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Nancy Smith

Mel Sembler Is the Last One Who Should Influence Florida Drug Policy

April 5, 2014 - 6:00pm

There are so many reasons Florida Republicans should distance themselves from Mel Sembler and find money for their 2014 candidates elsewhere.

The most important one is that Sembler is a sad object lesson in how cruelty can be redeemed by the power of campaign donations.

This man has bought his way into the homes of presidents and governors and some of the nation's most powerful individuals -- especially Florida politicians -- so he could influence drug policy, and he has been successful for nearly four decades.

As a compassionate conservative, I am offended by Mel Sembler.

He had everybody tricked, Democrats and Republicans alike.

As I've already written, for 16 years he and his wife Betty 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, Sembler not only found a way to escape punishment, but he defends his program to this day.

In fact, the program legally changed its identity to the Drug Free America Foundation (DFAF). Director Calvina Fay denies it's the same organization, but the name change is listed in corporate filings. DFAFno longer treats clients, but it's still a major player in shaping domestic and international drug policy.

Please don't think the case against STRAIGHT is just rumor, or political nonsense. Floridas Bureau of Criminal Justice Planning and Assistance found that most cases of child abuse at Straight had been substantiated; that even though STRAIGHT received federal grants, it had "disguised" client fees as "donations"; that in its first 18 months of operation STRAIGHT had enrolled 450 teens but only one had been black; that Sembler had violated federal conflict-of-interest regulations because federal grant money was to be used for "salaries only," but STRAIGHT had put the money in a single bank account along with other STRAIGHT funds at First Bank of Treasure Island. Worse still, Mel Sembler was on the bank's board of directors.

A 1993 Florida state IG report on STRAIGHT concluded that Sembler had probably interfered in a state attempt to close the program for abusing children.

In spite of all this, STRAIGHT became the world's largest program of its kind. This was due in large part to an excellent advertising and marketing department which was buttressed by prominent politicians who endorsed it.

Incidentally, STRAIGHT survivors have their own website,

Here's what Sembler, now 84, 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 (talk about a Taj Mahal) in Rome -- a first for an American diplomat. Oh, yes, and the biggest prize of all? A free pass when prosecutors only closed his clinics, instead of indicting him as they would have anybody else.

Right now I'm concerned because the capital is abuzz with rumors that Sembler is behind the scenes working to influence the Florida Legislature, trying to kill legislation in the House that would legalize non-euphoric cannabis (CBD) oil for children so wracked with seizures they probably won't celebrate their 20th birthdays. I was unable to reach House Speaker Will Weatherford over the weekend to confirm the rumors.

I'm not sure why Sembler, a St. Petersburg commercial real estate developer at the start of his career, would want to do such a thing to families who have exhausted every other drug and treatment for epilepsy. But at this moment, I'm more concerned that anyone in the Legislature would listen to him.

Do you think lawmakers looking to decide policy on juvenile justice would ask advice from anybody with an Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys background? I very much doubt it. Why, then, would they listen to Mel Sembler when forming Florida drug policy?

Child protection has been a theme of the 2014 Legislature. Lawmakers have spent hours on discussions of sexual predators and children, and onthe dozens of dead children in South Florida, victims of domestic abuse. How can we skip over the atrocities at STRAIGHT again?

At last week's medical marijuana forum in Tallahassee, one of the points raised was that the federal government has held a patent on medical marijuana for three decades, but it squandered the time and money it might have used conducting research, on addiction and substance abuse instead. Now, perhaps, we can see why.

Our Republican Party is better than this, don't you agree?We made mistakes in the past. We let Sembler hoodwink us. Fell for him lock, stock and barrel -- believing that, besides money, he had answers to a tough problem and a competent program to do something about it. For decades, we enabled him.

All I'm asking is that we break the cycle. Let's do better than that in 2014. Instead of letting Mel Sembler dictate policy for Florida, can't we look at medical marijuana objectively and responsibly, as Reps. Matt Gaetz and Katie Edwards are doing in HB 843, as a plant with potential for ending patients' suffering? Parents who don't want to wait for their children to die are pinning their hopes on the Legislature, and shouldn't we be in their corner?

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423.

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