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Nancy Smith

Lawmakers, When Mel and Betty Sembler Talk ... Run Fast, Run Far

March 23, 2017 - 8:00am
Mel and Betty Sembler, couple shown right
Mel and Betty Sembler, couple shown right

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 ..."

A joy?

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, 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 or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith



I was an inmate at Straight Inc. for almost two years. What was allowed to take place there wouldn't be allowed in adult prison. Think "Lord of the Flies" in a warehouse instead of an island. Semblers should be in prison, not consulting on drug policy. I will never fully recover from what I experienced there and witnessed happen to others. I could fill a book with horrifying stories of psychic murder. Don't drink the Kool-ade.

Thank you for speaking out against these corrupt... I'm trying to not flip out.. so I'll keep it at thank you! Straight Survivor Stoughton, MA 89-90

Criminals like Sembler buy their way out of every situation. Now they are buying the votes to guarantee the legislation on amendment 2 they want not what the people voted for. Florida Republicans are for sale it all a matter of how much. AG Pam Bondi should be investigating, prosecuting and convicting those involve is the pay to play. Pam do your job! But as a republican she will protect those in her party no matter how corrupt. This is coming from a republican of almost 50 years but after this obvious corruption I am now an independent. We the People deserve better than a corrupt government like the current one occupying Tallahassee. Shame on they and shame on you AG Bondi

I graduated from the straight program in 1989 after over 24 months in the program. It makes me sick to my stomach to see the accolades still given to the Semblers!

Don't foget about Miller Newton, and his fake "Christ at the Sea Foundation."

Thank you for writing this article! I added a link to it on my website Surviving Straight Inc. on the Articles and Information page. I applaud your efforts to expose the Semblers and Straight! Straight Survivors really appreciate when journalists take the time to learn about the horrors they endured and who is responsible. Thank you for doing that for them!

I was in Straight Springfield in the 1980s.I graduated and went on staff. I am now 49 years old and only now coming to terms with HOW Straight changed my "core essence"as a human being. See because i was on staff, i thought Straight was a good thing in my life, second only to the birth of my son at age 27. One of my Straight friend committed suicide in January 2017. This started my Awakening. I could not understand WHY someone that had stayed sober, had a family and career, would commit suicide. I have come to realize since January that the reason i do not trust anyone on this planet, am a VISCOUS verbal attacker in an argument, can cut people out of my life with no emotion at all, and my repeated desire to die every day of my life... Was bc i thought Straight was the best thing that happened to me. No it wasn't. I am the way i am because of Straight. 12-14 hrs a day, 7 days a week, isolated from the rest of the world and my family, was subjected to viscious verbal assault to break down who i was... i was only 16. Not to mention sleep deprivation, good consequences and physical restraint. This definitely is a way to ensure later REPERCUSSIONS in life. Inability to adapt to society. Unreasonable expectations on myself and others. A belief that i was absolutely worthless. No, Straight was NOT a good thing at all. It has destroyed us internally. And we are left with trying to figure out how to love and be loved.. At 49 years old. Absolute tragedy.

Straight Inc. was WRONG and in retrospect - EVIL. I had friends that were sent to the facility and the difference in them upon exiting it was unbelievable. Not just changes in habits but changes in personalities. Their change reminded me of an animal which was beat again and again. They were dramatically harmed. Those which were involved with establishing and running the organization should be punished.

Incredible. Some 30 years after the last time I was subjected to straight, I see a news article that lists just some of the atrocities visited on CHILDREN in the name of the War on Drugs. I was in straight for more than 30 months in the 80's and to this day have nightmares about that place. I was starved, subjected to harsh mental abuse, and sleep deprived. My experience caused PTSD and has colored my life ever since. It affects my marriage, my family and my career. This is not to say that I haven't been successful because I have, but this is in spite of that place, and not because of it. The Semblers sponsored all of this and have been wildly rewarded for it something I consider a travesty and one of the largest miscarriages of justice in America history and I believe America will be much better off once they are gone. Those two have been responsible for so much pain yet they are both proud of it. I hope they enjoy their eternity in hell.

Thank you for writing truths about The Sembler's and truths about Straight Inc. I can attest to the horror stories for I was in Straight 33 months. It's a lifetime of trying to stay normal and balanced.

Holy mackerel! Nancy, finally an article telling the complete truth. The Sembler's are lower than street curbing and so are any legislators kissing their behinds, such as House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero! Estero residents should be keeping a list of how his political style is bad for any business. In fact, Rodrigues' list of political actions should be carefully watched and scrutinized as his actions are NOT close to his own word. BUT, he's a typical politician and his lies should be anticipated/expected. The Sembler's have lots of money to toss around to anyone they can purchase in the Legislature and it appears Rodrigues has his tongue hanging out like a puppy dog begging for a bone! Shame on him and all others like him in the legislature.

Thank you Nancy, for repeating the truth Lawmakers have ignored​. For exposing history, which keeps getting repeated. A2 passed, with what Lawmakers should consider a mandate. Instead, some continue to block and restrict access. There is only 1 bill worthy of respect, in the Senate. The Brandes bill is acceptable and should be the"starting place" for negotiation. Anything less is unacceptable.

Thank you Nancy for this piece as something everyone in Florida especially should know. And amazingly accurate for SSN..................It just goes to show if you are rich you can abuse children, teens physically and sexually and get away with it. It took a couple yrs after this was all known and continued with Sembler's blessings before the finally were forced to stop...................... To this day they continue lies about drugs that only make the problem worse and kill people to this day because of the lies they propagate........... Just legalize the drugs and tax them to provide mental, etc help for the medical problem it is........... There is a special place in hell for these kinds of people like the Semblers.

The "dis-Semblers" should be "run-out-of-town" in the direction of California, where you can buy corrupt politicians "for a dime a dozen"...(and THEN pay a $million$ to have a bad movie made about them....) Florida MUST rid itself of the "dis-Semblers" and the "other snakes and alien invaders" in South Florida...

The sycophants who fawn over the Semblers are in thrall. Follow the money. Lie down with jackals...

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nancy smith


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