Apparently there are still people in Florida -- including leaders in the Florida Legislature, of all places -- who are perfectly happy to give Mel and Betty Sembler's drug policy the time of day.
I couldn't believe my ears Wednesday afternoon when medical marijuana bill sponsor and Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, stood up on the House floor to thank and welcome the Semblers for visiting the Florida House.
"Ambassador Sembler and his wife have shared some thoughts with many of us today on drug policy," said Rodrigues. "It is a joy to have them with us ..."
The Semblers should be in jail, not in the West Gallery.
I don't know how many times reporters have to write the Mel and Betty Sembler story before Florida tells this St. Petersburg commercial real estate developer to put his checkbook away, his meddling in Florida drug policy insults our intelligence and is an effrontery to us all.
For 16 years this couple directed the leading juvenile drug rehab business in America, STRAIGHT Inc., which prosecutors closed in 1993 after reports of sexual abuse, beatings, prisoner-of-war-style torture and unrelenting cover-ups. Despite the six-figure settlements that sucked the business dry, the 40-plus client suicides, the clinic licenses state health officials yanked, the Semblers came out of it all smelling like a rose.
The program legally changed its identity to the Drug Free America Foundation (DFAF). Director Calvina Fay denied it's the same organization when I first interviewed her, but the name change is listed in corporate filings. DFAF no longer treats clients, but it's still a major player in shaping domestic and international drug policy.
Back the winners in politics and money can buy your way out of almost anything.
Last year Mel Sembler gave $1 million to keep medical marijuana out of Florida. It didn't work, but I think some legislators equate that million-dollar donation to some kind of special knowledge or authority.
Believe me, he has neither.
Here's what Sembler, now 85, got for his fundraising and high profile over the years: an ambassadorship to Austria in 1989, a Republican National Committee finance chairmanship in 1997, a plummier ambassadorship in 2001 (this one to Rome, even though he couldn't speak Italian) and in 2005 an ornate, $83.5 million, taxpayer-funded building named after him in Rome (talk about a Taj Mahal) -- a first for an American diplomat. Oh, yes, and the biggest prize of all? That free pass when prosecutors only closed his clinics, instead of indicting him as they would have anybody else.
The ACLU said of STRAIGHT, Inc. just before it was shut down, "They run very close to really performing psychic murder."
Read my first story about this couple here. Better yet, look at The Huffington Post's 2014 year-long investigative series on the heroin epidemic and the U.S. drug treatment system, in which you'll find an original audio documentary about STRAIGHT, Inc. and its predecessor, The Seed. You'll hear former residents recalling harrowing moments during treatment and describing how the experience shaped their lives.
Have a look at the montage of headlines -- and this is only a few -- that document STRAIGHT's horror stories at the bottom of this column.
Actually, it was the Reagans -- Ron and Nancy, but especially Nancy -- who gave the Semblers their Teflon coat and oiled up STRAIGHT, Inc. for accolades it never deserved.
In fact, I consider Nancy Reagan's most lasting legacy, besides her “Just Say No” campaign, to be her support of STRAIGHT, Inc.
The first lady was so proud of her association with STRAIGHT that she brought Princess Diana to one of the facilities in Springfield, Va., for a tour. It didn’t matter that “60 Minutes" had published an expose on the chain a year earlier.
Incidentally, so bad was the STRAIGHT incarceration experience that survivors have their own website, survivingstraightinc.com. Some of them may never get over their experiences in the program.
One STRAIGHT, Inc. resident tells of being forced to humiliate others as part of the program: “I was in this universe where the social currency was the infliction of pain, and I took part in that wholeheartedly so that I could get out of there. And that was my treatment.”
He recalled having to verbally punish another resident who later committed suicide.
Stories like these abound on the Internet. All you have to do is Google "STRAIGHT, Inc." or "Mel and Betty Sembler" and they pop up like prairie dogs.
Rep. Rodrigues should ask himself, would I take reform-school advice from the officials who ran the Arthur G. Dozier School in the 1950s? I'm pretty sure the answer would be no. So, then, why would he ever consider taking advice on drug policy from Mel and Betty Sembler?
Talk to some of the kids now all-grown-up, the ones victimized by STRAIGHT, Inc. I'm sorry, Representative, but I cringed for every one of them when you gave their tormenters the hero treatment on the House floor. I hope for their sake, you will consider carefully the advice the Semblers gave you.
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith