Medical Marijuana Compassion Club Raid by Phoenix Police Leaps Ahead of Court Case on Legality of Clubs

Before Wednesday's raid of a marijuana promoter Al Sobol's compassion club, Phoenix police officials discussed a pending court case on the legality, in general, of such clubs.

Cops then decided to move forward with the raid based on the same, thorny legal questions now before a Maricopa Superior Court judge.

Sobol's place, 2811 Club, LLC, is a defendant in the civil case.

Unlike last month's raid by the Drug Enforcement Agency of a Tempe club, there was no allegation that Sobol's outfit had sold marijuana to an undercover officer.

As Sergeant Steve Martos, spokesman for Phoenix PD, explains, police came to their own conclusions about what the 2010 Medical Marijuana Act would allow, and took action.

The whole situation reeks of dirty politics.

After Governor Jan Brewer canceled the dispensary portion of the voter-approved Act by an under-the-table executive order, compassion clubs began to crop up around the state that offer qualified medical marijuana patients their "medicine." The clubs claim they are legal, because the new law specifically OKs the distribution of marijuana between approved patients.

That part of the law, (ARS 36-2811), also states, however, that nothing of value can be exchanged for the pot. The clubs get around this by charging patients a membership fee, then distributing the marijuana for "free." Typically, the product isn't distributed by the club, per se, but by an affiliated association of caregivers and other patients.

In August, state Attorney General Tom Horne referred the question of the legality of such arrangements to Superior Court, citing the different "interpretations" of the issue. Here's an excerpt from our post back then:

We asked Horne if he was just passing the buck on this decision. If he's so sure the clubs are acting illegally, why not just have the clubs raided and their staffs arrested?

"I'm taking a softer approach," Horne tells us.

Horne denies that he's going the court route because of doubts about the legality of the clubs, explaining that because the law is new and there are many different "interpretations" of it, he believed involving the court system was more "prudent" than directing police to bust the club operators.

"I'm trying to be a good guy," he says.

The resulting court case is now being considered by Superior Court Judge Dean Fink, and as mentioned, the 2811 Club is one of the defendants.

After Horne's action, Sobol filed his own request for declaratory judgment on the issue of the clubs' legality in Superior Court. The latest court minutes show that Fink's set October 28 as the day that discovery phase of the case should be complete -- discovery being the legal term for the process in which both sides gather information about the issue at hand.

Tom Dean, the club's lawyer, derides the raid by Phoenix PD "discovery by other means." He may well be correct.

Phoenix police, Martos says, heard "neighborhood complaints" about people selling marijuana at the 2811 Club and decided to look into it. But that's not the whole story -- Martos admits that police were well aware of the activities of such clubs, including Sobol's, since June due to news media articles about them.

And, of course, Phoenix police supervisors knew about the pending court cases.

However, "in our eyes, there is manipulation of the verbiage of the law."

The clubs may call it something else, but it's still pot dealing, he says.

"We believe it is what it is, and we're going to make charges," Martos says, paraphrasing the conversations police had before the raid.

On Wednesday morning, employees at the club -- located in a strip mall near Interstate 17 and Bell Road -- unlocked the door for the cops, most of whom wore ski masks.

Six employees were taken to a holding facility, but not arrested or booked into jail, while police carted off high-grade marijuana, accounting books, TVs, classroom materials and other perceived evidence.

"We kept asking them why they were here, and they kept saying we'd have to deal directly with the Attorney General's office," says Susan Miller, of the club's owners.

Phoenix PD later said it will submit the case to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office for possible charges.

Sobol's outspokenness as a marijuana marketer may have played a role in the raid. Before Arizonans approved the medical marijuana law in November, Sobol made the news with his mock dispensary. He's been a target of criticism by other would-be dispensary owners, who consider his brashness bad for business.

Just two weeks before the raid, , told Channel 10 News (KSAZ-TV) in the aftermath of a Drug Enforcement Agency raid on a Tempe club that his business model didn't include selling marijuana, and thus would be safe from raids.

As police finished up the raid, Miller says, she asked them why they'd selected her business instead of other clubs. She says the lead officer told her, "You guys have made the most noise, so you were the first to go."

Yesterday, we asked Horne about the allegation that his office was involved somehow in the raid, and he soon issued a blanket denial.

Here's Horne's comment:

"It has been reported to me that Allan Sobol, Marketing Director of the 2811 Club, is telling the media that I told the Phoenix Police Department to raid the Club. I did no such thing. I have remained consistent in my position, waiting for a Judge to rule on the legality of the clubs. I have no authority over the Phoenix Police, and had no knowledge of their plans in this case."

Horne just might be telling the truth -- police didn't need his input to conduct investigations into the clubs, anyway. Both Phoenix and Tempe police told New Times back in June, when we broke the story about the rise of the clubs, that they'd be checking those places out.

But Martos says Phoenix PD did confer with the AG's office about compassion clubs in general before the raid. He's not sure whether Sobol's place was mentioned in the discussions with the AG's office, and is trying to confirm for us what happened.

Either way, though, the PD did get the AG's input on clubs. If an assistant AG told cops anything like, "We encourage you to raid one of these places, despite the questions about the law, because Mr. Horne's lawsuit needs a good test case," then the public has the right to know that.

If, on the other hand, Horne's office told Phoenix PD something like "We encourage you to wait to raid one of the places until a judge rules on our case," the public should know that, too.

We put that question to Horne, but he wouldn't bite. He said to get back to him if we confirm that Phoenix officer did talk to the AG's office about the 2811 Club raid before it occurred, which we'll certainly do. (We'll update this blog when that happens.)

"A goddamned lie," is how Sobol characterizes Horne's denial of involvement in the club raid.

Sobol, ironically, wasn't at the club on Wednesday and apparently isn't being accused by police.

He opened back up yesterday, but could only provide patients a forum to sign petitions in support of the club. "Free" marijuana was given away at the club yesterday morning, but the supply ran out.

"It was the biggest day ever this morning -- there was a line out to the street," he says, vowing to allow club members to exchange weed as usual, when more "medicine" becomes available.

Dean, the attorney, said he's suspicious that Horne had something to do with the raid, because Horne's side of the civil case involving Sobol's club could be bolstered by a criminal case.

"It's a huge benefit" to Horne, Dean says. "They're able to circumvent the civil discovery process."

For example, Dean says, if one of the employees pleads guilty to selling marijuana at the club, that could be entered as evidence for Horne's side in the civil case, making it hard for the club to argue it wasn't selling pot.

Horne, an ambitious politician who wants to be governor, could use the potential victory in the clubs case to advance his political opposition to the medical marijuana law.

"You'd have to be in denial to think this wasn't political," Dean says.

Well said, counselor.

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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.