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Weed, Blood, and Money - July 2019


In 1974 or thereabouts, Betty Sembler (allegedly) caught her teenage son smoking a little cannabis. Shocked and horrified, Betty and her husband Melvin enrolled their wayward son in a nearby drug rehabilitation facility called the Seed. Presumably any self-respecting parents named Melvin and Betty would have done the same. But in December of that year, the US Senate Judiciary Committee released a scathing report on the Seed, a report containing phrases like “subjecting the individual to isolation and humiliation in a conscious effort to break down psychological defenses”, “similar to the highly refined “brainwashing” techniques employed by the North Koreans”, and “mush”. In a shrewd business decision, the Seed folded and cleared out of town immediately, stranding dozens of children and young adults mid-torture.


Apparently unperturbed, or just still furious with their son, Mel and Betty stepped into the smoking crater to found Straight, Incorporated (now re-branded as the Drug Free America Foundation) in 1976. Mr. Sembler would soon become an influential Republican fund-raiser, policy-maker, and something of a celebrity to the War on Drugs crowd that dominated American politics from the 1980s to the 2000s. When you google Mr. Sembler’s name, an impressive CV fills the first page. Wikipedia leads with his former tenures as United States Ambassador to Australia and Nauru and also to Italy. The Sembler Company, which he founded in 1962 and still serves as Chairman emeritus, lauds him as a “legendary real estate developer”. The Tampa Bay Times credits him with helping to build the modern GOP. Drug Free America speaks reverently of “the Honorable [sic] Mel Sembler” on its Founding Members page.

Page 2 of his search results, presumably un-scrubbed, tells other stories. On the first of an impressive list of hits from thestraights.net, He and his wife Betty are called “profound embarrassments” in connection to his Ambassadorship to Italy. An article at CreativeLoafing.com titled “Metropolis: the penis pump, torturing kids and an Italian palace” would seem to agree. An Independent article titled “I was caged, beaten and warehoused by Republicans at a ‘concentration camp for throwaway teens’ in the 1980s” paints an even darker picture. And the real shitshow starts on Page 3.

There may be no better or more thorough source of information on the Semblers than thestraights.net, a web 1.0 masterpiece and towering shrine to the grotesque enterprise that was Straight, Inc. The site is a herculean labor of love by the father of a Straight Inc. survivor, made to support and give voice to other survivors and their families. Mr. Wesley Fager was truly dedicated to digging into all of the dirt around Straight, Inc. and the Semblers themselves, and then rolling around in it with the pure joy of a golden retriever on a dead raccoon. And good golly there is a lot of stink to be found. I can’t put it any better than Mr. Fager did himself, so why try:

“Straight is about child abuse. It is about child abuse on a grand scale. It is about depriving American kids of food and sleep; of beating them and painfully restraining them without cause. It’s about making kids discuss their deepest, darkest sexual fantasies and activities in front of other kids; about making kids soil their pants; about watching kids while they defecate to make sure Straight hasn’t made them so depressed they will commit suicide. It is about spitting in a child’s face. Straight is about cajoling or scaring a kid into admitting to drug use or sexual activity he hasn’t actually engaged in to frighten parents into paying; it is about showing parents pictures of dead kids in morgues to scare parents further into submission. It is about paying politicians to say nice things about Straight.”


If you truly believe that sounds better than your kid smoking an occasional joint in the woods behind the garage, then I know exactly what you’re thinking next, Mr. & Mrs. Suburban Bourgeoisie. “We all” know who REALLY does the drugs around here, and they are BAD. It’s not our poor lost little lambs, our Codys and Pattys and Stevens, who are of course GOOD. Will MY lily-white children of wealth be… *ahem* “safe” in this torture program? Well worry no more, because this wonderful program was whites only. YAAAAY.

In fact, Straight often used Federal tax money to market their program exclusively to white, wealthy parents. But any good (Post-Nixon, Pre-Trump) Republican knows what you can’t just call your racism what it is, and certainly Straight, Inc. about to cooperate with any outsiders looking into their business practices. So a court deposition from one of the many, many, cases brought against Straight over the years makes for an instructive indicator. In 1983, in majority-black Washington D.C., Straight’s director admitted that out of 156 enrollees at their local facility, only 4 were black, and “3-4” hispanic. That’s about 3% black, in a city that was 70% black. Straight even got their dog whistles out for some bragging in promotional brochures: “The average client comes from a middle-class suburban home (60 percent of the families have incomes over $40,000) and has an above-average IQ”. It’s an empirical truth that only white morons brag about their IQ score. But none of this is surprising. The anti-drug movement was founded and is still deeply rooted in racism.

So how does a man most famous for a breath-takingly sleazy and racist child abuse scheme become “His Excellency The Honorable Melvin Floyd Sembler Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Italy, former Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Australia, former Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Nauru, the Order of Australia, Boy Scouts Distinguished Citizens Award, National Conference of Christians and Jews Honoree [...] ”, &c., &c.? He might as well be the fucking Queen of England. But Mr. Sembler was also a real-estate developer in St. Petersburg, Florida, and when you type that phrase into your iPhone it gets auto-corrected into an emoji of a big red flag. Folks, you already know it’s about the money. This is the moral and intellectual poverty at the core of the anti-drug “movement”.

But now, some jokes. About fictional people, coincidentally also named Melvin & Betty Sembler;

Mel Sembler was born a long time ago in a galaxy far, far, away, 9 months after Emperor Palpatine made love to Jabba’s butt.

Melvin Sembler? More like Garry Oldman Dracula Re-Sembler.

Sorry, Betty, Viagra is a drug.

In fact, Mel hasn’t had a solid erection since Straight closed in 1993, which is coincidentally the last day that Betty made a solid poopie.

Gary Spivey called and he wants Betty Sembler’s wig back.

Mel is a girl’s name.

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