The small crowd of courtroom observers grows hushed as the Reverend Allan Sobol takes the stand.
Sobol's mostly bald, with a graying goatee and mustache. He's dressed in a black suit, with a black shirt and no tie. After he's sworn in, Phoenix attorney Paul Conant asks him a few questions about how he became a minister.
"Ten years ago, I had a heart attack," Sobol, 58, explains solemnly. "It was a back-to-Jesus moment."
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The line elicits snickers from several observers. Many in the crowd are his detractors and competitors in the medical-marijuana business.
Sobol's testimony in Judge Katherine Cooper's courtroom on July 31 does, in fact, come off as something of a farce.
Sobol's a publicity hound — a marketer and consultant, a licensed private eye, and former document preparer. Dubbed the "Godfather of Pot" by a local reporter, he's the most prominent figure in Arizona's nascent medical-marijuana industry. He obtained his minister's credentials in 2006 from the Universal Life Church, a mail-order company that requires only that applicants fill out a form online — and which occasionally makes the news for ordaining dogs and other pets.
He's testifying in the case of Nature's Healing Center v. Fountain Hills, a wealthy, isolated desert town in the East Valley that's slated to get just one of Arizona's 97 medical-marijuana dispensaries expected to be authorized under a 2010 law.
Nature's Healing Center wanted to be named the only qualified applicant for that medical-marijuana dispensary and sued the town. The thrust of the company's argument, presented by Conant, was that Sobol had a church in office space at 16929 East Enterprise Drive, in the town's commercial district, and that Fountain Hills required any dispensary to be at least 500 feet from a church. While Nature's Healing Center fell outside that radius, except for a sliver of its property, its competitors were well within. The town should not have approved the other companies' zoning applications, Conant argued.
Sobol, who says he has no business deals with any would-be Fountain Hills dispensary, testifies that he had considered retiring and living in the town, and he figured that someday he'd use his credentials to open a church there. Wouldn't you know it — church space was available right away. So, in March, Sobol rented the office space in question.
Under cross-examination by lawyer Jeffrey Kaufman, who represents several of Nature's Healing Center's competitors, Sobol admits his church has only a dozen parishioners, all of whom must supply their own Bibles and all of whom are medical-marijuana cardholders, like him.
Pictures taken through a church window by one of his detractors, a marijuana activist and one of the courtroom observers, show a mostly empty suite.
"His church is full of shit!" spews Ingrid Joiya, co-founder of Elements Caregiver Collective in North Phoenix, during a short break in testimony. "The man is Jewish!"
Whatever his religious beliefs — and, in interviews, Sobol swears he's really a preacher, even supplying New Times with a blurry picture of him behind a pulpit with two people apparently listening — the evidence suggests a tie between Sobol and Nature's Healing Center, founded by medical-marijuana promoter Dr. Bruce Bedrick.
A town planner says Bedrick contacted him about the tax-exempt status of Sobol's church, and records show that Bedrick considered buying the building that the church inhabits. Bedrick tells New Times he can't recall why he contacted the planner and says he and Sobol's interest in the same property merely is coincidence.
Sobol's reverend claim is the latest slap in the face to his competitors: medical-marijuana consultants and would-be dispensary owners and cannabis-club affiliates trying to carve out their own niche in a new Arizona industry. Sobol has antagonized many of them, going so far as to file a court action in March demanding that police raid several cannabis clubs and describing what he called their illegal schemes. The club Sobol opened last year, meanwhile, was raided by Phoenix police in October in what he says was selective enforcement.
Judge Cooper ultimately denied the monopolizing request by Nature's Healing Center and upheld the approval by Fountain Hills of the other would-be dispensaries.
Love him or hate him, Sobol's antics have had serious consequences that pot advocates can't ignore.
It was Sobol who put himself on the radar of police and prosecutors. As the founder of the 2811 Club LLC, where state-qualified patients could obtain their "medicine," Sobol now faces the prospect of going to prison for several years. In 2011, he was hit with 10 felony charges related to suspected illegal distribution of marijuana.
Meanwhile, other clubs — like the one Joiya started — still are open for business.
In other words, this much-maligned pot huckster may end up as Arizona's most prominent medical-marijuana martyr.
The state of medical marijuana in Arizona is messed up.
Governor Jan Brewer partly is responsible for that.
After a thin majority of voters passed Proposition 203 in 2010, Brewer canceled the dispensary portion of the program, claiming that state workers would be prosecuted for administering it. A federal lawsuit she filed in May 2011 was an obvious attempt by the Republican marijuana foe to get the law declared unconstitutional. It failed. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Richard Gama, in examining a lawsuit by would-be dispensary owners, ordered Brewer to implement the program as voters intended.
In the vacuum created by Brewer, so-called cannabis clubs cropped up to serve the state's registered medical-marijuana patients, now numbering more than 36,000. Patients are allowed under the law to possess up to 2.5 ounces at any given time. Registered caregivers can't use marijuana unless they're also patients, but they can supply marijuana — and grow it, under certain conditions — for up to five patients.
Patients have flocked to the clubs as an alternative to the black market. Owners and operators of these modern-day speakeasies have claimed that they are exploiting a loophole in the law. The Arizona Medical Marijuana Act prohibits sales of marijuana except by state-authorized dispensaries, yet it allows patients and caregivers to exchange marijuana and even, in some cases, be reimbursed for its production.
The clubs typically consider themselves meeting places for collectives of caregivers or patients who have grown or otherwise obtained high-potency pot, which then can be exchanged. Instead of payment, the clubs and their associated collectives receive "donations" from members — which happen to match street prices of approximately $400 an ounce.
A few Valley clubs and/or collectives have been raided by police and shut down. But more keep popping up. At least one, the Arizona Cannabis Society in El Mirage, re-opened after a raid. Prosecutions have been fewer. After the federal Drug Enforcement Agency raided Tempe's Arizona Go Green Co-op, state Attorney General Tom Horne's office dropped charges against the owner, James Chaney, and an employee. Bill Hayes, one of the founders of the Arizona Cannabis Society, is yet to be charged after his outfit was busted by Phoenix police in May. And Garry Ferguson, whose Tempe club had the distinction last year of being the first such business to be raided, never was charged.
County Attorney Bill Montgomery, an ambitious conservative who wants the medical-marijuana law canceled by the feds, voters be damned, is moving forward with prosecutions of employees of two cannabis clubs, including Sobol's.
Montgomery is trying to force the issue, possibly in conjunction with police and the state Attorney General's Office. Fact is, the question about the legality of the clubs still is to be determined in Arizona, as authorities well know.
A civil action filed by Horne asking a judge to determine whether cannabis clubs and collectives are acting illegally has been simmering in court for more than a year. Early on in that case, Superior Court Judge Dean Fink rejected a motion by the state to enjoin the clubs from operating.
Another question is, what will happen to the clubs once the state-authorized dispensaries open?
And, of course, many questions swirl about the dispensaries themselves, which could open in a few weeks. The biggest question is whether federal or state officials will allow them to operate in peace.
A federal crackdown on dispensaries that began earlier this year in California has continued unabated. However, Colorado, which has a system of state-authorized pot stores similar to the one getting set up in Arizona, has seen no widespread crackdown.
On August 6, Horne released an official opinion that the Arizona law's dispensary component is unconstitutional because it is superseded by federal law. (The way the law decriminalizes cardholders and caregivers, though, wasn't preempted by federal law, his office decided.) Horne predicted that a state court soon will declare the dispensaries illegal, and he warned would-be dispensary owners that it might be wise to hold off on their plans.
Following Horne's opinion, Montgomery said he hoped to prosecute patients and caregivers who grow marijuana and dispensaries that sell it — even if they have state approval.
Despite the threats of prohibitionists, the names of 97 companies and groups that will be authorized to sell marijuana in Arizona were pulled from a lottery-style air-blower by the state Department of Health Services on August 7. The lucky applicants were culled from a total of 426 who each paid $5,000 for the opportunity to be in the running. The losers get $1,000 back.
DHS Director Will Humble tells New Times that he won't let his agency dawdle in the final inspection process. If a dispensary is ready to go and receives approval from inspectors, Humble says it could open as soon as September 1.
State law allows patients and caregivers to grow marijuana if no dispensary is open within 25 miles, so another byproduct of Brewer's tinkering will be a proliferation of home-grows. Some consider this a good thing, but others — especially those with interest in dispensary businesses — disagree.
The fierce competition among would-be dispensary owners, medical-marijuana advocates, and the state has spawned numerous lawsuits. Some predict the losers in the DHS drawing process also plan to sue.
Al Sobol — who made a splash in the news media, even before the 2010 law passed, with his mock dispensary in North Phoenix, complete with jars of moss as stand-ins for the real product — has managed to insert himself into many of medical marijuana's major issues.
He continues to run a school for hopeful dispensary owners. He's an unwilling test subject in how the anti-marijuana criminal code meshes with the more permissive new law. And he's a party in the lawsuit filed by Horne about cannabis clubs.
Sobol has managed to anger a lot of people in the medical-marijuana industry with his hardball tactics, trash-talking, and litigious nature. From Will Humble to certain police officers and pot-industry peers, Sobol is considered a troublemaker.
But amid the confusion over a revolutionary state law, Sobol doesn't deserve to be thrown behind bars like a cartel kingpin.
Not when he and others in similar predicaments clearly have served patients, many of whom suffer from medical ailments they believe marijuana helps.
Allan Ulric Sobol has been making waves for years, though he never has been in the serious trouble he's in now.
He moved from New York to Scottsdale in 1997. He states in a 2010 court filing that he's "auto-didactic," a fancy word for self-taught, and that he's worked as a legal assistant for many lawyers for many years.
He was a real estate agent in New York, where in 1996 he got appointed to the New York State Alternative Dispute Resolution Program's board of directors. Sobol claims he had a high success rate as a court mediator, plus an unblemished record.
But in 1993, he was found to have engaged in the unauthorized practice of law in his real estate business "by preparing and offering for signature a lease agreement for real property," records show.
It's unclear whether he was disciplined for the offense, but he sued the New York State Association of Realtors for defamation after it publicized its conclusions about his case. A court threw out the case, and in 1997, an appeals court upheld the lower court's decision.
Records show that Sobol filed for bankruptcy just before moving to Arizona, where he earned money by helping people file their own bankruptcy documents.
He became registered with the Arizona Board of Legal Document Preparers in 2003, when the state began a program to oversee such activities. Two years later, the board voted to revoke Sobol's document-preparer's license, claiming that (as in New York) he had engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.
The board had reviewed at least three complaints, including one alleging Sobol "offered himself as an attorney," gave incorrect legal advice, and made threats to take legal action against a woman. Sobol insists the latter claim was a fabrication. Regarding the other two, he claims in legal paperwork that the clients agreed to drop their complaints but that the board pressed the complaints anyway.
In October 2005, the board voted to revoke the certification of Sobol and his company (Quick and Legal Paralegal), slapped him with a $6,000 fine, and ordered him to pay about $20,000 in restitution to clients.
He later sued the board for defamation. Acting as his own lawyer, as he usually does, Sobol claimed in court filings that an unnamed board member confided in him that other board members believed he "had a lurid past with an association in the mafia. They alleged that the plaintiff was incompetent, dishonest, and unethical."
Sobol says these supposed claims by board members are false and outrageous. But he couldn't make headway with his lawsuit, and it was tossed out. He also filed a defamation suit against a client who made a complaint about him to the board; that suit failed as well.
Sobol appealed the dismissal of his lawsuit against the board. In court records he filed in May 2007, Sobol wrote that he was facing the "impending breakup of his 32-year marriage, coupled with having to simultaneously re-invent himself professionally after the loss of his ability to ply his trade as a document preparer."
The problems, Sobol wrote in an appeal motion, "consumed his emotional health" and nearly bankrupted him. (He and his wife later divorced.)
The board got a new complaint in 2009 that Sobol still was preparing documents, resulting in a cease-and-desist order in April 2010 by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Hugh Hegyi. The order reminded Sobol that he can't do legal paperwork for people, can't negotiate anyone's legal rights, and can't express legal opinions. The judge also dismissed another lawsuit Sobol filed against a board member.
Not long thereafter, Sobol filed a complaint against the Board of Legal Document Preparers with the U.S. Justice Department, alleging a criminal conspiracy to harass him.
Now, he feels he's the target of harassment again. But it's not just his livelihood that under threat — it's his freedom.
Sobol found success in the medical-marijuana field even before voters passed Proposition 203.
Early on, he was blasted by critics who see him as a profit-hungry showboater whose indiscretion gives the entire industry a bad name.
His main business has been consulting and education. He runs classes for people interested in operating a dispensary, growing marijuana, or otherwise stepping into the medical-pot business. In a poster he displayed for his students, he claimed that a single dispensary could expect as much as $19 million a year in gross sales — if it had about 800 patients each buying the statutory maximum of five ounces a month. The claim was unrealistic, in part because it required each patient to shell out $2,000 monthly. But Sobol's point was that the new industry would make some people very rich.
Sobol opened the mock dispensary in fall 2010 and invited the news media to photograph it. It was a good way to get free advertising for his businesses.
Sobol revels in his reputation as a bad boy. His marketing company is called Consiglieri LLC — consiglieri being an Italian word that typically means top adviser to a mafia boss. The company's website home page used to play the theme from The Godfather.
As New Times reported in February 2011, Sobol made fast enemies with the Marijuana Policy Project people who launched the voter initiative, accusing them and Will Humble in a complaint to the Justice Department of collaborating unfairly in the DHS rule-making process. Humble denied the allegation.
By that April, Sobol was dissed publicly by Humble, who's seen by many in the industry as a reasonable bureaucrat who has done a decent job implementing the medical-marijuana program, despite having to work at the whim of his boss, Governor Brewer. Humble told the Phoenix Business Journal that although he's accepted invitations to speak at many medical-marijuana associations, he turned down such a request by a group formed by Sobol, the Arizona Association of Dispensary Professionals.
"I don't go to speaking engagements where I believe my appearance could present a bad image for the department," Humble said at the time. "I'm not confident that [Sobol] is running a professional organization. I'm sorry, but the image he has portrayed is not something I want to have our department associated with."
A few months later, the compassion club Sobol had opened was raided and closed down. He and five of his employees were charged with multiple felonies.
The 2811 Club LLC was opened by Sobol in a North Phoenix strip mall. It was a place where some of the thousands of state-approved marijuana patients could obtain their medicine. Several other compassion clubs had sprouted up around the Valley in the wake of Governor Brewer's decision to delay the dispensary program, and Sobol explained to the media that the 2811 Club's business model was legal under Arizona law.
Essentially, he said, the club was just a gathering place where patients legally could share medical pot with other patients. Most of the pot would be distributed by a patient-advocacy group, of which Sobol would ask no questions. Club members paid $75 each time they entered the place, and one of the benefits of membership was "free" marijuana.
The medical-marijuana law prohibits transfer of marijuana between patients for money or anything else of value, but a registered caregiver can be compensated for obtaining pot for patients. From a legal perspective, the business model of compassion clubs was unclear.
Last summer, Will Humble, after reading about the clubs in New Times, asked AG Tom Horne to look into the matter. Horne subsequently filed a lawsuit in county Superior Court that sought to have the clubs declared illegal. Named as defendants were the 2811 Club, the Arizona Compassion Association (the group that allegedly shared pot with patients at Sobol's club), the Yoki A Ma' Club, the Arizona Compassion Club, and employee Michael Miller of Sobol's club.
Asked at the time why he simply didn't order police to raid the clubs, Horne replied that he was trying the "soft approach" and wanted to be the "good guy."
If a judge decided the clubs were illegal, Horne told the news media, he would give the clubs time to close before any police action.
The case landed in Judge Dean Fink's court — and Fink quickly ruled against a motion by Horne that sought an injunction to ban the clubs from operating.
The questions swirling around the new law obviously were more complex than they had seemed.
"I want the courts to weigh in and make a decision," Sobol said at the time. He boasted that police frequently stopped by his club and seemed to have no problem with it. Seven officers attended a 21/2-hour class at the club and later offered security advice, he said.
Two months later, on October 12, it was no more Officers Friendly. Heavily armed cops showed up at the club in the morning, some wearing ski masks. They knocked, then served a search warrant after an employee unlocked the front door.
Sobol wasn't there. Police detained temporarily, then released, the employees: Stephen and Dawn Cammllarie, Michael and Susan Miller, and Shawn Brittan.
Police seized the club's computers and records, as well as marijuana and cash. Cops also found a handgun belonging to one of the employees, which added a weapons-misconduct count to each defendant's 10 charges. The rest of the charges were for alleged distribution of marijuana.
The Cammllaries pleaded guilty in June and each was sentenced to a year of probation and a $10,000 fine.
They "got scared," Sobol says.
The others, including Sobol, so far have rejected similar deals.
"We call ourselves the Phoenix Four," Sobol says of the remaining defendants. "This is an attack on our civil liberties and our constitutional rights. These guys have no respect for the law and the will of the voters."
Sobol says he was "transparent" with authorities from the beginning about his club and isn't worried about going to prison.
"The prosecutors tried to intimidate me into signing a plea," he says. "They told me there would be no probation, that I was going to jail for 20 years."
Though probation is a possibility, each of the 10 counts being prosecuted by Montgomery's office carries a presumptive sentence of 31/2 years in prison.
Sobol believes he's been targeted unfairly by the authorities.
And it does appear he's getting a raw deal: After all, it could be argued that no one should be prosecuted for operating a compassion club before the question of its legality is decided by the courts.
Horne's office needed more information about how compassion clubs operated for its lawsuit on the legality question. Police raids helped provide that information.
In December 2011, Tempe police served warrants at the Yoki A Ma' Club in Tempe and Mesa and arrested six people following a five-month investigation. A seventh was arrested at the club's Nevada location. The club employees have been socked with dozens of felony charges. Some have taken plea deals. Others, including the owner, Craig Scherf, are awaiting trial.
Scherf, like Sobol, tells New Times that police should have waited for Judge Fink's decision.
Horne maintains there was no collusion between his office and police on the club raids.
However, a Phoenix police spokesman admitted to New Times that his agency knew of the civil case before the 2811 Club raid and even had discussed it with the AG's Office. This runs counter to the claim of no collusion, but police and Horne won't elaborate. Another police spokesman, Sergeant Tommy Thompson, says he doesn't believe anyone asked police to raid any compassion club. Cops received information that pot was being sold at the 2811 Club, and that's what undercover officers found, despite claims of "free" pot offered as a benefit of club membership, he says.
Montgomery declined to comment on any specific case his office is handling.
Horne did, however, answer some questions about the civil case on compassion clubs. The case, now more than a year old, has been delayed because of "a number of discovery issues," Horne wrote in an e-mail.
"Now, because the clubs the [AG's Office] sued are no longer in business, the parties began discussing a settlement to resolve the [suit]. The judge has ordered the parties to meet in a settlement conference. The parties are waiting for a date to be set by the settlement conference judge," he wrote.
Sobol filed a motion in June asking Judge Fink to rule in his favor, saying his business model constituted a legally protected social association and that he was a victim of malicious prosecution.
The "discovery issues" were manufactured by the authorities, Sobol contends. He says police, the County Attorney's Office, and the attorney general intentionally delayed examining the club's computers in both the civil and criminal cases. Sobol says the data can prove no marijuana actually was "sold" to undercover officers who infiltrated the club.
"The evidence shows they didn't buy it — they got it for free," he says.
There's no dispute that the undercover officers, when going into the club, were asked for their state medical-marijuana cards.
That's got to count for something.
It's obvious why some people in the medical-marijuana industry want to nail the Reverend Sobol to a proverbial cross.
To bolster the idea that he's been unfairly and selectively targeted for prosecution, Sobol filed an emergency petition in Superior Court demanding that the Attorney General's Office and the Phoenix Police Department investigate, arrest, and prosecute several of his competitors.
The petition lays out specifics of why Sobol thinks the clubs are violating the medical-marijuana act and drug-trafficking laws. Ironically, the accusation Sobol makes against Ingrid Joiya's club, Elements Caregiver Collective, sound similar to those police levied against his 2811 Club — that is, membership fees are paid by registered cardholders to acquire marijuana.
Sobol's petition accuses police of failing to bust a "farmers market" held in Phoenix where, he alleges, pot was sold and smoked in public.
He also accuses Gerald Gaines, CEO of the Compassion First Caregiver Circle, of running an illegal "sharecropping" scheme involving marijuana growers. Gaines is the philanthropist and Sprint PCS founder who successfully sued the state earlier this year and forced Brewer to stop delaying the medical-marijuana program. Sobol even used Labyrinth Investigations, his own private-eye firm, to compile a report on Gaines' company. He forwarded his findings to the feds.
Targeting Gaines seems part of a dispute between the two: Last year, Sobol sued Gaines for defamation, alleging he operated a blog that made disparaging statements about Sobol. Gaines won the case in a default judgment after Sobol abandoned the defamation case, leading to a $5,000 award against Sobol.
The emergency petition to bust Sobol's competitors was tossed out of court on August 2 after he gave up on it and filed a motion to dismiss.
"I made my point" with that court action, he says, elaborating that police — in their response to his petition — admitted they have "blanket discretion" to choose whom they will prosecute. Sobol claims police are wrong and that their response will help his criminal case. (Gaines, after the August 7 lottery, ended up with the dispensary in Fountain Hills. Sobol says 10 of his clients were selected.)
Sobol also has a pending slander case against compassion-club founder Ingrid Joiya (whose real name is Ingrid Warrick) for claiming his church and ministerial status were fake.
Joiya didn't want to be interviewed for this article, but in a March e-mail to Sobol, she called his reverend claim "demonic" and "diabolical."
Ryan Hurley, a Valley lawyer who represents several would-be dispensary owners, has no love for Sobol, either. He's also advised clients and the public that compassion clubs are a "stretch under the law" and "very risky" for operators. But he doesn't want to see anyone prosecuted who opens a club for "altruistic reasons" and clearly puts the patients' needs first.
"My personal feelings about Al Sobol aside, the attorney general and county attorney should . . . let this resolve itself in civil court before they go out and arrest people."
Sobol does claim his club was opened primarily to help patients obtain their medicine. And, he says, authorities want to make an example of him because he has been so "outspoken" about medical marijuana.
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"I was their biggest critic — I called [state officials] liars and thieves," Sobol says. "They want to shut me down so they can further their political agenda, which is to stop the medical-marijuana movement."
Indeed, right-wingers Brewer, Horne, and Montgomery are dedicated to overturning the voter-approved law. A ruling against Sobol in the civil case against compassion clubs and a conviction in his criminal case would help them achieve that goal.
The Reverend Sobol prays that they will fail.
And, presumably, so do the state voters who approved the medical-marijuana law.