Like the diminutive flowers in the vast desert southeast of here, recognition of the enormity of the problem of compulsive gambling in the US is small, but growing.
This recognition comes not just from federal and state governments, privately funded foundations and programs, or the courts. It now comes from the casino gaming industry itself.
This was brought into sharp focus at the Fifth National Conference on Gambling held here recently. It is only beginning to result in some solutions. Nevertheless, even this comparatively small but growing recognition is figuring more and more importantly in the public policy that helps create and promote legalized casinos.
In fact, hopes have been raised by some at the conference that in the future no state or local goverment will consider legalizing any form of gambling, from casino gaming to lotteries, without serious consideration of its impact on compulsive gambling.
Already, the National Council on Compulsive Gambling says compulsive gamblers number in the millions. In New Jersey alone, since the arrival of legalized casinos in 1976, more than 1,000, owing an estimated $40 million in gambling debts, have joined local Gamblers Anonymous chapters.
Arnold Wexler, vice-president of the National Council on Compulsive Gambling and a former compulsive gambler himself, says that the most recent census figures indicate there are more than 5 million ''addicted'' gamblers in the United States. Yet the number of public and private treatment programs, apart from chapters of Gamblers Anonymous (a self-help group for gamblers similar to Alcoholics Anonymous) can almost be counted on the fingers of both hands. By contrast, there are nearly 4,000 drug treatment programs thoughout America.
According to the Veterans Administration's Robert A. Custer, widely considered the nation's leading expert on compulsive gambling, a number of ''milestones'' in the recognition of the problem have occurred in the last several years. They include:
* An increase in federal treatment programs. In 1975, there was one federal treatment program for gamblers - in Ohio - operated by the Veterans Administration. Now, ''we have four in the Veterans Administration, with one more planned, which will probably open soon on the West Coast,'' Dr. Custer says. But the view from the federal level is mixed. Federal legislation to establish a fund to study the problem of compulsive gambling, has died in committee, partly because legislation was sponsored by Sen. Harrison A. Williams Jr. (D) of New Jersey, who was convicted on charges stemming from the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Abscam probe.
* An increase in state-sponsored help. Connecticut, Maryland, and New York have passed legislation to finance small treatment programs, and legislation for similar programs in four other states is pending and stands a good chance of passage. However, Gov. Brendan T. Byrne of New Jersey, the state which has seen the greatest surge in problem gambling because of its casinos, this summer vetoed a $40,000 state Legislature-approved appropriation to assist persons addicted to gambling. GOP New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Thomas Kean has expressed strong interest in a state program and is expected to back one if elected.
* Fledgling concern among casino operators. ''Now is the time for the gaming industry to respond (to compulsive gambling),'' wrote Fred Lewis, vice-president of the Summa Corporation, a major casino owner in Las Vegas, in a recent letter to many other top executives in the casino industry. ''The chronic gambler is as much the victim of an illness as the alcoholic . . . and in some cases compulsive gambling can be just as deadly. Just as the liquor industry recognizes its obligation to combat the abuse of alcohol, so does the gaming industry recognize its responsibility.''