People from around the world come to Las Vegas for fun and excitement and that often centers around a slot machine or blackjack table.
But for some people, the fun stops and the compulsion takes over. When that happens, people can become desperate for money, which means they'll turn to crime to pay for their addiction.
A new Clark County court will soon be in session specifically designed to hear cases involving problem gamblers. The court is the creation of Family Court Judge Cheryl Moss.
Moss said there should be a community response to problem gambling because it benefits the community to keep people out of jail.
The court will work like other specialty courts that divert people to help instead of jail. In problem gambling court, people who have been arrested for a crime related to a gambling addiction can go to treatment and if they follow all the rules outlined by the court, they can have their case dismissed.
Before the court, people who embezzled from their company or stole money from family members would have to face the consequences of those crimes. This way they can get the help they need.
“With this diversion, just like with drug court, we give people the chance to receive the treatment and it benefits the community… we’ll help try to get them the treatment, so they don’t go back to the life crime,” Judge Moss said.
Sydney Smith treats gambling addicts in her practice at Rise Center for Recovery.
She said when someone goes to jail or prison they do not get the help they need with their addiction.
“There is a high risk of relapse once they come out because often times in jail there is no treatment,” she said, “There is nothing to actually fix the problem.”
Smith said the problem for a lot of people is impulse control, which is why therapists will see people with a gambling addiction that also has another addiction like drugs, alcohol or sex.
Judge Moss said the court will include help for those addictions as well.
Like just about everything else, gambling addiction doesn’t happen after one night at the casino. Instead, it can be a process that takes years.
Ted Hartwell is the community engagement liaison for Nevada Council on Problem Gambling and a recovering gambling addict.
He said he spent years gambling at regular poker games or with his dad at the race track. However, he was always able to stay within his limits
But when he moved to Las Vegas, he started playing video poker and before long, the addiction had taken hold.
“Once I began lying to my family and hiding both the time and amounts of money I was spending I was certainly into that full-blown addiction period but it as a slow progression over very many years,” he said.
He said by the time he was fully into his addiction gambling wasn’t fun it was more of an anesthetic and a way to escape anything wrong in his life. Plus, he was chasing the money he had lost, gambling more to try to pay back his debts before they were discovered.
Hartwell said he finally decided to get serious about finding help when his wife at the time confronted him with the credit card debt he had hidden from her for years.
He went for treatment at the Problem Gambling Center and continues to be engaged with a 12-step program.
Hartwell said the program helps him stay on track, but he also likes to be there for the people who have just come to realize they need help.
“It’s important for me to be there for that first person who comes in to their very first meeting, which is very difficult to do and hopefully provide them with some hope and recognition that I was there once, and my life is so much better today that it is difficult to describe and share that with them,” he said.
In the past, casinos might have brushed the problem under the rug, but Hartwell says that is not the case anymore. Now, he said the major casinos have robust intervention programs for people who need help.
It is that kind of breaking down of the stigma surrounding gambling addiction that Judge Moss says will be the most difficult part of her new efforts.
“This is the biggest thing we’re going to have to work on is to change the public perception,” she said, “The public perception of gamblers they did it intentionally. They did it themselves, but it is proven to be a disorder.”
The first case in the new court is set for November 30.
Problem Gamblers HelpLine: 1-800-522-4700
Cheryl Moss, Judge, Eighth Judicial District, Clark County; Sydney Smith, Therapist, Rise Center for Recovery; Ted Hartwell, Community Engagement Liaison, Nevada Council on Problem Gambling