TAMPA — Mel Sembler, a St. Petersburg developer, anti-drug activist and high-level Republican donor and fundraiser, is backing a campaign committee set up to oppose the medical marijuana initiative set for the Florida ballot in November.
Sembler kicked off the Drug Free Florida committee with a $100,000 donation, and said he’s willing to provide further financial help. “If they do good work,” he said, “I’ll want to be supportive of their efforts.”
The chairman is Carlton Turner of St. Petersburg, former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan for drug abuse policy — a position that made him precursor to the federal “drug czars.”
“We’re still putting the pieces together, but we plan to go out aggressively after the con job that’s being perpetuated on the people of Florida,” Turner said. “There are fundraising efforts underway right now, and we will put together a comprehensive effort.”
Turner said the committee has a target in mind for fundraising, but didn’t want to say how much.
Sembler, a shopping center developer who has served as national fundraising head for the Republican Party and has been a top backer of the state Republican Party and candidates, was appointed ambassador to Australia under President George H.W. Bush and to Italy under President George W. Bush.
Adding more potential fundraising clout, the committee’s treasurer and deputy treasurer are Robert and Nancy Watkins of Tampa, accountants and high-level GOP fundraisers.
The formation of the committee sets the stage for a potentially high-profile electioneering battle over the amendment, which would legalize use of marijuana for registered users who have a recommendation from a physician.
Polling has shown large majorities of 70 percent or more in favor of the amendment. It will require a 60 percent vote to pass, and proponents forecast a tightening race.
Opponents, including Turner, portray the amendment as an attempt to legalize marijuana for all uses.
“It’s not about medicine, it’s about legalization of drugs, and marijuana is their choice to start,” Turner said Tuesday.
He blamed liberal billionaire George Soros for what he said is a national attempt to legalize drugs.
“All this started with George Soros,” Turner said. “He’s been funding this drug policy group for many years. His goal is a one-world, open society and he thinks all drugs ought to be legal.”
Florida sponsors of the measure include lawyer John Morgan of Orlando. Asked what he thinks they hope to gain from passage, Turner said, “I can’t get inside somebody else’s mind as to how they expect to benefit.”
The sponsors say their motives are targeted and clear.
“We continue to be opposed by organizations who wrongly try to conflate our very narrow medical marijuana amendment with broadly legalizing marijuana,” said Ben Pollara, manager of the People United for Medical Marijuana committee, which backs the amendment.
So far, with the help of Morgan, a wealthy philanthropist and political donor who heads the Morgan & Morgan “for the people” law firm, the pro-amendment group is far ahead in fundraising. It has raised about $5 million in cash and loans, including about $4 million from Morgan.
Pollara said the organization is expanding its donor base and will pass a milestone of 3,000 donors on its April fundraising report.