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GOP Mogul Behind Drug Rehab 'Torture' Centers Is Bankrolling Opposition to Pot Legalization in Colorado

Marijuana legalization would harm kids, says Smart Colorado, a group asking voters to reject a ballot initiative this year to legalize and tax pot.
 
 
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Marijuana legalization would harm kids, says Smart Colorado, a group advertising stock images of children along with messages asking for voters to reject Amendment 64, a ballot initiative this year to legalize and tax pot.

Smart Colorado, led former Republican senate candidate Ken Buck and a team of Republican lobbyists and campaign operatives, hopes to drive down the popularity of Amendment 64 before Election Day. The supposedly family-friendly group, however, relies heavily on funds from a pair of controversial Republican fundraisers who once led a drug rehab center shut down over wide-ranging child abuse scandals.

Save Our Society from Drugs, a Florida-based nonprofit founded by Mel and Betty Sembler, has given Smart Colorado contributions totaling $151,497 through September, according to The Nation’s review of state finance disclosures. That’s 95 percent of the money raised by the group so far.

The Semblers have been waging a war on marijuana for decades.

Before they led Save Our Society from Drugs, and its sister nonprofit, the Drug Free America Foundation, the Semblers were at the helm of STRAIGHT, Inc., which operated drug abuse treatment centers, mostly for teenagers, from 1976 through 1993.

Former clients of the rehab center recount episodes of brutal beatings, rape and systematic psychological abuse.

At one facility in Yorba Linda, California, state investigators found that STRAIGHT Inc. subjected children to “unusual punishment, infliction of pain, humiliation, intimidation, ridicule, coercion, threats, mental abuse…and interference with daily living functions such as eating, sleeping and toileting.” Samantha Monroe, who was placed into a STRAIGHT Inc clinic in Tampa at age 13, says she was locked in a room, and forced to wear a clothes stained with urine, feces and menstrual blood—a punishment her counselors called “humble pants.”

Richard Bradbury, a former STRAIGHT patient and counselor-turned-whistleblower, told the St. Petersburg Times that Monroe’s experiences weren’t unique. “It was pure child abuse,” Bradbury told reporters. “Torture.”

In 1988, Fred Collins, an 18-year-old college student, paid a visit to his brother, who was in treatment for drug abuse, at an Orlando STRAIGHT Inc. clinic. Counselors accused Collins of being high on marijuana because his eyes were red, and held him against his will for months. The abduction, strip-searches and other abuses ended when Collins managed to escape. He was one of many to win judgments against the chain of drug rehab clinics before it was forced to close after investigations and lawsuits began to mount in several states.

Though the STRAIGHT drug rehab clinic no longer exist, the Sembler network of anti-drug nonprofits have proliferated, in part because of the family’s extensive political connections. Mel, who served as a major fundraiser for George H.W., Jeb and George W. Bush, was appointed as the Ambassador to Italy in 2001. Betty Sembler, awarded “honorary agent status by the DEA,” has led various anti-drug commissions and task forces on the state and federal level.

Three years after STRAIGHT shut down, the Semblers changed its name to the Drug Free America Foundation, headquartered in St. Petersburg, Florida.

The Drug Free America Foundation, a nonprofit that shares resources, an office and staff with the Save Our Society group financing the Amendment 64 opposition in Colorado, has a contract with the federal government to help small businesses develop their own drug-testing programs for employees. In 2010, taxpayers forked over $250,000 to a Sembler group to oversee a drug-free workplace program for the Small Business Administration. It also helps produce anti-marijuana literature and promotional campaigns.

Mel Sembler, who made his fortune in real estate, says his opposition to marijuana use influenced his move to the GOP. He switched party affiliation in 1979, when he claims he found out “[President Jimmy] Carter was doing all this pot smoking and stuff in the White House.”

Since then, he’s been a proud Republican. Explaining his early support for Mitt Romney (he’s now a leader of Romney’s Florida fundraising team), Sembler says he accompanied then-Governor Romney to Israel during his first official visit and trusts the candidate’s business acumen. Viveca Novak, of OpenSecrets.org, noted that Sembler was spotted on a Romney bundler yacht during the Republican convention last month.

Sembler hasn’t renounced his sordid legacy with the STRAIGHT clinics. An online biography of Mel Sember posted by his nonprofit proudly touts his role in founding the scandal-plagued rehab centers. The biography cheerfully claims, that during “its 17 years of existence, STRAIGHT successfully graduated more than 12,000 young people nationwide from its remarkable program.” There is no mention of the child abuse scandals that led to its downfall.

There’s little time to worry about the past. He’s waging two battles now: one in Colorado, and another to evict a former Choom Gang member from the White House.

Lee Fang is an investigative journalist with The Nation.