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Mitt Romney's Big Drug Problem

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Given these harsh practices, Straight’s clinics were under the scrutiny of state licensing boards. However, at the time, Sembler’s political star was rising after he raised millions for the campaign of George H. W. Bush, who named Sembler’s Straight, Inc. one of his “thousand points of light” and rewarded his supporter with the ambassadorship to Italy. So, in 1989, when Florida Health Inspectors were inspecting a Straight facility, “the team received a phone call informing them that no matter what they found, Straight would receive their license,” recalled then-Acting Inspector General for the Florida Department of Health and Human Services Lowell Gary. Another inspector recalled a phone call in which he was told, “If you do anything other than what I tell you on this issue, I will fire you on the spot.” Clary suggested, “The pressure may have been generated by Ambassador Sembler and other state senators.”

A barrage of lawsuits and settlements ended up crushing Straight, Inc. in 1993, but Mel Sembler and his wife were untouched by the consequences. Many of those lawsuits were filed against Miller Newton, a figure emblematic of the Straight story. Newton, who held a PhD in public administration from an unaccredited institution, was chosen by the Semblers to be their national clinical director. He has had to pay out over $12 million in damages to his victims, who he has thrown against walls, held against their will, kidnapped, restrained in leg irons, forced into servitude, and otherwise abused. He started his own Straight spin-off named KIDS, but now calls himself “Friar Cassain,” a priest in a non-Catholic Antiochian Church. In a court case against Straight in 2005, Betty Sembler testified that Newton was “a very close and dear friend” and “absolutely not” responsible for “outrageous acts.” Other Straight spin-offs have included SAFE and Growing Together in Florida and Kids Helping Kids in Ohio.

In 1993, all the Straight clinics closed; its organizational structure became the Drug Free America Foundation (DFAF), which is still chaired by Betty Sembler. Newton continues to be involved with the DFAF. The DFAF main mission is to campaign against the decriminalization of any drug; against, in Betty Sempler’s words, “medical excuse marijuana”; and against harm-reduction policies, which DFAF says “emerged from a radical group of physicians trying to soften the public’s perception about drug use.” DFAF has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual grants from the Small Business Association to promote drug testing in the workplace.

DFAF has demanded that Showtime pull its hit show Weeds, attacked needle-exchange programs, blamed “chronic pot use” for Jared Laughner’s 2011 shooting of Gabriel Giffords in Arizona, and so on. The Bush family continues to shower the Semblers with accolades; Jeb Bush declared August 8, 2000, “Betty Sembler day” in Florida.

Such are the attitude and interests of some of Romney’s closest advisors on drug policy. These are people—including the candidate himself—who make money off of an absolutist notion of drug policy, and associate themselves with sadistic methods to beat the demons of drug use out of our nation’s youth. So when Ann Romney says, “At risk youth have been a concern of mine and a love of mine for many years,” what dark polices may lurk under her words? Vote Romney 2012 to find out.

Jed Bickman is a frequent contributor to The Fix. He also writes for The Nation, CounterPunch and other websites and magazines. Maia Szalavitz is a columnist at The Fix. She is also a health reporter at Time magazine online, and co-author, with Bruce Perry, of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered (Morrow, 2010). She broke the story of abuse of teens at rehabs nationwide in her book, Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead, 2006).

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