The Drugs Analogy

I want to reiterate, because it’s obviously not clear from my previous blogs (or recent tirades against senior industry figures on LinkedIn) – I love gambling.

I love talking about it, I love thinking about it, I love writing about it, and I occasionally enjoy actually doing it. As you can see from the fabricated-but-broadly-accurate data visualisation above, I spend weirdly less time placing bets than on any other gambling-related activity.

Side note: I recently completed the IBM Professional Certificate in Data Science, so I’m internet-qualified to know that pie charts are the worst form of graph. However, they are objectively the most whimsical.

I’m not, at present, paid for any of this obsession – this is an entirely loss-making voluntary exercise. That’s how much I love gambling.

It is very clear though, that I have misgivings. My stance on gambling is nuanced and constantly evolving, and therefore slightly confusing. It is when trying to explain my complex position as a Reluctant Gambler that I increasingly turn to to drugs. As an analogy.

The worlds of gambling and recreational drugs have a lot of overlap. For completeness, let’s include alcohol, caffeine and nicotine within recreational drugs, because they’re known chemical stimulants with long-term negative effects.

On the obvious level, they are all addictive and can therefore be harmful. That’s no coincidence; the research shows that the underlying neurology of addictions is very consistent. They are mechanisms that temporarily improve mental state by tampering with the brain’s reward circuits.

But there is a second similarity that I find more useful. Drugs and gambling are both general terms for a broad range of elements. One drug will have a different affect on mood, behaviour and physiology than another. I have a strong preference for hanging out with a person depending on whether they’re on alcohol, mushrooms, weed, cocaine or ecstasy.

That situation is pretty well understood for drugs, hence there are different classifications and punishments for each. That’s not the case for gambling. Psychology studies have shown that different gambling products come with different levels of risk and harm, but they’re all largely treated the same and are often found under a single roof.

Lottery, bingo and sports-betting are generally low risk (though not risk free) and therefore work quite well as entertainment products. Many casino games, but slots in particular, are much higher risk because the game design and speed of play makes them much more likely to encourage unhealthy patterns of play.

If I were put in charge of legalising drugs, I wouldn’t be following that gambling model. It would seem like madness to sell it all in the same place. I wouldn’t want to drink in a bar where the proprietor can just wander over and try to cross-sell you some crack.

That seems insane to me, but it happens relentlessly on betting sites when a happy recreational bingo player is hounded with offers for free spins in the casino. It is predatorial and exploitative, and purpose-built legislation wouldn’t allow it to happen.

When it comes to availability, I feel the same way about gambling as I do about drugs. Prohibition does not work. Legalise anything that is justifiably entertainment, but have the protections in place to minimise harm and make the operator pay for it with their profits.

Part of that protection is segregating the different drugs. Or as the gambling industry euphemistically calls them, ‘verticals’. No two forms of gambling are the same, and so they should not all be accessible in one place.

With all that said, there is one facet of gambling that differentiates it from its addiction bedfellows. With drink and drugs there usually comes a point when you simply can’t consume any more in a single session.

At some point you are overwhelmed by the effect of your preferred poison and you physically can’t consume any more. Sometimes, tragically, there are overdoses, but they make up a tiny fraction of drug instances. Usually there is an enforced break in consciousness to slow things down.

That isn’t the case with gambling. The only thing that stands in the way of a problem gambler and their self-destruction is the bottom of their bank balance. If you can afford to keep going, then your dealer will keep dealing.

The more a gambler loses, the more desperate and impaired their decision making becomes, and the more they feel like a win is owed or due. It is a sort of generalised Gambler’s Fallacy, where irrelevant past losses are construed as indicators that a win is just around the corner.

That situation is enabled by the fact that only in gambling can all your previous mistakes be erased in one magical moment. If you have lost £50,000 gambling, then you will have no trouble finding a game that can pay off that deficit. Lottery, slots, poker, bingo, sports betting accumulators – all offer massive potentially life-fixing jackpots.

There is no cocaine Willy Wonka who will refund every penny you’ve spent on powder if you find one of his golden baggies. The idea of it is Black Mirror-level terrifying, but it would probably be a very effective sales promotion.

So that’s how I seem to be both pro and anti-gambling at the same time. I endorse people being allowed to bet something to win something for the purposes of entertainment. I don’t care if it is luck or skill, as long as it is enjoyable.

But no industry should be allowed to exploit, and no industry can be trusted to police itself. Gambling laws, just like our drug laws, desperately need fixing. Perhaps in May we will find out if the UK government is up to the challenge.

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