Getting help from the Office of Problem Gambling can be a roll of the dice

California’s Office of Problem Gambling proclaims its mission in vast and
noble terms: to develop statewide programs to address problem and
pathological gambling issues.

What it doesn’t explain is that the little-known OPG has only two staffers
under its director and that a lack of funding prevents it from creating
those treatment programs. Indeed, if you call OPG for help, you’ll be
referred to a 1-800 helpline operated in Chicago.

More than 14,000 Californians called the hotline in 2004, with almost 3,400
experiencing a “great degree of difficulty” from gambling.

But the obscure OPG may make its first blip on the radar this year as it
completes its first steps toward a prevention plan. Legislators say
prevention is an achievable first step to helping California’s estimated 1.5
million problem gamblers.

The growth of California’s gambling industry spurred then-Sen. Bill Lockyer
to author the 1997 bill creating the problem gambling office.

Lockyer’s bill set up the Office of Compulsive Gambling in the Department of
Mental Health as part of a package to increase state regulation of gambling,
along with the Division of Gambling Control in the attorney general’s office
that Lockyer was seeking.

On paper, the plan looked good: The office was to attack problem gambling
from every angle, from research all the way to treatment. There was just one
hitch-the office didn’t receive a dime until six years later because funding
was contingent on legislative appropriations that never happened.

In 2003, Assemblyman Jerome. Horton (D-Inglewood) introduced legislation
that would finally fund the office, but there were some trade-offs. The
compromise included a new name, the Office of Problem and Pathological
Gambling, and a move to the Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs. It also
divided the office’s responsibilities into two distinct categories that are
subject to funding-giving prevention priority and while treatment remained

OPG funding comes from the Indian Special Distribution Fund created when
tribal gaming compacts were signed in 1999. About 24 of California’s gaming
tribes pay an average of $120 million to the fund each year to relieve
effects of tribal gaming on communities, balance the sharing fund for
non-gaming tribes and, at least in theory, address problem gambling.

While the original legislation made community restitution a lower priority
than the Office of Problem Gambling, communities received $80 million last
year and OPG received just $3 million.

“In a state with a population the size of a small country, it’s difficult to
create services when you only have $3 million. I think outpatient treatment
services are number one along with educating the kids,” said Bruce Roberts,
executive director of the California Council on Problem Gambling that
oversees the state’s gambling hotline.

While gambling experts say California could surpass Nevada as the number one
gambling state by 2010, OPG has had a slow start after it left all its
budget unspent the first year and its director left last year.

But under new director Steve Hedrick, a prevention advocate who moved over
from the attorney general’s Crime and Violence Prevention Center last July,
the office might finally complete its first steps toward instituting a
statewide prevention plan.

Two priorities that Hedrick is pushing are a prevalence study and an
advisory group of researchers, gambling officials and enforcement agencies
that the office and lawmakers will use to strategize problem gambling

“We have most of the players at the table talking about the issue. People
are acknowledging that it is a problem,” Hedrick said.

The group expects to release prevention recommendations this spring. It also
awarded a contract for a prevalence study to the National Opinion Research
Center in Chicago last year and expects the results this June.

A prevalence study hasn’t been done in California for more than 15 years,
well before the Indian casino boom.

Congress commissioned a national study 1999, which found that one percent of
Americans are pathological gamblers, and another two to three percent are
problem gamblers. Given the national averages, at least one and a half
million Californians could be problem gamblers.

The American Psychiatric Association considers pathological gambling a
mental disorder that causes people to commit crimes to finance bets, lie
about gambling and fail and get irritable when trying to quit. Problem
gambling is any that disrupts psychological, physical, social, or vocational

Tribal governments say the office should get other segments of the gambling
industry to contribute to OPG programs. Card rooms and horse tracks are
involved in advising the state’s strategies, but only Indian casinos fund
the office.

“As governments, we have to provide for our constituents. I think we should
start utilizing the money to set up treatment programs,” said Anthony
Miranda, chairman of California Nations Indian Gaming Association.

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