Nevada’s gaming regulators are notoriously anti-cannabis.
LAS VEGAS, NV – DECEMBER 18: Michael Mizrachi competes at the third Main Event on the final day of the Epic Poker League Inaugural Season at the Palms Casino Resort on December 18, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Getty Images for Epic Poker)
Fresh off his 1st place victory at the World Series of Poker’s (WSOP) 33rd event, Michael Mizrachi can be seen smiling in front of a stack of poker chips, sporting a black polo shirt emblazoned with logos from his various sponsors. One of those sponsors, Blüm, a dispensary chain with locations in Las Vegas, Reno, and California, was a recent addition to the list, having inked a hefty sponsorship deal with him just last summer. Their endorsement deal was the first one between a pro-poker player and a cannabis company.
“We’ve known Michael for a good time, so when the opportunity presented itself we wanted to sponsor him in this poker tournament,” said Mikel Alvarez, VP of Retail Operations for Blüm. “We didn’t know how far he would go.”
Mizrachi ended up going far enough, apparently, for the dispensary’s sponsorship to become a problem. When he attended WSOP’s Main Event, which kicked off at Las Vegas’ Rio Hotel and Casino on July 2, he and Blüm agreed to move their logo from his shirt up to his hat, a much more visible location. The event was broadcast on ESPN and would be reaching an estimated 615,000 viewers.
However, a few days into the tournament, Mizrachi was asked to cover the logo, Alvarez said. The Blüm team was watching via live stream and noticed that Mizrachi returned to the table after a meal break with his hat backward and a large piece of black duct tape over the logo.
“They were aware of the t-shirt and they were aware of the hat,” Alvarez said. “I just don’t know when the connection happened with whoever oversees the tournament. But he did wear it for a significant amount of days of the tournament.”
According to Seth Palansky, VP of Corporate Communications for Caesar’s Entertainment, which runs the WSOP, the logos were never allowed. That Mizrachi had been allowed to wear his Blüm shirt for the entire previous event wasn’t selective enforcement, but just due to a lack of live-TV coverage, Palansky said. He added that he thinks the hat was covered up at the WSOP Main Event after Mizrachi moved to a “TV table” where staffers check more closely for any attire that might violate WSOP policy.
“This story is really an attempt by a company to try and get publicity to make up for their failure to understand our rules before entering into an agreement,” he said, noting that the prohibition on cannabis advertising is included in the WSOP’s rules, which players must agree to before entering an event.
Alvarez admitted that they were unaware of the rule against the ad and that it was right there in the contract Mizrachi had signed with Caesar’s. Regardless, he said, “It’s just disappointing at this point that we’re in this situation that you cannot display this due to cannabis.”
Noting that alcohol sponsorships are allowed at the WSOP, he suggested that it had a lot to do with the stigma still lingering around cannabis, despite Nevada recently legalizing it fully. Ads for porn, cryptocurrency, tobacco, and firearms are also prohibited by the WSOP.
“I just think it has to do with the state’s gaming control board, their stance on cannabis,” he said, referencing the fact that the Nevada Gaming Control Board (GCB) has taken a staunchly anti-cannabis position. “In addition to some of the casino owners and operatives not understanding what cannabis can do, they don’t want to do anything to jeopardize their gaming license.”
Dr. Tony Alamo, the head of the gaming commission, has said that the GCB’s policy banning cannabis on casino premises has to do with the fact that they’re federally regulated, trumping state law. The commission also recently amended its rules to specifically target cannabis as a substance that gamblers cannot be under the influence of while visiting a casino.
“It’s the rule of law in Nevada,” Alvarez said, suggesting that the GCB’s influence over casinos was profound. The GCB did not respond to an emailed request for comment on this story.
Palansky did seem to confirm that the WSOP’s rules were based off the commission’s stance, explaining in an email that, “Our rules are scrubbed by our compliance, regulatory, legal and responsible gaming departments, in addition to our telecast partner in relation to their requirements per FCC, etc.” And the rules are not made to be broken, as far as he’s concerned.
“It’s quite simple,” he said. “Player signs an agreement to play by the rules or be subject to penalty if they don’t.”
But it seems that the only real penalty for Mizrachi was having to look a bit goofy on ESPN with duct tape on his hat. Alvarez said the dispensary wouldn’t dock him for not displaying the logo, as it wasn’t his fault. Not that he needs the money, after walking away from his 1st place event with $1.2 million. Still, Alvarez wasn’t exactly happy to lose the opportunity for exposure.
“There’s no anger or being upset, there’s nothing you can do,” he said. “It’s just disappointing in this day, with marijuana being legal in the state, being a tax generator, hiring employees, to be told that we still can’t advertise.”
Someday, he hopes, the casino industry and the cannabis industry won’t be so at odds, noting that, “We’re both here in the state and we need to operate together.” For the foreseeable future, though, the only green at the final table will be the felt.