Pubdate: Thu, 16 Aug 2012
Source: Phoenix New Times (AZ)
Copyright: 2012 New Times, Inc.
Author: Ray Stern


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.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom