Mel Sembler made the first contribution to the Drug Free Florida Committee back on March 17th with a donation of $100,000. Mel and Betty Sembler are the founders of the non-profit groups the Drug Free America Foundation and Save Our Society From Drugs. Like some of the other donors, the Semblers are involved in real estate and are fundraising for the Republican Party, including for Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election campaign. The Drug Free America Foundation originated in the 1970s as Straight, Inc., which had operated as a drug rehab center.
Sembler’s Straight, Inc. Faced Serious Scandals
Straight was involved in a number of scandals, including allegations that children who had been admitted for experimenting with cannabis were tortured at the rehab center. Straight also received complaints from patients like Sarah Monroe, who was admitted in to the clinic at age 12, alleged she had been beaten, psychologically abused, and raped. According to the St. Petersburg Times, Sarah was admitted into Straight’s rehab clinic in 1980 after an incident at school. Sarah denies ever having tried drugs, and that one day at school a classmate had brought mini-bottles of alcohol in and gave her one. She flushed her alcohol down the toilet after being called down to the principal’s office. A detective investigating drug activity at the school contacted Monroe’s mother and claimed that it had been a fluke that Sarah wasn’t found with any drugs, suggesting that she send her daughter to Straight. One young female patient accused Straight of employing bizarre punishments, such as being locked into a room at the clinic, was not allowed to use the bathroom, and was forced to wear what Straight counselors called “humble pants,” which were pants stained with urine, feces, and menstrual blood.
Illegal detentions also took place at Straight’s rehab clinics. One person who was subjected to false imprisonment and kidnapping was a man named Fred Collins, Jr.. In June of 1982 Collins went to visit his brother, who was being treated at the facility. Staff at the Straight facility accused Collins of being under the influence of cannabis, because they said his eyes were red. Collins filed a lawsuit against Straight, Inc. and in 1983, a US District Court awarded Fred Collins $220,000 for compensatory and punitive damages, after a jury found that Collins had been held against his will by staff at Straight’s rehab facility in St. Petersburg. According to a 1983 article from the Gainsville Sun, Collins’ attorney, Philip J. Hirschkop, said that Straight officials had, “repeatedly ignored Florida state law, locking people in rooms and threatening to commit others to mental institutions.”
In 1990, a jury awarded Floridian Karen Norton $721,000 in damages due to mistreatment at Straight. She was assaulted by staff members, refused to provide access to health care, and refused to give her permission to visit her dying grandfather. According to the St. Petersburg Times, the money awarded in the Norton case was the largest amount awarded against Straight ever, at the time. Two state investigations into Mel Sembler’s Straight, Inc. substantiated claims of abuse. With Straight paying out huge settlements from lawsuits, admissions into the clinic dropped, and by mid-1993 the Sembler’s rehab clinic was out of business. Mel Sembler’s biography on the Sembler Corporation’s website still boasts of Straight as a “remarkable program.
Straight, Inc. Renamed to Drug Free America Foundation
Three years after Straight, Inc.’s drug rehab and behavioral modification clinic closed it’s doors, it’s corporate name was changed to Drug Free America Foundation. Drug Free America Foundation’s offices are located in downtown St. Petersburg, and instead of treating substance abuse, now provides drug prevention education. The Drug Free America Foundation received almost half a million taxpayer dollars in the form of grants administered by the Department of Justice and the Small Business Administration. Drug Free America Foundation’s sister non-profit, Save Our Society from Drugs, is focused on advocacy and in 2012 helped bankroll the unsuccessful campaign to stop Colorado’s Amendment 64, which legalized recreational cannabis and industrial hemp.
Other Amendment 2 opponents like the Florida Sheriffs Association and the Florida Police Chiefs Association are partner organizations with the Drug Free America Foundation. Mel’s wife, Betty Sembler, is also the Chairwoman of the Board of Directors for the Drug Free America Foundation. Betty received “honorary agent status” with the DEA, and according to her biography, has led various anti-drug commissions and task forces on the state and federal level.
The Rest of the No On 2 Campaign’s Backers
Since the Drug Free Florida Committee has started receiving contributions in late March, the organization has struggled to raise $3 million, and according to campaign finance documents on file with the Division of Elections the group has only managed to raise $2,965,470, well below the amount proponents of Amendment 2, like United for Care, have raised. The Drug Free America Foundation and the Drug Free Florida Committee both receive funding from the Carol Jenkins Barnett Family. Carol Jenkins Barnett is the Chairman of Publix Supermarkets. On May 1st, the Carol Jenkins Barnett Family donated $100,000 to the Drug Free Florida Committee’s campaign against Amendment 2.
Other donors include Patrick J. Kennedy, a former Democratic US Representative for Massachusetts and founder of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), who donated a paltry $250 to Drug Free Florida Committee’s No On 2 campaign. Republican State Senator Jack Latvala, who represents District 20, contributed $1,000. Sen. Latvala even voted against SB 1030 on votes held in the Senate on April 28th and May 2nd. Malcolm Beyer, Jr., a member of the Drug Free America Foundation’s Advisory Board, as a Community Anti-Drug Advocate, contributed $5,000 to the Drug Free Florida Committee. Veora Little, a Volunteer Coordinator for Operation Medicine Cabinet, of Drug Free Collier donated $500. Tampa attorney John Anthony also donated $500. Another person involved in real estate that is backing the No On 2 campaign is James Holton, who has a law firm in Madeira Beach that specializes in real estate law, he contributed $500. Stanley M. Katz, contributed $1,000 to Drug Free Florida Committee’s No On 2 campaign, and like Sheldon Adelson who is funding research into medical cannabis while opposing Amendment 2, Katz had donated $7 million to a cancer center at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in 2008, a university that has conducted on cannabinoids. William Isaac, the former chairman of FDIC during the Reagan era, contributed $500. The rest of the donations listed on the Division of Elections are $100 or less.