the other phoenix

The Cannabis Consigliere

Al Sobol, the Valley's contrarian godfather of medical marijuana, finds the gold in drugs, compassion and conflict.

By Veronica Jones

Walking through the door of the 2811 Club in Phoenix, I am immediately greeted by the potent aroma of pot.  A TV mounted on the wall shows people in an Amsterdam hotel room trying different variations of weed. A whiteboard on the wall shows the four varieties of medical cannabis available: Blueberry Silver, Skywalker OG, Grape Ape, and McFly. A tall, armed, tattooed security guard casually paces the small lobby, preventing any nonmembers from entering the back room where the marijuana is kept.

A teenager argues with her mother about whether she can enter the building. The security guard opens the door and welcomes both inside.

The girl’s mother greets the other patients and club staff while pressing the buttons on the ATM in the corner of the lobby. Once the cash spits out of the machine, she hands her membership dues to a receptionist behind a small window at the front desk. The security guard presses a button to open the locked door leading to the back of the club and she enters, leaving her daughter looking nervously around the lobby.

 Named after the compassion section of Arizona’s new medical marijuana law, which permits one medical marijuana patient to “transfer” his weed to another patient as long as nothing of value is exchanged, the 2811 Club is technically a  “compassion club.” Members must be medical marijuana cardholders, pay a one-time application fee of $25 and pay the club $75 each visit. Once inside, they can attend the Arizona Cannabis University, where they can take weed-cooking classes, or learn how to use a bong. Patients also enjoy live entertainment, pain management classes, and, perhaps most importantly, meet other cardholders willing to donate their excess marijuana to cardholders who might have no other way of obtaining it.

A whiteboard lists four varieties of medical cannabis available: Blueberry Silver, Skywalker OG, Grape Ape, and McFly.
The door to the back of the club opens once again. Al Sobol, the manager of the club and one of Arizona’s most visible medical pot activists, steps into view.  Wearing his usual dark button-up, short-sleeved shirt, he mostly fills the doorway with his round stomach. He wears a Superman ring on his hand that he says stands for “Super Sobol.”

Sobol is a libertarian leaning, self-described “conservative,” an entrepreneur, and a fighter.  His complicated narrative fuses conflict, law, money and drugs. He has battled the Arizona governor, the Arizona attorney general and the Arizona health department to preserve a good income from his marijuana consulting businesses as well as managing the compassion club – he won’t share financial information, but if only 20 people visited the club each day for five days a week, the club would gross $7,500 weekly and $390,000 annually.

This helps explain why Sobol has become an outspoken advocate for medical marijuana in Arizona, before the 2010 election that legalized medical pot, during months of legal battles during which Gov. Jan Brewer sought to block the law, and now, as medical marijuana dispensaries are once again on track to open in Arizona.

And there’s another reason he says he’s fought so hard for medical marijuana -- he wants to preserve the rights of Arizona medical marijuana patients.

Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, Sobol is no stranger to conflict. One of his biggest regrets is dropping out of Theodore Roosevelt High School at 16 because it felt like a prison.  He learned  to “take no crap” from people and that’s what makes him tough. But on this October day in the compassion club, he seems relaxed.

He smiles the friendly smile I’ve seen from everyone in the club and the laugh lines are revealed in his face.

The dimly lit, Starbucks-inspired back room is very large. A man sitting on a stool plays guitar. On one side of the room a display case holds jars of marijuana.

The teenager’s mother passes me, holding a white bag that looks like it might hold a drugstore prescription. It contains cannabis.

Sobol relaxes into one of many big comfortable chairs. I sit on the couch. He helps himself to a big platter of candy that sits in the center of the coffee table in front of us.

He smiles and asks: “So, what do you want to know?”

The Convert

 A few years ago, Sobol’s brother-in-law seemed to be losing the battle against cancer. When a doctor mentioned that some patients used marijuana to ease their discomfort, Sobol was outraged and ready to sue the hospital. Before he had the chance to file a lawsuit, his brother-in-law tried pot. When his symptoms improved, so did Sobol’s opinion of the drug.

Through research, Sobol found that some people felt marijuana helped them.  “I don’t know if marijuana helps them or not,” he said. “You know, what I do know? Those people that are suffering believe marijuana helps them and that’s enough for me.”

Al Sobol won't share financial information, but if only 20 people visited the club each day for five days a week, the club would gross $7,500 weekly and $390,000 annually.
Sobol wouldn’t even take aspirin for a headache, and medical marijuana became an odd obsession. Ever the businessman, he saw an opportunity to both help people and make a lot of money. After opening the Arizona Cannabis University, he opened multiple marijuana related LLC’s, including a business that helped potential dispensary owners submit proper applications to the state. His face soon became familiar in local newspapers, magazines and on local TV news as he advocated for legalizing medical marijuana in Arizona, which would be voted on in the 2010 election.

Marijuana has long been a popular drug in the United States. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug in the nation, and a Gallup poll released in October said 50 percent of Americans are in favor of legalizing marijuana. This may explain why since 1996, support for legalizing the drug for medicinal use has been gaining momentum. Even though opponents of legalizing medical marijuana view it as a gateway drug and the first step in legalizing pot for everyone, the first medical marijuana law was passed in California in 1996. Fifteen other states and the District of Columbia have since followed suit, with several others working on marijuana legislation.

Arizona voters approved what was then known as Proposition 200, or the Drug Medicalization, Prevention and Control Act of 1996. The proposition passed by a ratio of almost two to one and would legalize the medicalization of several Schedule I narcotics such as marijuana and heroine. State officials did not embrace the new act, and, by April 1997, the New York Times reported that Gov.  Fife Symington and the Arizona Senate effectively ended Prop 200 through legislation before it was implemented.

This was not the end of the battle.

Medical marijuana was on the ballot once again in 1998, but failed to pass. All was not lost, though. In order to avoid a repeat of the government’s 1996 intervention, the Voter Protection Act was passed that same year. This was implemented to stop the government from making changes to decisions made by the voters.

(These days, the Arizona government’s intervention in Arizona’s newest medical marijuana drama has many of compassion club members questioning what has happened to that protection.)

The latest Arizona initiative to legalize medical marijuana, Proposition 203, (also known as AMMA – the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act) squeaked by with barely 4,000 votes on Nov. 2, 2010. Arizona’s new law would allow qualifying patients to obtain 2.5 ounces of marijuana every two weeks, or grow up to 12 plants, as long as they live at least 25 miles from a state-authorized dispensary.

Under the Arizona law, patients must qualify for medical marijuana by visiting a doctor who will sign and date a document saying that in the physician’s professional opinion, the marijuana would help the patient with the debilitating condition he or she suffers from.

These conditions include cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, Hepatitis C, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, Agitation of Alzheimer’s disease, or a chronic or debilitating disease or medical condition that causes wasting syndrome, severe and chronic pain, severe nausea, seizures, and severe or persistent muscle spasms. The majority of applications approved cite chronic pain as their condition.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug in the nation.
The law provided for state-approved dispensaries where patients could obtain their marijuana. Dispensary applicants would undergo a thorough investigation before being approved. Once their facility opened, they would have to follow strict rules regarding distribution, security, and inventory management.

The AMMA was slated to take effect in April 2011.

But it became politicized.

Will Humble, the director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, who answers to conservative Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, requested “clarification” from former U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke, a Democrat, about possible prosecution of state employees who implemented Arizona’s medical marijuana act.

In early May 2011, Burke wrote Humble stating that the growing, distribution, and possession of marijuana was a violation of federal law regardless of what kind of programs the state may employ. Later that month, Brewer, along with Humble and Robert Halliday, the director of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, filed a complaint in federal court, seeking declaratory judgment on whether the state’s new medical marijuana system was legal and whether state officials could face prosecution.

In December, 2011, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton seemed to scold Brewer, saying the governor had to choose a side – state law or federal law.  (Brewer had argued in favor of state’s rights before the same judge in a legal battle over Arizona’s immigration law.) The seemingly exasperated judge asked Brewer et al to decide whether they supported the state voters’ decision to pass the medical marijuana law, or if they believe federal law overrides Prop 203. The judge said unless the state chose a side, she would throw out the case.

Good news finally came for Sobol and the rest of Arizona’s medical marijuana industry in early January 2012. Bolton, who had previously shown her displeasure with the state’s complaint for declaratory judgment, dismissed Brewer’s lawsuit.

 Bolton cited multiple problems with the state’s complaint, the first being that the feds haven’t threatened to prosecute state employees. Therefore, there is no specific federal action the state is challenging and they cannot prove that state employees are at risk.

 Sobol says after Bolton had thrown out the case, he filed a motion that would stop Brewer from using any more public funding to cause more delays in implementing the AMMA.

“I said it was a gross misconduct and an abuse of her authority. As the governor of Arizona she has the obligation of the constitution to fulfill and comply with all the laws. The Arizona Medical Marijuana Act is one of those laws. She does not have a choice. She has to support the constitution and do what the law tells her to do,” Sobol says.

“By using public funds to delay the program and suing and doing all those things, she’s using the public’s money to deny them their constitutional rights.”

On Jan. 13, Sobol texted me: “Governor just announced reinstatement of dispensary program.”

Brewer announced that she wouldn’t be refiling. However, she did say that there were other lawsuits regarding the AMMA that the state was involved in that could delay the beginning of the dispensary process.

One such lawsuit was filed by Gerald Gaines, the owner of Compassion First LLC. He challenged some rules of the program, saying that it gives an unfair advantage to the influential. Specifically, the law says that a dispensary owner cannot have filed for bankruptcy.

On Jan. 19, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge sided with Gaines, and instructed the state to get on with the will of the people and allow marijuana dispensaries.

Brewer and Humble had both said other lawsuits must be resolved before the state starts issuing dispensary licenses. Sobol says they were stalling.

 “Yeah, it’s very complicated but we’re winning. In every court case we’ve filed so far and everything we’ve done, we’ve been winning,” Sobol says.

Medical marijuana dispensaries are now on track to open, but officials say it may take many more months.

Now everything is quiet and still. The only movement comes from the police tape, shaking in the wind.

This means that for months, over 14,000 cardholding medical marijuana eligible patients have been left with limited options: grow it yourself, or make friends with another patient or caregiver who can.

There are a few problems with these options, critics like Sobol say.

First, cardholders may be too weak or ill to water, feed and harvest the fussy cannabis plant.

Second, seriously ill people can’t always work and are on limited income. In order to grow pot you’ll need lighting, nutrients, and hydroponics systems, all of which can cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, depending on the quality of the equipment.

One option is to employ a caregiver authorized by the state to help qualifying patients who can’t use or grow marijuana themselves. While they cannot receive any compensation for their services as caregivers, they can be reimbursed for costs they may run into while on the job, such as buying equipment and supplies.

The last option: Getting your weed from another patient who can grow marijuana and are willing to share the excess with other patients for free. Thus, many cardholders found themselves at the door of Al Sobol’s compassion club.

The Raid

As I drive up to The 2811 Club on Oct. 12, for an interview with one of Sobol’s partners, something is wrong. A man and woman duck into a Phoenix Police cruiser parked in front of the building.

The door slams behind them and the cruiser drives away.

Police tape wraps around a police SUV and stretches back to the columns in front of the club, making the area inaccessible to anyone but police.

A uniformed police officer tells me a search warrant is being served on Al Sobol’s compassion club. The cop doesn’t know who’s inside but whoever is will be “tied up for a few hours.” He offers to pass on a note to someone inside. I tear a piece of paper from my notebook and scribble down my name, phone number and the time my interview was supposed to happen.

A few seconds later, an old, red car pulls up.

A short, sweaty, middle-aged man pokes his head out the window. “Can we still get our stuff?” he asks. I say I think the club is out of commission. He says he needs to leave so the police don’t come after him.

Now everything is quiet and still. The only movement comes from the police tape, shaking in the wind. There is no security guard wandering around the club entrance, no patients walking in and out, greeting familiar faces, and the ladies from the front desk don’t come out to have a cigarette.

After a while, men in black ski masks and black shirts emerge from inside. One takes pictures of the exterior of the club, not removing his masks despite the hot Phoenix temperatures.

Other masked officers remove white file boxes from a van and bring them inside.

Judge Susan Bolton said unless the state chose a side, she would throw out the case.
Sandy, Sobol’s secretary drives up in a white car with another club member. She doesn’t think anyone was arrested and knows Sobol wasn’t there. She’s heard that the employees inside were taken to the police station for questioning.

Another car flies into view. Paul O’Connor, Sobol’s usually calm, right-hand-man jumps out and races over to the group and asks what’s happening. Clearly in a bit of a panic, he rushes to find the security guard who was on duty when the raid happened.

When he comes back, he says a patient in the club was apparently working as a police informant.

Paul leaves. Sandy leaves.

The man in the old red car returns.

“I just don’t know what to do now. Where can I get my stuff?” he laments.

He holds up a joint, barely an inch long.

“This is all I got left.”

The Don

Don Corleone from The Godfather peers down from a poster hanging behind Sobol’s desk. On the poster, a Godfather quote: “Someday – and that day may never come, I may call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, accept this justice as a gift.”

It is the week after the raid. Sobol is unhappy.

“The police made an illegal raid, and it’s going to cost them,” he says.

He shows me the piles of papers around his desk. They are all bits of information he can use if the raid comes up in court on Friday, Oct. 21.

“I’ve taken great lengths to assure that The 2811 Club is in full compliance with the law,” says Sobol. Since the club opened in July, he says he extended invitations to the governor, the health department director, and the attorney general to visit the club. While he says he didn’t expect them to appear themselves, he did expect representatives.

“If the Governor is so concerned about her employees being arrested,” he says, “the 2811 club offered a legal alternative to that problem which, if the governor's issue was genuine, it would have merited a review.  But we all know the governors reasons for filing the complaint is disingenuous.”

Sobol says Brewer’s politicking is coming into play here. Before the election, Brewer was against the legalization of medical marijuana. She called the measure costly, and said the pot-growing locations would be “crime magnets and blight on our communities and neighborhoods. "

By eliminating the dispensary program, Sobol says, Brewer has created anarchy in the medical marijuana system, forcing patients to go into the black market to get their medication. ­

Matthew Benson, Brewer’s spokesman, says Sobol can make as many accusations as he wants, but the governor’s actions and concerns are being proven valid by recent raids and arrests made on California medical marijuana industry members. Dispensaries workers in the state are indeed being targeted by federal authorities and the city of Sacramento will not be processing any more dispensary applications until this issue is further explored, according to a November city council report.

“It’s interesting,” Benson says. “One of the things we heard from supporters of medical marijuana is, ‘Oh, the federal government would never target state employees and they’ve never targeted medical marijuana facilities and it’ll never happen.’ It is happening. ”

As for the claims that Brewer is angling to repeal the law next year, Benson maintains she is simply trying to determine whether state workers would be federally prosecuted for facilitating the law.

“The governor’s concern first and foremost is that none of her employees would be at risk just for doing their jobs. It’s not a position that she could put her employees in,” Benson says.

Sobol claims he invited Brewer and other state officials to his club in July so he could tell them: “If you find something wrong, that you’re uncomfortable with, you let me know and we’ll make every effort to try and correct it. And one step further, if you can cite one, just one, Arizona law that we’re violating, we’ll close the place down.”

Instead of a visit, Humble questioned the legality of the club in the media.

And so Sobol began his legal battle.

Sobol is no stranger to lawsuits. With 40 years of paralegal experience, he has been involved in over 20 civil cases over the past 12 years. “If somebody wrongs me, I’m going to respond to it,” he says. “That’s my reputation. When people have done me wrong, if I can’t exact revenge through any other way, I will take them to court.”

Sobol filed the first of the medical-marijuana themed civil lawsuits in Maricopa County Superior Court in July. He alleged Humble’s statements were causing “severe and irreparable personal and financial harm and damages.” He also said denying patients access to medical marijuana through the dispensary system equated to “cruel and unusual punishment.” In response, Humble asked the conservative Arizona Attorney General to analyze the issue.

Attorney General Tom Horne filed a complaint less than a month later, also in Maricopa County Superior Court. The complaint named The 2811 Club and four other medical marijuana organizations, including another cannabis club, as defendants. The AG sought the closure of both clubs. Judge Dean Fink declined, in hopes that until his decision was made, patients would receive their medicine as usual.

The raid on Sobol’s club happened several weeks later. Several members who were inside the club at the time accused the attorney general of instigating the raid, claiming police said they were sent by the AG.

When I ask how much his involvement with medical marijuana has to do with money self-described “beyond multi-millionaire” smirks and says he would be kidding if he said it wasn’t important.

 Sobol found this especially frustrating because they had not received a request for any documents from Horne’s office or attorneys.  Why was a raid necessary, he wondered.

“The reason they didn’t ask for it is because they sent the f---ing Gestapo in to get it for them…that’s not how you do things in America,” Sobol said.

Horne claimed he had not ordered the Phoenix Police to conduct the raid. “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,” he said in a statement.

No criminal charges have been filed against Sobol.

The Court Fight

One day in October, a group of Sobol supporters sit quietly in a hallway in Maricopa County Superior Court in downtown Phoenix. One of the supporters has only one leg; another, with a little white Maltese perched on his lap, sits in a motor scooter. Some wear jeans. Others wear suits.

A woman in a purple tweed suit walks down the hall. All eyes fall on Lori Davis, the assistant attorney general, as she passes the group. One patient whispers that it wouldn’t hurt to smile. But none of them are smiling, either.

Then, Al Sobol appears, dressed in a brown blazer and black shirt. He smiles and his supporters smile back. He is holding the huge folder stuffed full of papers. He notices the small man in the scooter. The man’s name is Spence Bowers. Sobol is surprised to see him and doesn’t even recognize him from the barely conscious man he was several weeks ago, before starting marijuana. “I told you I would come,” Bowers says.

Sobol straightens up to look at the entire group. “I feel honored,” he says.

Everyone follows him into the courtroom. They all take a seat as the early morning sun streams through the big windows.

The judge asks how the discovery for evidence is going but it’s only minutes before the raid is brought up. For what is supposed to just be a status update, the arguments quickly become heated. Davis talks about the email she received from Tom Dean, Al’s attorney. The email was sent on the day of the raid asking, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“I’m outraged,” Davis says. She says that Dean’s allegations are completely unfounded and come from hearsay. She also says she has had issues communicating with Dean and that is why little has been accomplished thus far.

Dean is quick to jump in and defend himself and discusses his version of the raid, and mentions that part of the search warrant had not been made available to them.

Judge Fink says he really doesn’t care about the raid at this point because all the evidence should be coming through the discovery period. He just wants to know the truth about how these clubs are running.

“I’ll tell you the truth,” squeaks a high-pitched voice from the audience. It’s Bowers, speaking from his scooter. He’s ready to do his part for the fight right here and now. The judge thanks him for his efforts but says he must follow procedure.

The hearing ends as it began, with a quiet buzz. Everyone slowly moves back into the hallway and gathers at the front of the courthouse steps.

“It was really a non-event,” says Sobol to a sea of journalists’ tape recorders, microphones and cameras.

 “We didn’t make as much progress as we hoped.”

The Tough Guy

Sobol’s tough guy approach has made its way into his business practices and has helped him grow many, many businesses from paralegal services, to private investigating, to marketing to real estate. Fifteen years ago, when the real estate market crashed in the New York suburb he and his family lived in, Sobol, his wife and four children packed up their motor home and a car and went west. When life in Colorado didn’t seem like the right fit, the Sobols made their way to Arizona and here they’ve stayed.

So what drove him to join the medical marijuana cause, beyond a profit motive? His conservatism. “You come in and tell me marijuana really truly helps you, I don’t think the government has any business telling you that you can’t smoke it if it helps you,” he says. “It’s not about marijuana for me. It’s about government abuse, government abuse of their authority, too much government involvement.”

When I ask how much his involvement with medical marijuana has to do with money he smirks and the self-described “beyond multi-millionaire” says he would be kidding if he said it wasn’t important.

 “I would say that in all total honesty 25 to 30 percent is about the money. Another 20 percent is about fulfilling my goals or my dreams or my desires. And 50 percent is about really truly, genuinely helping people.”

However, he says he doesn’t make a lot of money from one thing. This explains the almost 20 LLC’s he has operated or that he currently operates. As a lifelong entrepreneur, he says he has always needed that other option to fall back on if one of his businesses fails. That is why he still maintains a marketing, web design and consulting business called the Consiglieri Group LLC, named after the trusted mob-advisor character of Tom Hagan in The Godfather. Should something go wrong in the marijuana business, he has the Consiglieri Consulting to fall back on.

He does however admit that he was making a good living off the membership dues at The 2811 Club. While he won’t disclose exactly how much, we know that each patient pays $75 a visit, so 20 visitors could gross $1500 daily.

“But I’m not selling marijuana,” he’s quick to point out. “I’m marketing it.”

He says The 2811 Club was closed by the raid.

But new locations will open soon.

The Controversy

Sobol is a saint to some, a demon to others.

Dr. Suzanne Sisley, a psychiatrist studying the benefits of marijuana in treating veteran’s posttraumatic stress disorder, says Sobol is a hero for many people because he’s the only lifeline they have. However, she’s unsure if Sobol’s type of publicity is the right type.

“I’m concerned that some of his media outreach wasn’t putting the drug in the best light. The idea is when you implement a medical marijuana program, you want it to be in the most conservative image possible so that voters can put their toe in and see how the medicine is working for them,” says Sisley.

She hates to criticize because she isn’t sure how the system should be working either. “It’s best to represent it with professionals and physicians who can lend a credibility to the drug as having medical potential.”

Paul O’Connor, Sobol’s close friend, calls Sobol a king. “He’s a very noble man, a true representation of a king. When he runs the show, he makes sure the people are protected,” says O’Connor.

Spence Bowers, 62, was on 400mg of morphine daily for his lifelong back pain. He lived in an assisted living facility, but the intense drug use has left him with no recollection of that period in his life. He tried using marijuana instead and says his mind has improved to the point that he could go back to work at Bank of America. “It’s wonderful to be back,” he says.  Because he lives on a disability income of less than $900 monthly, he says, Sobol and The 2811 Club lowered his membership dues. “They’ve helped me more than anyone.”

But all leaders have their critics. With obvious opponents like members of the government and anti-drug organizations, Sobol has also been the object of some criticism from fellow industry members.

Anthony McDonald is a member of Americans for Safe Access, an organization that advocates and educates for medical marijuana access. He worried Sobol might be a detriment to the cause. His opinion is changing.

“Al’s a good guy. He’s for a cause. He’s trying to help,” McDonald says. “I don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors. I never saw exchanges of any money when I was there. He’s the only guy right now that’s causing the commotion and we need it.”

Even Tom Dean, Sobol’s own attorney, had concerns when he first met Sobol at a marijuana event. “My first impression of him was, “Who is this Johnny-come-lately?’” They now share a Phoenix office where they can be heard joking around, even comparing favorite childhood superheroes.

“Those that don’t like me because they don’t understand me,” Sobol says. “I think that’s stupid. I think they need to get to know somebody to decide whether they like them or not, or whether they should like them or not. That’s ignorance.”

 He says he is a good judge of character and can tell quickly whether or not he likes someone. He describes it as one of his old school traits. He respects someone who operates the same way, someone who will tell him to his face that they don’t like him.

Like him or not, the battle for medical marijuana in Arizona has gained a new soldier, and he has no intention of giving up the fight. In a few weeks, he hopes to have a new club, just like The 2811 Club, up and running and also has big legal plans that involve “gazillions” of dollars and the Phoenix Police.

Sobol says he doesn’t plan to ever apply to run a dispensary. Once the system is back up and running, he will be helping other people create their own dispensaries.  For a price, of course.

“I’m going to help people find the gold,” he says.

 “Yeah I’m going stop; when I’m dead, when I’m laying there and you have to pry my pen out of my frozen hand,” Sobol says. “One day I’ll say I’ve had it and call it quits like Forrest Gump. He started running one day and gathered up all this support and they were cheering him on and screaming at him and one day he just says, ‘I’m done.’”

“I think," he says, "that day’s going to come when I get to the end of the road there. I’ll run out to the end of the pier and say, ‘you know something I’m done. I’m going to go home.’ But I’m still running right now.”