “it’s early to tell how many cases we’ll get,” in Clark County, it won’t be a surprise if it’s busy: An estimated 142,000 adult Nevada residents, ages 18 and older, are problem gamblers, according to the state’s only problem gambling prevalence study, which was conducted in 2017.

Nevada has had the diversion program since 2009, said Jennifer Roberts, associate director of the International Center for Gaming Regulation at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. “What happened is that some observers felt there were inconsistent applications and allowances for the program, so now they use it in the confines of a specialty court,” which is much like drug or veteran’s court, she said.

The difference, Roberts said, is the program is now being applied within a designated court, and will be overseen by Moss.

“To my knowledge, this is the only gambling court program in the country. We now have gambling in 40 states and that decision [to follow suit] will be up to each one,” she said, adding that a “more uniform application” will help stem problem gambling.

The Home Front

In Maryland, Travis Lamb, general manager of Live! Casino, in Hanover, offered the organization’s stance on identifying and assisting problem gamblers. “Every member of our staff is trained each year to recognize problem gambling and how to offer assistance,” he said.

“If a customer requests information about the program or wants to voluntarily sign up, we facilitate the process with Maryland Lottery officials on site,” he said. “There are signs and brochures available at every customer service location” and “notices are posted on ATMs and ticket redemption machines.”

The casino also has signage posted at all entrances/exits, as well as digital messaging on every slot machine and electronic table game position; in addition, the Responsible Gaming Committee reviews the policies and procedures set forth by the Maryland Lottery & Gaming Control Agency, which oversees the casinos.

With Maryland a fairly recent addition to the gaming industry, would the adoption of a gambling court be a good idea?

“Yes,” said Keith Whyte, executive director for the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), in Washington, D.C.

Gambling court “has been proven highly effective,” he said, noting that the first was in Amherst County, N.Y., from about 2001-10, when Judge Mark Farrell (now retired and an NCPG board member) presided over the program.

How effective was it? “None of the 250-300 people who went through his court during that period reoffended,” said Whyte. “They were more likely to pay back money owed and, since they received treatment, had much better financial and family relationships.”

A system such as a court, assessment or something similar, would be a good idea, especially for first-time offenders,” said Mary Drexler, program director with the Maryland Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling, in Columbia, which estimates that 150,000 state residents have a gambling problem.

“Though [Clark County] recently got the new court up and running, the legislation in Vegas passed in 2010, and will be held in Friday sessions of family court only,” said Drexler, adding, “I think you’ll see other states follow suit. That way, people who are addicted can get help early, not after total devastation” of their finances, careers and families.

Spread the Word

The news from Nevada was timely, too, as March is National Problem Gambling Awareness Month. “It helps to increase awareness of the resources that are available for problem gamblers and their families,” said Drexler, pointing out a help line, no-cost treatment – regardless of insurance – and no-cost assessment, with peer support recovery specialists who are themselves in recovery.

In March, she said, the center will market its services by broadcasting PSAs, and via billboards, social media, www.helpmyproblemgambling.org and 1-800-GAMBLER. Working with the National Alliance for Mental Illness’s state chapter is part of the equation, as is the voluntary self-exclusion program offered by the Lottery.

Drexler said that the light at the end of this tunnel doesn’t always flick on on its own.

“Often with substance abuse or mental health, as well as financial difficulties, we try to tie in treatment of gambling disorders with other addictions,” she said. “Problem gambling wasn’t recognized as a separate addiction until 2013, so we are only recently understanding it as a separate issue.

“Gambling addiction is easy to hide and thought to be invisible,” she said. “You can often see when someone’s drunk, for instance. That’s why it’s sometimes hard to stop gambling until it’s too late.”