Md.'s controversial gambling exclusion program gains ground

On June 24, 2011, a middle-aged Harford County woman drove to the Hollywood Casino in Perryville to give authorities permission to arrest her for trespassing if she ever set foot again in one of Maryland's casinos.

Before she signed the paperwork she wanted one last taste and lost hundreds of dollars at slot machines.


"I considered it my last hurrah. That I was going to gamble and then I was going to sign myself out," said the 50-year-old woman, before a recent Gamblers Anonymous meeting at Mountain Christian Church in Joppa.

The number of people who have willingly and officially banned themselves from Maryland's casinos has surpassed 120. After the state's largest casino — Maryland Live in Anne Arundel County — opened in June, the enrollment rate increased significantly, with more than 10 people registering in each of the past three months.


Seven violations have occurred as result of the program, including three in June, according to the Maryland Lottery, which administers the program.

With a casino planned for downtown Baltimore, and a referendum for a sixth casino in Prince George's County on the November ballot, the exclusion program is expected to grow in the next few years. As more people enter the program, concerns about its effectiveness are becoming more pronounced.

"If I hadn't walked into a casino, I wouldn't have lost a couple hundred dollars before I signed out," said the Harford County woman, who requested anonymity because of the social stigma associated with compulsive gambling.

Though the program has worked for her so far, she said, there are ways the exclusion program could be improved.


Her chief complaint, and that of many other addicts and their advocates: There's only one place to register for the program that isn't in a casino.

"I drove there with the intent" to sign up, she said, "but I did gamble first. ... Would it have been easier to go somewhere else? Yes."

Maryland's program is based on other states' self-exclusion programs, which go back to the mid-1990s, according to law journals. Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey — and many other states — offer self-exclusion lists.

According to gambling counselors, people in neighboring states where casinos already operated were clamoring to be added to Maryland's program before the state's first casino even opened.

Maryland's list launched in January 2011, the same month the Casino at Ocean Downs started operating and four months after the Perryville casino's doors opened.

About 40 percent of the people on the list live outside of Maryland. They come from Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia, according to the lottery, which reports participant demographics monthly to the Lottery Commission.

The rest of the list, just over 70 people, are from Maryland. Many of them live in Cecil, Harford, Montgomery and Worcester counties. About 10 people from each of those counties are registered.

The list is split nearly 50-50 between the sexes, and participants span all adult age groups, though more than a third are between 45 and 54 years old.

"It just kind of got out of control," said Bob, a 59-year-old Harford County man, explaining his rationale for signing up for the exclusion program. His gambling escalated from spending a few dollars a week on scratch-off lottery tickets, he said, to hiding his true salary from his wife so he could gamble without her knowing.

Bob, who didn't want his last name published, also attends Gamblers Anonymous in Joppa and signed up for the program in Perryville. The sign-up process felt "strange," he said, but the lottery representative he dealt with was "really down to earth and explained everything."

"The questionnaire was pretty detailed. They kept asking me, 'Are you sure you want to do this?'" he said.

Here's how the 30- to 40-minute registration process works, according to Jennifer Wetherell, the lottery's responsible-gambling coordinator:

Anyone who wants to be added to the confidential list must apply in person. This can be done at any time inside one of the state's casinos or by appointment at the Maryland Lottery's Baltimore headquarters.

The applicant is required to fill out a five-page form providing descriptive personal information, attest they are a problem gambler and verify they are enrolling voluntarily and understand the consequences. Valid, government-issued identification is required to verify the applicant's identity.

A Maryland Lottery staff member then conducts a private interview to ensure that the applicant is not being coerced to enroll. The lottery officer takes the applicant's picture, part of a packet of information about the excluded person that will be provided to the state's casinos, if the lottery approves the application.

"It was very simple and easy, they made it as comfortable as possible," said the Harford County woman. "They let you know, pretty cut-and-dry, the consequences."

Offering registration at the casinos has several advantages, Wetherell said.

They're open every day, including weekends, for extended hours, she said. Also, offering the sign-out option inside casinos allows problem gamblers the opportunity to act on an impulse to ban themselves, instead of making them wait to sign out, she said.

Still, lottery officials recognize the problems that can arise when the nearest place for a person to register is a casino, Wetherell said. "We have had discussions since the program began to expand sites," she said.

The state may consider allowing county health departments to administer the registration, Wetherell said.

Joanna Franklin, president of the Maryland Council on Problem Gambling, said it is going to take some time before Maryland is able to identify and address the program's pitfalls because it is still ramping up.

Franklin said she would like to see the enrollment options change. Applicants in Maryland must choose whether they want to be banned from the state's casinos for either two years or the rest of their lives.

Participants who elect two-year bans are not automatically dropped after 24 months. They must apply to be removed from the list and demonstrate that they have undergone counseling. A lottery official makes the final decision whether the participant may be removed.

"A year is an easier bite to take for something like that than two years," Franklin said.

She said she'd prefer shorter exclusion options — six months, say — so people may take a "time out" from gambling.

Others criticize anything but a lifetime exclusion.

"This is the most powerful addiction … without putting anything in your body," said Arnie Wexler, a nationally recognized gambling addiction counselor based in New Jersey. "Compulsive gamblers must chase. They chase wins, they chase losses. They chase that the rest of their life."

If a person on the exclusion list is caught in a Maryland casino, he or she is subject to arrest for trespassing. Because of the program's confidentiality, it's unclear whether any of the seven violations to date resulted in misdemeanor trespassing charges. If convicted a person faces a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $500.

"It keeps me from going," Bob said. If, instead of arresting violators, "they just escorted you to the entrance, I don't think that would be enough to stop quite a few people," he added.


Another problem with Maryland's voluntary exclusion program is the minimal responsibility placed on the casinos, said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling.


Maryland's casinos are not checking IDs at the door against the exclusion list, so access to the casino is actually not restricted, he explained.

"You're only positively ID'd when you win a jackpot," Whyte said. "As long as they go back and lose, the casinos and the regulators don't care."

Under the Maryland program, people who register for the program forfeit any money they win at a Maryland casino after enrollment.

Before collecting large prizes, casino customers are required to identify themselves for tax purposes. It is only during these identifications that someone on the list will likely be flagged by casino staff, Whyte said.

"The Voluntary Exclusion Program was created to help problem gamblers help themselves," according to the Maryland Lottery's materials explaining the program. "The responsibility for staying out of Maryland casinos rests solely on the individual who voluntarily excludes and not with the Maryland Lottery or any Maryland casino."

That is backwards, said Whyte, who believes that the burden should be on the casinos to keep compulsive gamblers out.

Many gamblers on exclusion lists actively gamble, Wexler agreed.

The casinos are also supposed to remove the excluded person's information from any direct marketing databases and cancel membership in rewards programs.

Preventing casinos from providing "comps" — free dinners, hotel rooms and tickets to shows, for instance — to compulsive gamblers is the real value of the program, Franklin said.

Removing those incentives may work for some compulsive gamblers, experts say. But voluntary exclusion programs are by no means universally accepted as a solution among gambling addicts.

Bill S., a 48-year-old compulsive gambler from Fells Point who attends Gamblers Anonymous meetings in Towson, is among the contingent who believe that gambling addiction cannot be dealt with by external constraints. Especially when casinos are such a small piece of legal gambling in Maryland.

"I refuse to do it on principle," Bill said. "What am I going to do? Ban myself from all the gas stations and bars? Ban myself from the grocery store? If you want to stop gambling, it has to come from inside."


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