Jackpot Blues

Is B.C. Overlooking The Devastating Impact Of Compulsive Gambling?

Last July, a compulsive gambler named Garry Johns chose an unusual venue--Vancouver City Hall--to talk about his sickness. When it was his turn to speak at a public hearing on slot machines, the stocky retired warehouse worker started on an upbeat note, emphasizing the "pro-social" side of his personality. He said he was a past president of the Canadian Junior Chamber of Commerce, a coach of junior and midget baseball, and a volunteer at the Molson Indy and at various fireworks events. But his voice quivered slightly when he started talking about his antisocial side: his gambling addiction and its devastating impact on innocent people.

"I'm a terrible, terrible monster when I gamble," Johns confessed to the packed council chamber. "And when I gamble, people get hurt because I don't know when to stop."

He said there are thousands of others like him in this region. There isn't nearly enough treatment for their disease, he added. When compulsive gamblers end up in serious trouble, he said, the courts and correctional systems don't have much to offer. And that's why he was speaking out against the British Columbia Lottery Corporation's bid for 600 slot machines at the Hastings Racecourse.

Johns told council that he spent six years in prison for a dozen armed robberies in Ontario. All of the crimes fed his gambling addiction. He committed another brutal robbery in Burnaby in 1996, resulting in a 10-year prison sentence.

"I wish you could see the victims lined up here and talk to you--the eight-year-old and 10-year-old granddaughters of my last victim when they went home and found their grandfather laying in a pool of blood because I had robbed them to get $6,000 to pay the shylocks," Johns said.

After Johns finished speaking, some in the audience burst into applause. They were immediately silenced by the chair of the public hearing, Mayor Larry Campbell. "I don't want to warn about the clapping," Campbell said. "We don't need it." A few days later, the mayor cast the deciding vote to permit slot machines at the racetrack.

In a recent interview with the Georgia Straight, Johns elaborated on how he landed in Mission Institution, a federal penitentiary, six years ago. Physically and emotionally abused as a kid, he said, he began gambling at about the age of seven, playing rummy with his grandmother for nickels and dimes. As an adult, Johns specialized in high-stakes poker and backgammon, in which prize pools reached into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The crunch came when he received a disturbing call from his loan shark. The man described what his wife, Rhonda, wore that day, the time she left work, the route she walked home, and even the colour of her briefcase. "They were going to go after my wife if I didn't pay the money by that Friday night," Johns recalled.

So he visited an 82-year-old friend, and during the robbery Johns pounded the old man with an old sock filled with rolls of quarters. According to a B.C. Court of Appeal ruling, Johns even disconnected the phone so his friend couldn't call for help. Then he ran off with thousands of dollars to pay his loan shark before fleeing to Seattle and checking into a hotel.

"I was contemplating suicide at that point because, for me, my life was over," he recalled. "The only thing that made me come back was my wife. She said she would stand by me if I got help."

Johns turned himself into the police, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. His wife recalled what it was like living with a compulsive gambler. She told the Straight that the financial consequences alone are devastating, but perhaps even more insidious is the constant lying. "The relationships are so deeply eroded," she said. "People feel terribly helpless."

Rhonda Johns said she often suspected that her husband was gambling again. Money would sometimes go missing, but there was always an excuse. She noted that unlike with drug and alcohol addicts, there are no physical signs of compulsive gambling. Garry was also a very good liar, she said, so she never knew for sure.

When asked why she stuck with him through his court case, conviction, and prison sentence, Rhonda recalled what her father told her shortly before the couple married. Her dad said that Garry would challenge her patience but she should always remember that he had a good heart. She also said that she realized he had a disease. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association has classified pathological gambling as a mental disorder since 1980.

"If he had cancer, would I walk away from him?" Rhonda asked. "No."

Last year, the BC Lottery Corporation generated $1.9 billion in sales and posted a profit of $728 million. The B.C. government collected more than $500 million, with the rest mostly going to charities and municipal governments.

Lottery-corporation officials anticipate that revenues and profits will rise by more than 30 percent during the next three years. The B.C. government-owned company sets aside just $4 million--about 0.5 percent of profits--for research, prevention, and treatment of problem gambling.

Johns's former lawyer, Vancouver Coun. Tim Louis, described this as a "criminal" percentage, which demonstrates the lottery corporation's lack of compassion for its victims. "It's a token, trivial, Band-Aid allocation of what should be and could be provided," Louis told the Straight.

GARRY JOHNS SAID he remembers seeing one 20-year-old compulsive gambler, "scared shitless", begin his prison sentence for a gambling-related murder. Johns said that the "bull queens" had set their sights on the newcomer in the Mission penitentiary. He described the bull queens as a group of seasoned convicts who lure young inmates into friendship and then use them for sex. Johns said he wanted to help, so he asked some hardened lifers if they would offer backup if he tried to stop the bull queens from taking control of the kid.

The lifers told Johns that he could count on their help, but only for that one day. Johns then told the young man, who was in the next cell, that he could help him that day but not in the future. The young man turned down the offer because he was under the mistaken impression that the bull queens were his friends.

"Well, a week later he came back looking for help," Johns recalled. There was nothing he could do.

Prison officials moved the young gambling addict to protective custody, where Johns said he was assaulted again. Then the kid was moved into super-protective custody. "So basically, he's in 23-hour-a-day lockdown," Johns said. "He is doing a 25-year sentence. It was gambling."

Johns was more fortunate. After being transferred to minimum-security Ferndale Institution in 2000, he obtained day passes to go to meetings with Gamblers Anonymous (604-878-6535). He is now out on parole, which will continue until 2008. He said he hasn't placed a bet since 1996.

Now Garry and Rhonda Johns are speaking publicly to try to prevent others from falling into a similar trap. Rhonda spoke warmly to the Straight about how hard her husband has worked to become a different person. "The gamblers are not bad people," she said. "They just do terrible things. You hate the addiction. We truly love the person."

Last July, lottery-corporation officials told Vancouver city council that they don't know how much revenue comes from problem gamblers. The corporation's director of social responsibility, Gail White, cited a study from a different jurisdiction that pegged the contribution at 30 percent. If that were the case here, B.C. problem gamblers boost revenues by $570 million, and only about 0.5 percent of their spending goes back into treatment and prevention.

Johns said that B.C., unlike Alberta, has no residential-treatment programs for compulsive gamblers. The B.C. Liberal government shuffled problem gambling out of the Ministry of Health Services and into the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General. "Alberta recognizes that this is a serious problem," Johns said. "This is a disease."

As the Straight reported last week, B.C. is one of the very few provinces that has no means for compiling statistics on gambling-related suicides. Vancouver resident Bill Chu, a founder of the Multicultural Coalition Against Gambling Expansion, told the Straight that B.C. should also tabulate statistics on gambling-related murders and other offences.

"There are so many headlines related to crime, yet nobody tries to find out why it happened," Chu said. "I mean, there are so many things that can be done and need to be done, especially with all the money they're scooping in."

The B.C. Liberal government minister responsible for police and coroners services, Solicitor General Rich Coleman, is also the minister responsible for the lottery corporation. His office said he was unavailable for comment until after Labour Day. Ministry spokesperson Nikki McCallum told the Straight that $3 million is spent on gambling prevention and treatment, including free counselling in person or over the phone. In addition, $500,000 goes into "program development, advertising, and training for counsellors", and another $500,000 is spent on research, provincially and nationally.

McCallum said she couldn't provide a detailed list of expenditures on research projects underway. She noted that lottery revenues funded a $135,000 2003 Ipsos-Reid and Gemini Research study into the prevalence of problem gambling in B.C. Based on telephone interviews with 2,500 adults, they concluded there are 136,000 moderate problem gamblers and 14,250 severe problem gamblers in B.C. "A further 11.1 percent of adult British Columbians are classified as at-risk gamblers, who may develop more serious problems in the future," the report stated.

The combined compensation for the lottery corporation's five highest-paid executives in 2002-03--$1,008,112.55--more than doubled the amount of money spent on researching problem gambling. Unlike governments in Alberta and Ontario, B.C. hasn't turned over any lottery profits to independent agencies in B.C. that distribute funds to university researchers in this province.

Quebec has gone even further, creating two research institutes, including one that focuses exclusively on youth gambling. Jeffrey Deverensky, codirector of the International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviors at McGill University, told the Straight that researchers are finally understanding why some people are at higher risk to become problem gamblers. However, he said there needs to be much more study into "best practices" for treatment.

Deverensky added that little is known about the impact of advertising on problem gamblers, and he claimed there is a "paucity" of research on seniors with this disorder. He also said that courses on gambling have only recently been added to addiction-training programs.

"In most jurisdictions, I think there is enough resources allocated for the research in terms of the money," Deverensky said. "What I think we're short of is personnel who are familiar enough with the area. If you make the parallels to drug and tobacco and alcohol research, we're 20 years behind."

LAST JULY, GARRY JOHNS told Vancouver city council that the courts will take into consideration if an accused person is addicted to drugs and alcohol. However, he claimed that this won't happen for compulsive gamblers. His point was echoed by Vancouver lawyer Manuel Azevedo, who represented a gambling addict who received two concurrent life sentences for robbery in 1995.

Azevedo's client, Robert David Elliott, never produced a weapon and didn't use violence in these crimes, according to court records, but Provincial Court Judge Keith Libby still felt it was necessary to lock him away for life.

"Would a life sentence outrage the public in this instance?" Libby said in court. "Not a chance. The public out there is angry at me and angry at other judges because we're not doing it enough. It would outrage a portion of the public who believe that instead of incarcerating people that programs should be established for the treatment of addictions, whether it be gambling or alcoholism or the use of narcotics, and that the dollars would be better spent taking those kind of individuals and turning them into productive citizens. That's a very small proportion of the population of this country."

Azevedo managed to get Elliott's sentence reduced on appeal to two consecutive three-year terms. Another client, a 35-year-old compulsive gambler, wanted help for his problem but couldn't find anything until Azevedo arranged to have a Gamblers Anonymous volunteer visit him in prison. "He got about 15 years, all robberies, all related to gambling," Azevedo told the Straight. "The key about his case was he expressed a genuine desire to get some help."

In at least one case, a gambling addict who was a victim didn't get much sympathy from the courts either. In 2002, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Dean Wilson sentenced a Vancouver Island man to just four years for beating and strangling his wife to death after he was "provoked" by her wild gambling sprees and her demands to be paid for sex. Over a six-month period, Crofton resident Patricia Cairns squandered $87,000 on her gambling problem, draining her husband, Robert Cairns, of his life savings. She eventually demanded $500 for each act of sexual intercourse. According to court records, the mill worker lost his temper, hit her several times on the head with a hammer, tied a bathrobe cord around her neck twice, and pulled it tight enough to kill her.

The Crown charged Robert Cairns with second-degree murder. After his lawyer argued "provocation", a jury convicted him on the lesser charge of manslaughter. Last April, in a 2-1 decision, a B.C. Court of Appeal panel increased the sentence to seven years.

A coroner's report on the death of Patricia Cairns made no mention of her gambling addiction. Nowhere was her death recorded as a gambling-related homicide. And no one organized any protests after a B.C. Supreme Court jury decided that killing a compulsive gambler was somehow less deserving of punishment than repeatedly hammering the head of a person who didn't have this disease.