Q+A: Nevada’s top gaming regulator on his perspective as physician, why pot is no-no

Tony Alamo is the medical director of the Alamo Medical Clinic in Henderson.

Nevada’s top gaming regulator hasn’t made his professional career in the casino industry or in the law, but he’s plenty experienced with both of those fields anyway.

A doctor by trade, Tony Alamo is the first non-attorney to serve as chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, the body that has the final say over regulatory matters that concern gambling in the state. Other parts of his background give him an understanding of gambling and regulatory affairs: His father was a longtime casino industry executive, and Alamo previously served on the state Athletic Commission.

Alamo joined the commission as a member in 2008, then he was appointed by Gov. Brian Sandoval to replace Chairman Peter Bernhard last summer. In the half-year since he took over the chairmanship, Alamo has led the commission’s meetings on several high-profile gaming developments, including the opening of the SLS Las Vegas and concerns about the background of Sam Nazarian, the businessman who led the creation of SLS.

Alamo sat down with the Las Vegas Sun this week to talk about his duties on the commission and some of the most pressing issues facing the state’s gaming industry. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

If you had to pick one moment or one issue that’s come up so far since you’ve been chairman as being the most significant or the most instructive to you, what would it be?

That’s a tough question, because I’ll be honest with you: We’ve had so many. Keep in mind, in my tenure as a commissioner and now as a chairman, Las Vegas has suffered the worst recession that Las Vegas ever had. We’re here dealing with near closures of casinos, enormous restructurings, we’ve had to deal with the largest fines ever given to a licensee before for issues with one of the sports books, we’ve dealt with issues of drug use, extortion, we’ve dealt with issues with slot parlors — it just goes on and on. Every meeting comes with something I think is going to be very important and could have an effect on gaming if we don’t do our job.

What do you think your medical background adds to your perspective as chairman?

Keep in mind the support that I have as chairman: I have the attorney general’s office, so I have all the legal representation at my disposal. We also have board members who are attorneys. So the fact that I’m not an attorney is definitely not a negative because of the support I have around me. The fact that I am a physician, believe it or not, I think it’s helped me quite a bit. It’s helped me in the way I think, the way I study, the way I decide things, my work ethic. On top of that, there’s been a topic that’s completely medically related, which is medical marijuana and gaming. Coincidentally, I think it’s put me right at the forefront of being able to objectively be part of those discussions.

Let’s go into that, then, a little bit. Why do medical marijuana and gaming need to be totally separated?

I wear two hats; we all do. We’re people with experiences and we’re regulators. My hat as a person with experience is a physician who truly believes that medical marijuana should be available. Unfortunately, I think the way it’s been enacted and put into place in Nevada and other states has caused a misfire. I think that the need for medical marijuana — which is there, but small — has gotten confused with the want, which is large. And therefore, the demand is huge.

But let me bookmark all that, because that’s me as a person. As a regulator, it’s very cut and dry and obvious: It’s against federal law. Period. It’s a schedule 1 drug that the federal government has said has a high abuse potential and is against the law. We cannot allow our gaming licensees to participate in something against federal law.

So the only thing that could maybe change your mind would be some sort of loosening on the federal level?

If the federal government stopped making it against the law of the land, then that changes things. But right now, it is against the law. And we can’t allow our licensees to participate in anything that’s against the law.

In another couple of years, what role do you see online gaming playing in the overall Nevada gaming market?

For online gaming to work, you need liquidity. Liquidity means volume, lots of people playing. We all got to the race, we were all ready to go — the problem is, the starter gun never went off. The federal government didn’t open it up. Our governor tried, and I commend him for trying. When the federal government slowed down their approach, he went on his own and started to make compacts with other states. But it’s just not enough. We do not have the population base to do it just within our state, or one or two smaller states, to make it viable. The fact that Ultimate Gaming closed their doors: The writing’s on the wall that it’s very pessimistic right now. I don’t think there’s any appetite at the federal level to open it up and allow interstate online gaming. Until you do that, it’s not financially viable.

How concerned are you about illegal sports betting, given that the American Gaming Association is really looking at tackling that?

We know how to do sports betting. We know how to regulate it, we know how to take care of it; it’s our expertise, and we’re comfortable doing it. There is an appetite now at the organizational athletic level to embrace sports betting — legal sports betting. The illegal is an enormous problem. Illegal betting is a platform for organized crime, money laundering and other nefarious acts. To continue the status quo, I think, is a mistake. The less illegal sports betting there is and the more legal sports betting there is, the better everyone is.

When you’re done with this, looking back, what would constitute a successful stint as chairman for you?

Of course, everybody always wants to leave a legacy in everything they do, and I just hope that when my time is up, that everybody around — from the regulators to the legislators to the industry — looks back and says that “Dr. Alamo was a true Nevadan and he helped the industry of gaming, which is the lifeblood of our state.” If I get people to remember me that way, I accomplished something. But every time I think that my role as a regulator comes to an end, I end up doing something bigger and better. So I don’t know what my future will entail.