Md.'s controversial gambling exclusion program gains ground

Voluntary exclusion program designed to curb problem gambling in Maryland casinos

  • Slots players are shown at Hollywood Casino Perryville.
Slots players are shown at Hollywood Casino Perryville. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
September 08, 2012|By Steve Kilar, The Baltimore Sun

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."

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