If you listen to opponents of Florida's medical marijuana ballot initiative, it will unleash the gates of hell: skyrocketing crime, brain-dead zombies roaming the streets and Floridians flocking to rusty shacks covered in dirt to purchase their...
Sheldon and Miriam Adelson teamed up with Mel and Betty Sembler on Fred Thompson's disastrous 2008 presidential campaign, too. Photo via Flickr user freddthompson
If you listen to foes of Florida's medical marijuana ballot initiative, which voters will decide on this November, the measure will unleash the gates of hell: skyrocketing crime, brain-dead zombies roaming the streets and Floridians flocking to rusty shacks covered in dirt to purchase their medicinal weed (yes, that really is a specter they've raised).
These arguments aren't new and they've been debunked over and over again in the past. So what’s motivating the attacks? A closer look at the moneymen opposing the initiative reveals cynical hypocrisy and, in some cases, naked self-interest.
Blocking Pot to Build Casinos
As VICE reported in June, Sheldon Adelson, the GOP mega-donor and casino executive, has raised eyebrows by donating $2.5 million to the Drug Free Florida's campaign against medical pot. The donation immediately raised questions. First, Adelson and his wife are major donors to a medical research facility in Tel Aviv that supports the use of marijuana to treat a number of diseases, so it’s a tad strange for Adelson to seek a ban on medical pot in America while financing it in Israel. Moreover, marijuana-related initiatives are on the ballot in Oregon, Alaska, and now Washington, DC—why is Adelson only donating to defeat pot in Florida, which is 2000 miles away from his home in Las Vegas? Consider the fact that Adelson's casino company, the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, has desperately sought entry into Florida's lucrative table games market, which is currently controlled only by the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Adelson's Sands Corp has lobbied furiously to build its own Vegas-style casino in Florida, but has so far come up short. The deal with the Seminoles expires next year, meaning whoever controls the governor's office has a great deal of sway over the decision.
The medical marijuana campaign in Florida has become one of the top issues in the heated gubernatorial race between Republican incumbent Rick Scott and Democrat Charlie Crist, who has pegged his campaign on support for the initiative. So Republicans are now trashing the medical marijuana initiative to boost Scott—or in Adelson's case, perhaps to build a casino.
Florida Cops Rake in Cash Busting Marijuana
The most visible opponents of medical marijuana beyond the Drug Free Florida ads are the Florida Sheriffs Association, a law enforcement group run by Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who uses Reefer Madness-esque rhetoric to claim marijuana will ruin society. "I see the guy that's up all night with a baby that's screaming, so he smokes him a blunt and a half and he thinks that'll help and ends up bouncing the baby off the walls," Judd said at an anti-pot press conference earlier this summer.
Though recent evidence suggests that marijuana liberalization actually reduces violent crime, law enforcement has its own motives. In an investigation published last month in The Nation magazine, I noted that marijuana busts have become a huge revenue source for police, which influences their political opposition to drug reform. In Minnesota and other states, police lobbyists have privately told legislators that relaxing marijuana laws could cost them financially. When cops bust a marijuana dealing operation, they employ something called asset forfeiture to seize property and auction it off. The process has generated over $1 billion for law enforcement divisions around the country since 2002, and in Florida, a law enforcement newsletter referred to the local forfeiture program as an "excellent return on investment." In fact, Grady submitted a budget document to his county commission that claimed his force is “doing more with fewer resources” and that seizures from marijuana grow houses provide one of several key revenue sources for his department.
One of the frequent cases made against medical marijuana in Florida is that the law will spawn a "Big Marijuana" complex akin to the evils of "Big Tobacco." Given that free market conservatives are often the ones making this argument, it's a little weird that they're suggesting profit-seeking is somehow unsavory. And this line of attack becomes even more strange when you consider exactly who it's coming from. The campaign vehicle for opponents of the medical marijuana measure, VoteNo2.org and the Drug Free Florida Committee, was registered by Richard E. Coates, a Tallahassee lobbyist for the cigar industry. While Coates has been instrumental in advancing the cigar industry's policy goals, including the defeat of legislation designed to curb smoking at playgrounds and certain workplaces, his lobbying firm has been retained by the Drug Free Florida committee to help beat the medical marijuana ballot initiative this year. The spokesperson for the Drug Free Florida committee is Sarah Bascom, a longtime lobbyist for Dosal Tobacco Corporation, the third largest cigarette company in the state.
Coates did not return a request for comment, but I suppose his involvement explains the anti-pot crowd's familiarity with Big Tobacco.
Torturing Kids, Now Saving Them?
The wackiest attacks against Florida's marijuana initiative are coming from Save Our Society From Drugs and the Drug Free America Foundation, two nonprofits founded by Mel and Betty Sembler. The two groups, which claim to be dedicated to saving children, have attacked the ballot measure with a range of bizarre arguments, including a tweet warning of an impending zombie apocalypse. The Semblers are famous real estate tycoons who are well known within the Florida Republican Party for their fundraising prowess. What's less well known is that the Drug Free America Foundation is a legal entity that has existed since the 1970s under the old name STRAIGHT Inc. Under the previous brand, the foundation operated as a drug rehab center that was embroiled in multiple scandals for allegedly torturing children who had been admitted for experimenting with pot.
STRAIGHT Inc faced complaints that clients were subjected to beatings, rape and psychological abuse. One young woman who was placed into a STRAIGHT clinic said she was locked in a room and forced to wear clothes stained with urine, feces and menstrual blood—a punishment her counselors called “humble pants.” On a visit to his brother, who was in treatment for drug abuse, a young man named Fred Collins said he was detained by STRAIGHT counselors who accused Collins of being high on marijuana because his eyes were red. In 1983, a US District Court awarded Collins $220,000 in damages for being "held against his will" by STRAIGHT Inc. Two state investigations substantiated claims of abuse at Sembler's clinics. After years of negative press, the clinics closed and rebranded into the Drug Free America Foundation and its advocacy sister nonprofit, Save Our Society From Drugs, which helped bankroll the unsuccessful effort to block marijuana legalization in Colorado in 2012. This year, Sembler has donated $100,000 to the Drug Free Florida campaign while his two nonprofits continue to pump anti-marijuana messages into social media and major newspapers.
Corporations such as Publix Supermarkets and Cardinal Health now help finance Sembler's nonprofit. The Drug Free America Foundation has also received nearly half a million dollars in taxpayer grants from programs administered by the Department of Justice and Small Business Administration. Perhaps more surprising, despite the Sembler network’s history of alleged child abuse, is that law enforcement has stood strongly side by his side. Mel’s wife Betty was awarded “honorary agent status” by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and has led various anti-drug commissions and task forces on the state and federal level, according to her biography. The Drug Free America Foundation lists the Florida Police Chiefs Association, Office of Drug Control Policy, and Florida Sheriffs Association as partner organizations.
Will Florida still become the first state in the South to have a strong medical marijuana law despite the best efforts of these cranky, zany old people? The coalition of opponents of medical pot has saturated the television airwaves with negative advertising, but it doesn't seem to be working: The latest poll shows 88 percent of Floridians support medical marijuana.
Follow Lee Fang on Twitter.