Allan Sobol: Arizona's Medical-Pot Martyr?

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."

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.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.