Surprisingly enough, it was a Mormon who educated me on the horrors of gambling addiction.

I met him at a court-ordered Narcotics Anonymous meeting during my teenage years. My dad had the police called on me for smoking pot in the basement of our house, and because I was still a minor, the courts felt it was imperative to save me from the horrors of THE REEFER before it was too late; weekly meetings were a requirement. When I found out that the gambler, like me, had moved to Rock Springs from Utah, coupled with him having lived a mere 90-minute drive from the Nevada border town called Wendover, the fact he was Mormon—and a gambling addict—all made sense.  

Half of Wendover is in Utah, the other half is in Nevada—where gambling is not only legal but the fact that there are three major casinos found within the first half mile of the town’s main entrance makes it known that it is also highly encouraged. It wasn't uncommon for "jack-Mormons" to go to the casinos on Saturday night, then go to church on Sunday to "make it right." In fact, the main reason he’d moved to Rock Springs was to add more distance between himself and his addiction: casino gambling.

After introducing himself and explaining that he needed a meeting for addicts of some kind, as he was unable to find anywhere that was geared specifically to gambling addiction, he told everyone his story. Over the next 10 minutes, he went into great detail about how he had lost everything of importance but was physically unable to stop himself at points from leaving his wife, kids, and sometimes his job behind for the weekend, all in an attempt to “hit it big.”

As I listened, all I could hear in my head were the threats from the judge of a decimated future that lay ahead if I continued my marijuana use and how every outcome he mentioned mirrored those experienced by my new NA acquaintance. Well, the judge and my parents.

Being raised by parents who weren’t really educated about mind-altering substances of any kind (except booze), everything I was told about this evil green scourge by these authority figures sounded exactly like what my fellow addict had gone through.

And in every case, I knew the connection was incorrect; I just wasn’t sure how.

This meeting with the gambler took place in the late 90s. And since cannabis had only become recently legal at that time in California for medicinal purposes, there were no scientific studies to truly evaluate the harm similarities/differences between a "gateway" drug like cannabis and non-drug related experiences that can lead to addiction like gambling.

That was then, this is now. And with Colorado having legalized both gambling (1991) and cannabis (2012) in decades past, there’s been enough time that has passed to where we can see if those who terrorized my youth with thoughts of giving hand-jobs on the corner for a dime bag were accurate or not.

In 2021 The Colorado Division of Criminal Justice’s Office of Research and Statistics published the latest “Impacts on Marijuana Legalization in Colorado” report, which presents data on marijuana-related topics including crime, usage rates, effects on youth, and more.

One of the most interesting facts they found was with the levels of marijuana-related crimes. Because drug use/addiction has always been associated with criminal activities (you know, some junkie robbing a house for their next fix), most would assume that legalization would cause a spike in these crimes. They would be wrong. The total number of marijuana-related court case filings declined 55% between 2012 and 2019, driven primarily by decreases in misdemeanors and petty offenses. The number of cases with a marijuana felony as the top marijuana charge has varied; in 2020 there were 180 fewer felony cases filed than in 2012.

Also, the University of Colorado Boulder released a report in 2022 showing that residents of states where cannabis has been legalized, marijuana use is 24% more frequently than those living in states where it remains illegal. But preliminary results from the broader ongoing research project suggest that increased use is not necessarily accompanied by increased behavioral problems. “Many social ills that opponents warned about a decade ago have not come to pass,” said Brian Keegan, an assistant professor in the CU Department of Information Science who uses data to analyze both the chemical makeup of cannabis and the evolution of the industry. “DUIs and crime did not explode following legalization. And several studies have shown that opioid use and deaths actually decline in states following legalization.” It appears that at end of the day, more people may be using cannabis, but the severity of horrible side effects (like felonies) has gone down as a result of this increase.

It's important to remember that in 2020, the Colorado cannabis industry hit $2 billion in sales. So, for an industry this massive, these numbers of marijuana-related offenses being in decline are promising. But how does the Colorado gambling industry compare?

According to figures released by the Colorado Sun in April, Colorado’s total sports betting for the period of July 2021 through March of 2022 was $3,749,743,663, a whopping 85.96% increase over the same period in the previous fiscal year. So far, sports betting has generated more than $9 million in taxes this fiscal year—a 78% increase from the previous year. 

And this is where things get incredibly frustrating. With gambling being a $3 billion industry, along with gambling being such an incredibly high trigger for those with addictive personalities, you would think that studies on gambling addiction, like those done on the cannabis industry, would be plentiful. I’m sorry to report that we were both wrong.

There is a breathtaking amount of zero data when it comes to gambling addictions and the amount of fallout from such addictions may be having on society at large. In fact, Brianne Doura-Schawohl, a Virginia-based consultant representing the National Council on Problem Gambling, testified at a hearing in Colorado on gambling addiction and made a startling revelation; though residents are gambling to the tune of over $3 billion per year, we have no idea how bad the problem actually is. Because no official studies have been done, she suggested that the state conduct a survey to get an accurate picture of the scope of its problem gambling. Combine this with the fact that according to the National Center for Responsible Gaming, nationwide over 66% of problem gamblers admit to committing crimes to fund their activities, and over 95% of lifetime gamblers have at least one or more addiction disorders, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Thankfully, certain legislators have come in to (try) and help.

State Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat acknowledged earlier this year that Colorado has never prioritized the treatment of problem gambling and promised to introduce legislation to shore up its efforts. Because of the decades of inaction, Garnett introduced HB22-1402 which designates multiple funding streams for grants aimed at addressing longstanding concerns that the state has given little attention to, while also seeking to curb the so-called “free bets” offered by sportsbooks to attract new customers and create a mechanism by which problem gamblers can exclude themselves from both online and traditional sites. It was signed into law by Governor Polis in 2022. Starting in the 2022-23 fiscal year, the bill identifies three funding streams: $2.5 million from the state’s share of the limited gaming fund; money undistributed after two years from the Hold Harmless Fund; and $200,000 from the lottery earmarked to encourage responsible gambling.

This means that about $3 million is going to be allocated to fighting a phantom; something nefarious we know exists, with no idea how to combat exactly.

I don’t have a concern with throwing money at a problem, so long as you get to the root of the issue. If you are going to allocate millions of dollars in spending, you need to find the systemic issue and fix it as to prevent the need for more funds. When it comes to fighting gambling addiction in Colorado, is $3 million enough? Is it too much? Will these specific programs and available aid go to helping those with a problem end their spiral of addiction? We don’t know because again, the opponent is invisible.

Having written about my own struggles with addiction previously, it’s clear that I understand the Hell you go through when you are unable to stifle the demons in your mind. How one justification after another creeps in to allow for a level of plausible deniability when it comes to taking your drug of choice. I also know how desperate it can feel when you have no resources to turn to. I think three decades is long enough to ignore those who have struggled with gambling addiction and it’s time we commit to studying this horrid disease and figuring out the real, viable numbers.

I mean, if we can do it for the stoners …