Medical Marijuana Backers Blast Florida Developer Trying to Defeat Plan

Public polls show wide support for Florida's latest medical pot push, but a GOP fundraising developer has vowed to defeat it.
Public polls show wide support for Florida's latest medical pot push, but a GOP fundraising developer has vowed to defeat it.

Everyone knows who defeated medical marijuana in Florida two years ago: casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who single-handedly pumped in millions to pay for scare ads that helped barely keep the amendment below 60 percent approval. But few remember that it was a St. Petersburg-based developer who created the anti-pot group that took Adelson's money. 

Now that developer — GOP fundraiser Mel Sembler — is vowing to defeat the new medical marijuana initiative that'll be on this fall's ballot. Sembler has promised to raise at least $10 million to beat the proposal.

Pot backers hit back hard at Mel today, calling him "Mel the Moocher" for funding his last campaign with Adelson's cash and questioning why he's again fighting a plan that reliably polls near 70 percent statewide.

"It’s easy to talk a big game when you’re spending your rich Uncle Shelly’s money, I guess," John Morgan, the personal injury attorney funding the medical marijuana push, writes in an email to supporters. "If there is one thing in the world I can’t stand, it’s bullies. I’ve made my living beating up bullies. Mel the Moocher is a bully. "

Sembler is a shopping-center magnate and longtime GOP stalwart. The first President Bush appointed him ambassador to Australia in 1989, and Dubya made him ambassador to Italy in 2001. He also long positioned himself as an antidrug guru. From 1976 to 1993, he ran a group called STRAIGHT Inc.,  which operated drug rehab centers for teens. As the Nation recounts, those clinics were forced to close after a string of claims that teens had been "tortured," raped, and psychologically abused there.  

Sembler then founded a group called Drug Free America, which has bankrolled anti-medical marijuana initiatives nationwide. He's adamant that Florida's latest effort to legalize the drug for cancer patients and others with serious illnesses would be catastrophic. 

“We’re trying to save lives and people’s brains,” he told the Tampa Bay Times last week. “It’s not a medicine.”

It's not clear, though, where Sembler expects to raise the $10 million to fight the pot initiative this year. In 2014, Adelson pumped in the vast majority of the $7.5 million that Sembler's group spent against the plan, which still nabbed 58 percent approval at the polls.

It's entirely possible that Adelson could again play sugar daddy. The casino magnate, by most accounts, cared little about the issue of medical pot in Florida; instead, he gave the millions as a favor to Sembler, who is an old friend.  

Morgan is trying to paint that relationship as unseemly by pointing out he's personally funding the pro-medical marijuana campaign. 

"I put my money where my mouth is. I made a commitment to see compassion come to Florida in the form of medical marijuana, and I’ve put over $7 million of my own money towards fulfilling that commitment," Morgan writes to supporters.  

The attorney spent yesterday swinging at Sembler on Twitter and challenging him to a mano a mano campaign. 

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