Medical-Marijuana Dispensary Sues Fountain Hills Over Competitors' Distance From "Church" Run by Pot Marketer Al Sobol

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

Nature's Healing Center, a would-be medical-marijuana dispensary, is suing the Town of Fountain Hills over its competitors' distance from a church run by the "Reverend" Al Sobol.

That's the same Al Sobol who's been a prominent and vocal voice of the medical-marijuana community since the 2010 passage of Proposition 203.

Sobol oversees a school that helps people obtain marijuana-dispensary licenses. And, according to a Fountain Hills planner's March 17 letter to Sobol, his "representative" is Dr. Bruce Bedrick, the former CEO of Nature's Healing Center.

Both Sobol and Bedrick, also the founder and CEO of medical-marijuana consulting firm Kind Clinics, deny they have -- or ever had -- a business connection.

The lawsuit, filed on July 9, also names the dispensaries' competitors as defendants, including the Healing Company, Nels Pederson, Vladimir Buer, Lawrence Berle, Hedjazi LLC, and Mark and Kimberly Steinmetz.

The town has issued zoning permits to several would-be dispensary owners -- namely, the above-named defendants in the lawsuit. But under rules set up by the Arizona Department of Health Services, only one dispensary will be allowed to operate in Fountain Hills, an upscale community in the east Valley. The rules also dictate that dispensaries cannot be located within 500 feet of a church.

Nature's Healing Center has a permit issued by Fountain Hills and isn't near a church -- which means it should not be facing competition by the defendants when the state holds its random drawings next month for the limited number of authorized dispensary locations, the lawsuit states.

The problem is that Fountain Hills improperly issued permits to the defendants, which seek to open dispensaries within 500 feet of the Universal Life Church. The church inhabits a small office at 16929 East Enterprise Drive, in the town's small commercial district.

Sobol's church opened in March after registering that month with the state corporation commission as a non-profit corporation in mid-March. The articles of incorporation are signed by the "Reverend" Allan Sobol, who tells New Times he was ordained in 2006. Sobol says it's a "legitimate church" and that he has led occasional church services at the location. He even sent a blurry picture of him standing behind a pulpit, "preaching" to a couple of people.

Sobol says he has no relation with Bedrick, and has "never had a single discussion with the guy."

In the March 17 letter obtained by New Times from the town, Fountain Hills' senior planner Bob Rodgers writes to Sobol that he had a conversation with "your representative," Bedrick, about the church's status as a non-profit.

However, in the April 25 edition of the Times of Fountain Hills newspaper, Bedrick told reporter Bob Burns that he was not "working with or for" the church in any way, and has never done so in the past.

The reporter, who speculated in his story that the church "may be setting a smoke screen" for a potential dispensary, also dug up a letter by Bedrick of his intent to purchase the building at the church's address.

Yet Bedrick denied he intends to buy the building, the article says.

Bedrick repeats those denials in a brief conversation with New Times today. He says he was 'booted" from Nature's Healing Center in April and no longer has any affiliation with the firm, whose members include Jack and Robert Hunsaker, the principles at a local motorcycle company. (Mike Richards, another principal for Nature's Healing Center, tells New Times he knows nothing about the lawsuit or Sobol.)

Bedrick says he doesn't recall why he was talking to a Fountain Hills planner earlier this year about Sobol's church. He wouldn't even speculate on a possible reason why he'd be talking to Fountain Hills about Sobol or his church.

That whole "I don't recall" thing always comes off as fishy to us, but we have to take the good doctor at his word.

The July 9 filing in the Maricopa County Superior Court seeks to have a judge toss the Fountain Hills zoning permits for Nature's Healing Center's competitors prior to DHS' random drawings, scheduled for August 7. Those drawings were deemed necessary because more than 400 companies and people have applied for the right to open a dispensary in fewer than 126 locations statewide.

Sobol vows he will fight Fountain Hills over the permits for dispensaries within 500 feet of his church. But since Sobol is a major believer in the dispensary industry and -- by his account -- isn't in cahoots with Nature's Healing Center, we asked him why he cared whether a dispensary encroached on that 500-foot barrier. He answers that he's standing by principle and that the town, by issuing the permits, is acting "prejudicial" to his church.

Sobol is also a registered private eye and former document preparer. And, reverend or not, he may be on his way to becoming a martyr in the medical-marijuana movement: He's facing criminal charges connected with last year's raid on the compassion club he manages, 2811 Club, LLC.

We'll keep you posted on the outcome of the lawsuit.

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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.