Weeding out the propaganda

The pot summit was a free, invitation-only call-to-arms to 400 drug warriors -- at state expense

Betty Sembler shook her head in dismay. A giant screen above her head projected a political advertisement featuring a woman explaining that she supported the Arizona initiative to legalize marijuana used as medicine, because she believed it would reduce overcrowding in jails, leaving more room for violent criminals such as the rapist who had attacked her after he was released from prison.

"I have serious questions about whether this woman was raped. I think she was assaulted," said Sembler, founder of the Drug Free America Foundation Inc., the St. Petersburg-based nonprofit which directed the "Marijuana Education Summit," a free, invitation-only call-to-arms for 400 drug warriors on May 27 and 28 at the Adam's Mark Resort, paid for with $63,200 from the Florida Department of Community Affairs and state Department of Law Enforcement. (State funds can be used for education but not to promote politics or ideology.)

While callously skeptical of the Arizona woman's message, Sembler encouraged her audience to learn from the advertisements used to promote the legalization of marijuana for medicinal use in California and Arizona in 1996. "You can see how skillfully the material has been manipulated. There is no reason we can't use this hard work they're doing and turn it around on them," said Sembler, a veteran of at least three decades of anti-drug propaganda wars.

The Drug Free America Foundation was previously known as the Straight Foundation, a nonprofit formed in 1976 by Sembler and her husband, Mel, the current finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, who was named ambassador to Australia (although he had never been there) by President George Bush after raising more than $100,000 for Bush's 1988 presidential campaign. Straight, which Nancy Reagan called her favorite drug-treatment program, preached teen drug awareness and eventually opened eight affiliated drug-treatment centers. But the Florida center was closed in 1993 after a state audit found evidence of the excessive use of force, sleep deprivation, and the withholding of food and medication. The audit also indicated the center could have lost its license in 1989, but for pressure from Mel Sembler and two unnamed state senators.

Nonetheless, the Semblers have continued their political activism on the part of the Republic Party and their anti-drug crusade through another nonprofit, Save Our Society from Drugs, and now, the Drug Free America Foundation, formed specifically to fight initiatives calling for the legalization of marijuana as medicine in Florida and other states. Thanks largely to the $47,400 grant from the Department of Community Affairs and $15,800 in matching funds from the Department of Law Enforcement -- including $24,300 for 300 rooms at the Adam's Mark and $15,000 for training materials -- the Semblers' newest group was able to begin training anti-drug campaign leaders for the campaigns being waged against initiatives proposed in seven states and the District of Columbia, as well as efforts to turn back the new laws in California and Arizona.

For two days, a succession of archconservatives and anti-drug crusaders including former drug czar William Bennett; Drug Enforcement Agency chief Tom Constantine and Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood took the stage. "My challenge is that you take advantage of the great workshops and presenters at this conference so that you can take back what you learn here," Hood said during opening remarks. "Remember, change doesn't begin at the top, and it doesn't begin at the bottom, it begins with you and me."

During the sessions, doctors affiliated with anti-drug groups or drug companies emphasized the negative effects on the development of adolescents and warned against the legalization of a medication without adequate research. Two doctors working for an Ohio drug company promoted the use of Marinol, a pill carrying the chemical in marijuana credited with helping stimulate appetite in AIDS patients. There was one element missing: the viewpoint of advocates and patients favoring the medicinal use of marijuana.

Barred from sitting on panels or staging their own session, representatives of the Coalition Advocating Medicinal Marijuana were limited to a press conference in a remote corner of the hotel parking lot and one-minute opportunities for rebuttal of the drug-war banter. One advocate, Gregg Scott, 46, of Fort Lauderdale, was forcibly removed from the meeting room, arrested and taken to jail Wednesday after interrupting several speakers. Scott acknowledged, "I was being very obnoxious. They treated us with open derision from the time we arrived. They wouldn't even let us hold a press conference in the hotel. It had been a frustrating morning."

Still, "I don't regret anything I did. I wanted to seed doubt in any member of the audience who was missing the larger part of the problem," said Scott, who uses marijuana to stimulate his appetite and counteract nausea he experiences after taking AIDS medications. "There are many patients in the U.S., no other therapy provides them the relief that marijuana provides. They have to break the law."

As a slow drizzle fell Wednesday, a half-dozen advocates waved signs and spoke to several reporters. Two deputies on mountain bikes looked on, a sign of the heavy police presence in the hotel lobby and meeting room. Elvy Musikka, one of eight Americans allowed to use marijuana as medicine, explained she suffered with glaucoma for 12 years before going to pot. "For me, there was no other medicine," she said. A primary message driven home at the meeting emphasized the dangers to children, but Musikka said she had told her son -- now a doctor -- about her use of marijuana, while emphasizing the dangers of his using the drug. "As a parent, I am here to emphasize the truth never sends the wrong message."

Although the meeting was publicly funded, Terry Hensley, executive director of the Drug Free America Foundation, saw no reason to provide a forum for the opposing side during the proceedings. "We weren't trying for balance," Hensley said. "They're telling lies."

Hensley, former deputy chief of the St. Petersburg police department, described sick and dying people supporting the medicinal marijuana initiative as "nothing but pawns" and dismissed Toni Leeman, executive director of the state coalition, as fronting for the ACLU.

The Florida proposal and new laws in Arizona and California legalize marijuana only for medical use. But anti-drug crusaders maintain the law winds up making the drug available to all, due to a lack of accountability and quality control and conflicts with federal laws that make it impossible to require a doctor's prescription.

"It's not about medicine, it's about legalization," said Hensley, his voice rising. "If you don't see that, you're either with them or you've been co-opted."


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