Gambling addiction agencies worry addiction numbers could skyrocket

If gambling is a drug, New Jersey has become a one-stop pharmacy for gamblers to get their fix. With legalized sports betting, you now can bet online, on your phone, at the racetrack and the old fashioned way in the casino. Some will lose everything.

Recovering gambling addict John says gambling is different than when he became hooked in the 1980s.

“It’s a lot easier now,” he said. “You’re going to get your money a lot quicker, and today’s generation is instant gratification. If they bet a sports game today, you’re going to get paid when it’s over.”

At a conference by the Council of Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, the new, easy access to placing bets sparked worry that the state’s gambling addiction problem will only grow worse.

“With the internet gaming you’ve got ease of game. So if I had my phone and I was down here like this, I can be gambling,” said Neva Pryor, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey. “It’s that accessibility that makes it so easy. That’s what our concern is. We want to make sure that if individuals are gambling, and if they develop a problem, that they know where to go for help.”

A Rutgers University survey last year found that 6.3 percent of New Jersey residents had a gambling disorder. That’s about three times higher than the national average.

“Two years from now you won’t be able to get a seat at a Gamblers Anonymous room, because what happens is people that would never gamble sports illegally are now gambling on sports,” said Arnie Wexler, co-founder of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey

According to the Rutgers survey, 70 percent of New Jerseyans placed at least one bet in the past year.

Counselors see a rise in addiction from two distinct groups — seniors who find the casino’s counter loneliness, and young people who tend to bet on sports.

“They begin at a younger age, sports betting, so they get into trouble faster because of lack of resources,” said Jerry Bauerkemper, executive director of the Nebraska Council on Compulsive Gambling.

Gambling addicts have a higher rate of domestic abuse, bankruptcies and depression. It’s estimated one in five gambling addicts will try to commit suicide.

They also abuse alcohol and drugs, so Friday’s conference looked at how marijuana, which the state may legalize for recreational use, fits into gambling.

“So far, some of our early data in California is showing that among our patients with gambling disorder, that they do use cannabis at higher rates on average in California. But there are a lot of really interesting, fascinating questions. Will  cannabis make gambling disorders worse? Could cannabis be a treatment for gambling disorder? How will the casino industry embrace or push away cannabis use?” asked Dr. Timothy Fong, professor of addiction psychiatry at UCLA.

With legalized sports betting and legal weed, mental health professionals worry a new class of addicts will grow in the state.