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Navajo considers bill to expand casino alcohol use

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Navajo gambling officials want to make it possible for people at the tribe's Arizona casino to drink alcohol while they're playing.

Tribal law permits alcohol sales and consumption only in casino restaurants and at the Navajo Nation's Antelope Point Marina at Lake Powell. A bill making its way to the Tribal Council would allow drinks to be taken onto the floor of Arizona casinos.

Derrick Watchman, chief executive of the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise, said expanding areas where alcohol can be consumed would make the Twin Arrows casino near Flagstaff more competitive with the other nearly two dozen Arizona casinos run by American Indian tribes.

``We have customers come in and say, `other casinos in Arizona allow it, how come you guys don't?''' Watchman said.

The expansion wouldn't carry over to the Navajo Nation's three casinos in New Mexico, because state gaming compacts prohibit alcohol on casino floors.

Tribal President Ben Shelly is in support of the bill that he said should go even further to decriminalize the sale of alcohol at all the tribe's tourism businesses. He said that would boost the economy and bring outside revenue to the reservation.

The bill already has prompted discussion about the pervasive social ills of alcoholism on the reservation where selling and drinking alcohol largely is banned. Regardless, it can easily be found in border towns, brought in by bootleggers or sneaked past authorities.

Edmund Yazzie, chairman of the Tribal Council's Law and Order Committee, said he wouldn't support it unless the tribe first establishes a tax on liquor sales that would be earmarked for Navajo police. He anticipates an increase in criminal activity such as child abandonment and domestic violence as alcohol is made more widely available.

``We talk about economic development for the (Navajo) Nation, but you also have to consider the victims in our communities,'' he said.

The amount of money generated by liquor sales isn't expected to be substantial _ a couple of million a year, Watchman said. But having the option of drinking alcohol at a slot machine or at the poker table could be the deciding factor in whether people visit the Navajo casino or others, he said.

Watchman said the casino staff is trained not to serve intoxicated people and cut others off before they've had too much to drink.

``It's just like any other liquor establishment, we have to follow the rules,'' Watchman said. ``It's not going to be a free for all. If I don't handle liquor sales correctly, we could lose our license.''

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