Minimal Treatment Options For Maryland's Growing Gambling Addiction Problem

By McCarton Ackerman 09/18/15

The Old Line State has the largest concentration of casinos in the country.

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The tiny state of Maryland is home to one of the largest concentrated casino markets in the country, but few treatment options are available for residents even as gambling addiction continues to rise.

A 2009 state survey found that an estimated 150,000 residents suffer from a moderate to severe gambling addiction. The state's toll-free hotline for problem gambling has taken 619 calls in the past year from people seeking help, up from 431 two years earlier. Police were sent to Maryland casinos on four different occasions during the first five months of 2015 for children or seniors being left unattended in cars while their parents or caregivers were inside gambling.

Out of the 893 problem gamblers who legally banned themselves from entering a casino through the state's Voluntary Exclusion program, 37 were unable to follow through and were reported for trespassing on casino property.

However, there are no free treatment options in Maryland to address gambling addiction. Most of these problem gamblers don't have health insurance or funds to cover private addiction treatment. If they did at one time, they likely gambled it all away.

“When gamblers reach out to us, they’re in crisis ... it’s out of control, they don’t have any money,” said Deborah Haskins, president of the Maryland Council on Problem Gambling. “When the person doesn’t have treatment as an option, it’s like you’re putting a brick wall in front of them. You’re commending them for taking the first steps, but then you have nothing else to provide them. It’s very frustrating.”

Casinos in Maryland are required to contribute annually to a fund administered by the state's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene that addresses problem gambling. Casinos are assessed $425 per slot machine and $500 per table game each year, but that came to just under $4 million in the last fiscal year. Most of that money went to the Maryland Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling to increase gambling addiction counselors and run the addiction hotline, among other services, but it's not used for actual treatment.

"It's just like a drug addiction," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, who pushed for casinos to give a higher percentage of their revenue to address problem gambling in the state. “And just like you don’t put cocaine in front of an addict, building casinos near working people who have limited disposable income, that was always a concern for me.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.