I’ve long thought that buying crypto is less like an investment, which is how it is usually touted, and more akin to gambling. There’s the get-rich-quick promises, the gamified trading platforms and the sheer unpredictability of the markets.
It wasn’t until I hosted the latest series of the FT’s Tech Tonic podcast that I realised quite how deep and disturbing the parallels are. “A Sceptic’s Guide to Crypto” took me on a wild ride, from monomaniacal tech billionaires in Virginia to no-nonsense cattle farmers in Wyoming. But it was in the Scottish Borders, about 20 miles south of Edinburgh, that I came across Castle Craig, an imposing 18th-century manor that has been used as a rehabilitation centre for more than three decades.
Castle Craig treats all kinds of addictions, from alcoholism to compulsive gambling, but, in 2016, it became the first rehab clinic to diagnose and treat crypto addiction. Since then, it has worked with almost 250 patients, and the numbers are growing every year.
The man in charge of the crypto clinic is Tony Marini, a 57-year-old Scottish-Italian who uses the same 12-step programme as he does to treat gambling. Marini, himself a former gambler, alcoholic and cocaine addict now in recovery for 17 years, tells me that as soon as he started researching crypto after that first patient in 2016, he became engrossed.
“I found myself spending hours looking at different cryptos, going back to check the prices,” he says. “I was getting obsessed with it… my brain was being taken to exactly the same place as gambling would take me.” He almost put some money into it himself, before realising the perilous path he was going down.
Not everyone gets addicted to trading crypto, of course, but it’s not hard to see why it could be addictive, with its heady mix of volatile price movements, a market that never sleeps, a seemingly endless supply of crypto tokens to bet on – more than 21,000 at last count – and an active online community.
But crypto has a problem that gambling, which is clearly labelled as such, doesn’t: people often don’t know what they are getting themselves into, even once they are addicted. There is no specific body to regulate it. There isn’t any “becryptoaware.org”. Britain’s Advertising Standards Agency is, finally, toughening up its rules on the crypto ads that have been popping up all over the place, but those won’t come into force until next year.
“People don’t think they have a problem with crypto and this is the biggest problem,” says Marini. “People using crypto don’t know they’re gambling… because it’s not regulated.”
Most of Marini’s crypto patients come in with other addictions – typically, cocaine and amphetamines, which help users stay awake playing the markets, and it is not until they start to discuss their behaviour patterns that they realise they are also addicted to crypto.
One former patient, who was already in recovery for alcohol and drug addiction, describes setting multiple alarms on his phone so that he could wake up throughout the night to check crypto prices. He soon found himself relapsing into alcohol and cocaine. Marini sees this as yet another example of cross-addiction, where one addiction fuels another.
I usually take some kind of vague enjoyment from poking fun at the toxicity of crypto culture, particularly when it is directed against “no-coiners” like me. But stories like this give me no pleasure. Crypto might be dressed up in memes and Dogecoin T-shirts, but it’s time we started seeing it for what it is: a rather dangerous form of gambling.
Jemima Kelly is an FT columnist