Ohio is the latest state to allow compulsive gamblers voluntarily to ban themselves from casinos.
Even before the Horseshoe Casino Cleveland opened, Justin Gale knew he never wanted to step inside.
Not because he's opposed to casino gaming, but because he's a compulsive gambler who can't control his addiction.
So Gale, a 52-year-old office professional, became the first -- and so far only -- Ohioan approved for a new state program that makes it a crime for him to enter any of the four casinos opening in the state.
"It's a wonderful thing knowing that it's illegal to step foot in a casino," said Gale, a Mayfield Heights resident who quit gambling last year.
The Ohio Casino Control Commission launched its "Voluntary Exclusion" program earlier this year, modeling it after other states with similar efforts. Today, 15 out of the 23 states with commercial casino gaming operate such programs, and many casino companies run their own voluntary exclusion programs, according to the American Gaming Association in Washington, D.C.
Under the Ohio program, people voluntarily apply through the commission to be banned from the casinos for either a year, five years or life. People who choose the one- or five-year bans can apply to have their names scrubbed from the list after that term is up.
Those who choose the lifetime ban, though, can never be removed.
The application must be done in person with a commission employee; no one can sign up anyone else.
The commission takes people's photographs and physical descriptions, and shares the information with the casinos. If they are caught inside, they are charged with trespassing and would have to forfeit any winnings.
The commission expects between 5,000 and 10,000 people will participate. Experts estimate that 1 percent of the population has a severe gambling addiction, and another 4 to 5 percent are problem gamblers.
"We think there will be kind of a rush and then it will be steady," said Laura Clemens, director of government affairs and problem gaming program coordinator with the commission.
She said there are at least 10 other people like Gale who are seeking to be banned from Ohio casinos, but their applications await approval.
Caesars Entertainment, which is operating the Cleveland and Cincinnati casinos, and Penn National Gaming Inc., which will run the Toledo and Columbus casinos, also have their own voluntary exclusion programs.
Anyone who signs up for the Caesars or state programs is barred from all Caesars properties. Penn National is in the process of setting up a similar arrangement.
Gale chose the lifetime ban.
He has proudly framed his letter from the commission notifying him that he's barred from the casinos. He keeps it next to a photo of his deceased father, who had urged him to stop gambling.
He wants to help publicize the program because telling his story might encourage other problem gamblers to seek help, he said.
Gale started gambling at age 15 at the Thistledown and Northfield Park horse tracks. At the time, older people he knew would place bets for him.
He became obsessed with betting on horses and going to the track. That obsession cost him relationships, including a marriage, because nothing was as important as gambling, he said. He also started taking bus trips to casinos in neighboring states, but found it was easier to go the local horse track.
Despite his addiction, he said he never had trouble keeping a job. He needed the income to gamble, so he would not put his work in jeopardy.
His parents recognized there was a problem and pressured him to stop.
"My father used to say, 'Why can't you go out there like I do?'" Gale said during an hourlong interview at Panera Bread near his apartment. "My dad liked to gamble. He enjoyed the track, but he was a responsible gambler. He would take $40 out, and if he lost the $40, he would be done. ... I don't think they understood that it wasn't so easy for me."
Gale, who sports a buzz haircut and no sign of gray, looks much younger than 52.
"The reason being is ... because I've never grown up," he said. "For those 35 years I gambled, I was in an emotional freeze. You don't mature as a compulsive gambler. I still see myself as a 16-, 17-year-old kid. Those 35 years were nonproductive years."
He declined to discuss specific amounts he won or lost over the years.
"For a compulsive gambler, no win is ever big enough," Gale said. "If you lose, you want to gamble right away to win again. If you win, you want to go back and win more.
"If I won or lost, the desire in me was to go back and gamble again. It didn't matter. If I broke even, I'm like, 'That was no good.' I would have almost rather lost. I want something to happen. So whether I won, lost or broke even, the desire was to go back the next day."
He knew he had a problem but continued gambling anyway.
That's not unusual, said Scott Anderson, problem gambling coordinator with the Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services.
Gamblers tend to seek treatment only after they've hit financial and emotional rock bottom, he said.
"A third of them have had a suicide attempt or thought of killing themselves," he said.
For Gale, it wasn't until age 50, long after both his parents had passed away, that something clicked and he realized he had to change his life.
He placed his last bet Jan. 2, 2011 -- at the racetrack. He counts every day since. (On the day of the interview for this story, it had been 500 days.)
"What made me stop? I just finally realized I'm 50 years old," Gale said. "Any relationship I would have would come second to gambling, which would mean the relationship would be gone. I'm like, 'I just got to change my life and I have to do it in a multitude of different ways.'"
A self-exclusion program is just one tool that can help, but it's not a substitute for treatment, experts said.
"Unless it's coupled with prevention and treatment, it can't be effective and adequate," said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling in Washington, D.C. "Unless you can do something to actually help them address their problem, you're trying to bring an enforcement solution to a health issue."
Then there's the fact gamblers have plenty of options besides casinos: the racetrack, online gaming, bingo, lottery tickets. Self-exclusion programs don't ban people from those activities.
The Minnesota Department of Human Services offers resources for compulsive gamblers here.
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