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Sembler funds anti-medical marijuana committee

ST. PETERSBURG — The drive for medical marijuana in Florida has attracted prominent, organized opposition.

St. Petersburg developer and GOP heavyweight Mel Sembler donated $100,000 last month to establish Drug Free Florida, a political action committee dedicated to defeating a constitutional amendment that would allow pot use for debilitating conditions.

The committee is just starting to draft a budget and reach out to other donors, co-chairman Carlton Turner said Wednesday, "but we are going to be very aggressive in attacking this issue."

With a vote on the amendment six months away, public attention has centered on Orlando trial attorney John Morgan, who spent about $4 million to get the amendment on the Nov. 4 ballot. Conservative politicians, mindful of polls showing widespread support, have kept a low profile on the issue.

Drug Free Florida now gives the opposition a public face and seed money.

Turner, 73, is also likely to enliven the debate. He has years of involvement with marijuana research and policy, including a stint as President Ronald Reagan's drug czar. Outspoken and colorful, he's a popular target on pro-pot websites that point to a Newsweek article from 1986 about him titled "Reagan Aide: Pot Can Make You Gay."

Ben Pollara, campaign manager for United for Care, Morgan's group, trumpeted that theme Wednesday in a release calling for Turner's resignation.

"There is absolutely no place for bigotry or outrageously false claims in the debate," Pollara said. Drug Free Florida's selection of Turner "is disgraceful and offensive."

Turner said Newsweek's headline was wrong and that the magazine took out of context remarks he made about a visit to a drug treatment center, where he was told that 40 percent of the patients had gay sex and that marijuana lowers inhibitions.

Turner said Pollara's statement shows the argument for medical marijuana is weak. "If you don't have an issue to stand on," Turner said, "the No. 1 thing is to attack your opponent."

Effective statewide television campaigns can cost $1 million a week, consultants estimate. Morgan says he plans to spend whatever it takes to pass the amendment. He also acknowledges that the publicity can benefit Morgan & Morgan, his huge personal-injury firm.

Sembler's $100,000 is Drug Free Florida's only donation listed with the state to date. He declined comment for this report, deferring to Turner.

Sembler and his wife, Betty, are longtime crusaders against drug abuse. Decades ago, they founded Straight Inc., a controversial adolescent treatment program that eventually closed. They also started the Drug Free America Foundation, an umbrella group that supports antidrug programs around the country.

Mel Sembler, 83, has served as ambassador to Italy and Australia and was the national GOP finance chairman for three years.

Turner said Drug Free Florida's other committee members are James Sewell, a former Gulfport police chief, and Mary Evertz, a former Tampa Bay Times reporter. All three live in St. Petersburg.

Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at nohlgren@tampabay.com.

Sembler funds anti-medical marijuana committee 04/30/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 30, 2014 10:46pm]
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