Metheds to His Madness
Ed McKie wants to create a safe space for gay recovering meth addicts in the Santa Ana Artists' Village. His efforts have gone . . . about how you'd expect
If you visit Metheds.org, all you'll see is a white page, black text and a brief explanation: "Metheds. A place about recovery and community. Opening soon in Santa Ana. For more information, contact Ed McKie."
But that's all Metheds is right now: an idea, some wishful thinking and a name.
Ed McKie sits, his legs neatly crossed, at one of the endearingly mismatched outdoor tables at the Gypsy Den Santora. The slender 50-year-old is wearing a navy print button-up shirt with sensible sneakers.
"My dream," McKie starts out slowly, "is to have a place where people know it is a safe and sober environment every day. Where they can be themselves without fear of being judged."
Metheds, short for Meth Education, would create a secure and accepting environment for recovering addicts—methamphetamine users and others—specifically from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
While it would offer such services as sober-living referrals and job-skill training, Metheds' main purpose would be to simply provide a place where people can hang out, have a cup of coffee, use computers, learn how to maneuver software programs, work on résumés and perhaps even ogle some artwork by local artists. After-hours, the center would ideally host Alcoholics Anonymous, Crystal Meth Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
Many recovering addicts are forced to shed their entire social universes. Many wind up in jail, but once released, have no support, income or sober friends. "If your spouse or your partner is still using, then you know what? Chances are, you're going to use again," McKie says. "If you hang around a barber shop long enough, you're going to get a haircut."
McKie speaks from experience: He has survived alcoholism, a suicide attempt, a heart attack, meth addiction—all the while thwarting the onset of AIDS and dealing with kidney stones and a subsequent Vicodin addiction. In that order.
He has taken his experiences, his background in Santa Ana politics, his familiarity with running a successful multimillion-dollar business, and his undying determination (stubbornness, even) and invested them all in opening this one place somewhere in the downtown Santa Ana Artists' Village he helped to create.
Metheds would be providing a desperately needed service to the community. But McKie has run into a few complicating factors: reluctant landlords; a reputation that precedes him; and a city, county and LGBT community that some say are in denial about the problem.
* * *
Meth hasn't earned the same pop-culture glam factor as some other drugs. Cocaine evokes the '80s, Studio 54, Kate Moss. Heroin? The '90s, Studio 54, Kate Moss.
But meth? Meth is some shirtless guy with a soul patch getting body-slammed to the dirt outside his trailer in Norco on an episode of COPS.
In 2002, McKie was about as far away from that image as can be imagined: a happy, accomplished, 44-year-old gay man. Born in Los Angeles and raised in Newhall—that's modern-day Valencia—McKie became a manager at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station after a brief stint with the Navy; he's called Orange County home ever since. McKie drove a BMW, lived on a yacht in Newport Harbor, co-owned a successful Orange-based business, the Steno Doctor, with his ex-partner David Paplham, and, thanks to his involvement in Santa Ana city politics, had even lunched with senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein.
One night, McKie met with a hook-up he had secured on the Internet. The man invited him to do a line of what McKie thought was cocaine. But as soon as the stuff hit his nose, he knew it was something different. He had just snorted crystal meth—a substance that would define his existence for four years.
"This drug isn't just about homeless people," McKie explains. I've partied with bankers. I've partied with vice presidents of companies. I've partied with rich people. I've partied with poor people."
In California, methamphetamine use has flourished. Orange County participants in a report done for the Orange County Meth Task Force reported lifetime methamphetamine use at twice the rate (7.8 percent) of statewide survey participants (4.3 percent). In fact, after alcohol and marijuana, meth was found to be the most widely used substance in Orange County. The Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring program found that the number of people arrested in the county who tested positive for meth increased by 46.3 percent from 2000 to 2003.
Sometime in the '90s, crystal meth intersected with gay culture, according to a study by the California Society of Addiction Medicine. Over the years, stories linking the strong connection between methamphetamines and the rise of new cases of STDs and HIV have appeared in everything from gay publications such as The Bladeto such mainstream newspapers as the Los Angeles Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Just four months ago, gay CNN International reporter Richard Quest was busted late at night in New York City's Central Park with meth in his pocket.
John Duran, former mayor of West Hollywood and current member of that city's council, has tackled the rampancy of meth in the gay community head-on. About two years ago, the former Laguna Beach and Santa Ana resident helped to change the image of the drug—which, in the gay community, was that of glamorous party fuel—in a city where, up to that point, more than half of the new HIV cases were related to crystal meth use. Through a series of crowded town-hall meetings and working together with law enforcement, elected officials, the Gay and Lesbian Center, and AIDS Project Los Angeles got programs started.
"We had to bring in the prominent party people in the scene on Sunset and Santa Monica [boulevards], and everybody had the same message: meth bad. Meth not cool," explains Duran. "There's still a meth problem in West Hollywood, but it's hideous now. They call [meth users] Gollum now—you know, that hideous creature, wasting away, making no sense in Lord of the Rings? We've changed the culture surrounding the drug."
* * *
Like many stimulants, meth lowers inhibitions, only to make you feel like you're on top of the world—you're the hottest, most social person in the room. Meth enhances sex and kicks libidos into overdrive.
"Because of the nature of the drug," McKie explains, "safe sex just isn't a reality. The use of condoms is just not there."
In fact, this is exactly what happened in McKie's case.
McKie was actually HIV-positive prior to his bout with meth, having contracted the virus in 1994. McKie's affair with meth started in 2002 and lasted for four years; he estimates that he had sex with something like 1,000 men in that time frame. He used a condom "maybe, maybe twice."
"That's just the mind-set you have when you're on this drug," McKie grimly explains.
McKie would look for his hook-ups in online chat rooms advertising PNP: Party and Play. They'd meet, get high, hook up and repeat. Sometimes for days and days.
During a quest for a hook-up, McKie came across an advertisement that simply read, "Meth" on one of the websites he caroused. The page introduced a documentary in progress by Todd Ahlberg on crystal meth and how it was ravaging the gay community. It asked visitors to leave a comment on a form. So McKie typed, "Be sure to check the back of your ticket stub before you get on this ride," and then pressed enter.
The note piqued Ahlberg's interest: He invited McKie to take part in his film, which was meant to be shown to the friends and family members of addicts.
In the 76-minute film, McKie is the only one who claims he has no regrets about meth.
"I don't want to quit. Because I enjoy all of the fun festivities it has to offer. This is a world where you take what mom and pop and the church tells us about sex, and you throw it out the window. And I like that window. I really do," a smug McKie explains in Meth. "I don't regret it. Deep down inside, I've got this little voice, and I think other people have it, too, and you can't shut that sucker up. You just can't shut him up no matter what you do—how many drugs you ingest, nothing. It's starting to raise some objection again. So do I want to quit? No, I don't. But I have to."
McKie's eyes shift and he bites his lip. "I have to."
The documentary, with its jump-cuts, quick edits and reverberating music, contrasts the ignorant McKie with a bevy of reluctant, sympathetic characters. McKie was the guy dressed all in black, one arm casually draped across the top of a couch and flashing a smirk of conceit. But by the time he attended Meth's debut screening in February 2006, McKie was living in the back of his stenography business and his BMW had been repossessed.
He walked out of that Santa Monica movie theater determined to get clean.
Not only has he stayed clean, but he's also dedicated his life to helping spread the word on the prevalence of the drug in not just the gay community, but the county as a whole.
Until recently, McKie had been a member of the Orange County Methamphetamine Task Force for two years; he served as secretary for the final nine months. The task force, started in 1999 to address the spread of clandestine meth labs in the county, is composed of about 20 representatives from state, federal and local agencies who meet monthly to exchange data: newly reported HIV cases, people on probation because of something they did related to meth, children affected by meth, and so on.
While McKie says these activities are helpful, he believes the task force is too focused on the criminality of meth. "[It] does not address the issues in the community head-on like many task forces in other counties do," McKie says. "Many of the [others] were started as community-based organizations by [people] who were affected in some way by meth and wanted to address the issue from a community perspective and not a law-enforcement perspective."
In February, a visit to the doctor revealed that McKie's blood pressure had skyrocketed and he was on the verge of a stroke or a heart attack. He stopped working at the stenography company; Paplham gave him a $25,000 donation and told him to go start that nonprofit he'd been thinking about.
On May 8, he resigned from the task force to focus his energy on filling that community-outreach void for the county's meth addicts. He knew he wanted to call it Metheds, and he knew where he wanted to put it.
* * *
The first time McKie visited what is now the Artists' Village, the brick-lined street now home to bohemian haunts such as the Gypsy Den, Grand Central Art Center, Space on Spurgeon, artists' lofts and Memphis, he was sitting in a squad car during a ride-along. He witnessed a woman stumble out from between the buildings where Space on Spurgeon now sits; she had been raped and beaten.
In 1995, Santa Ana was one of the most crime-ridden cities in America. McKie spearheaded a successful grassroots campaign to turn around the North Spurgeon Street neighborhood where he lived. That same year, some Santa Ana neighbors united with a program called Safe Streets Now! that simply and efficiently opened up the communication between residents, city officials, law enforcement and the landlords of troubled properties.
But instead of using what funds from the city that were available at the time toward getting rid of the crime element, residents proposed a different idea: a community of artists, with a smattering of eateries and coffee shops.
Cal State Fullerton took the first big step, purchasing the building that now houses Grand Central Art Center in 1998. Other landlords followed suit, buying what's known as the Santora Building, now home to the artists' lofts and Memphis.
Having watched this community—his community—come together over the years, McKie knew this would be the perfect home for Metheds.
"The Artists' Village has always been very near and dear to my heart," he explains. "I really see a way that Metheds and the arts can work together. There is such a tight community in the Artists' Village. Recovery is about community. And it's about being able to talk to your friends. And discussing life on life's terms. So you're not sitting at home feeling miserable, as they say, sitting on the pity pot. It's about getting yourself out of that mind-set that so many turn back to, the drugs and alcohol."
In April, McKie helped to host a screening of Methat Santa Ana College. There, he met Mitch Star.
Upon meeting, McKie and Star hit it off right away—both passionate and talkative about the community and the need for an LGBT-specific meth program in the county, something like Metheds, a project that McKie shared with attendees after the screening.
"The meth issue isn't so much a problem as it's an epidemic," Star says.
McKie's vision for Metheds struck a chord with Star, who has himself fallen through the cracks of the health-care system. In 2005, Star was drugged in a San Francisco bar, attacked and raped. Paramedics found him in the alley behind the bar the next morning. Doctors, knowing this, still failed to test him for HIV. It wasn't until two years later, when Star went into septic shock, that he discovered he was HIV-positive.
While he recovered, doctors told him he was not healthy enough to work. Yet he didn't qualify for any type of general assistance.
"Budget cuts, especially in California, are making life for people like me very difficult. Programs I rely on for help are being forced to deny service," Star explains. "Because of such cuts, I was told by a Social Security worker that I was 'not dying enough' to qualify."
Star, now 28, is heavily involved in local politics; he's the former campaign manager for Gary Pritchard's run for state senate, and he's currently the political director for the OC Young Democrats.
Shortly after the April screening, Star agreed to serve as community-outreach director for Metheds, and he and McKie began to view different properties in the downtown area.
McKie's original idea for Metheds was a coffee shop. He got the idea from the Orange County Re-Entry program his stenography business had participated in: Every morning, a probation officer would drop off a kid who had been in and out of jail since he was 9 years old. The kid would work, and the officer would return him to jail at 5 p.m. By the time he had served his jail sentence, he had a job offer from McKie, a letter of recommendation and—most important—something to put on his résumé.
Looking around the Artists' Village, McKie had seen the same name on many of the buildings up for lease: Gil Marrero. McKie and Marrero had actually sat on the task force for downtown development years ago. McKie made the call, and the two got together in early March to discuss Metheds over lunch at Pangea.
McKie explained what he wanted: a place where people could come in and work on computers or résumés, a place to host meetings after-hours, but also a place that sold coffee to help offset the cost of rent. He expressed his interest in the empty space Barack Obama's campaign headquarters had once occupied on Broadway; McKie says Marrero suggested an old space across the street from the Ronald Reagan Courthouse instead, where a coffee shop called Katella Café once stood. The property had been vacant for about nine months.
Just a few days later, McKie put in all the formal paperwork to request the space. He believed everything was a go, but suddenly, things blew up. When asked what happened, McKie says, "That was a gray area. I never really did get a direct answer."
Marrero represents MJW Investments, a Los Angeles-based company. Neither Marrero nor MJW Investments returned phone calls or e-mails from the Weekly seeking comment for this story.
Undeterred, McKie turned his attention back to the empty space that he originally sought, which is also owned by MJW. He was told he couldn't have it because Juice It Up! had leased it.
"Ten years ago, when I left Santa Ana, the Artists' Village wasn't about Juice it Up! and Subway and Starbucks," McKie laments. "It was about community and mom and pop and being a village."
McKie then asked Marrero for the unoccupied space next to it; according to McKie, the two sat down, McKie filled out the paperwork again, presented his financials and written proposal, and once again was turned down. McKie says another MJW representative told him they wanted anchor stores in the location—stores like the adjacent hipster beacon American Apparel.
At this point, McKie turned his attention away from serving coffee and thought about opening a gallery amid the other galleries in the Artists' Village. He would throw his own works—he's an amateur photographer—on the wall as well as pieces by artists in the Santora building or the lofts.
"I'd put up their business cards, so that people could walk by, see that we're open, drop in and, if they wanted to find out more about the artists, here's their business card! Here's their cell phone number! And you know what?" McKie drolly asks. "They're actually right across the street!"
The gallery, like the coffeehouse before it, wouldn't have signs announcing Metheds and who exactly was working within its walls. The sign would simply read MLii, an acronym for Metheds Life Improvement Institute.
He set his sights on an empty two-story studio with gorgeous hardwood floors next to Proof inside the Santora building. McKie knew the space had been available for months, so he called Rod Gonzales, the property manager for the building. McKie claims Gonzales was interested in his idea of an art studio, agreeing to meet right away with leasing papers. And again, it was when McKie explained that the people who were going to be working in the art studio were people in recovery that the conversation stopped.
McKie asked if AA, NA and CMA meetings could be held there; Gonzales said no, according to McKie. While McKie later found out that zoning laws wouldn't allow such meetings, he proposed to have the space to simply house a studio to give some employment assistance and opportunities to people in recovery.
McKie was in a rush to get things started before June 30, the end of his stenography business' fiscal year, but he didn't hear from Gonzales for a few days. When McKie finally did get ahold of him, he says, he was told his application wasn't going to work out because of the proposed place's proximity to Proof, a bar.
"That's like telling me I shouldn't go to AM/PM to buy my gas because they sell beer right there!" says McKie. "I could slip just by walking in? I don't know if he thought I was going to be carrying banners that alcohol is bad or what his reasoning was, but it was just a no."
It was then that McKie recognized the name of the company on Gonzales' business card: Caribou Industries, which is owned by Mike Harrah, the Harley-riding developer whose signature project is the still-unbuilt One Broadway Plaza, a 37-story office tower. At one point some 10 years back, McKie and Harrah were the only ones standing up in a very crowded room of opponents, wanting to get the Artists' Village started. So, McKie left Harrah a voice mail, hoping their shared goals in the past and his earnest intentions would strike a chord. McKie has yet to hear from Harrah.
Calls to Caribou Industries for this story were not returned.
"Mike and Gil's idea of the Artists' Village—I don't see anything good coming out of this. But I'm not going to let Mike Harrah hold me back. I'm not going to let Gil Marrero hold me back," McKie promises.
McKie notes that his stenography business—and his ex-partner—would have been the actual tenant.
"Not me myself," McKie explains, "but a company that is 16 years old and has proven itself. That's the company that's going to be leasing this building. I don't expect any property owner to say, 'Ed, I realize your nonprofit is, like, a month old and you're an ex-addict and that we should really trust you to sign a three-year lease.' I know that's not going to happen."
Even so, Star and McKie looked at seven properties over a period of four months, with each property's denial process taking up to three weeks at a time.
"We couldn't get a space in downtown Santa Ana because none of them wanted to deal with people in recovery," Star says about property owners.
"It was just a real punch in the stomach," McKie says now, "thinking I came home to my community and friends."
* * *
But while the current tenants at the Artists' Village are always receptive to the idea of new businesses coming to the area, some of them can also testify to how hard it is simply to beartists.
"Right now," says Andrea Harris, director of Grand Central Art Center, "it's just really, really tough for anybody to open a gallery here. It's a great and beautiful life to be around art and artists, but there isn't money in it. We're doing simple after-school programs for high-school kids, and we can't even get those approved. These kids have no criminal records or anything—I just can't imagine the struggles [McKie is] having."
Conceived in 1994, Grand Central Art Center is the result of a partnership between the city of Santa Ana and Cal State Fullerton. The three-level structure sprawls over three city blocks that contain student apartments, galleries, classrooms, a computer lab, studios and more.
"[McKie's] effort to create a nonprofit is a great thing to do. Helping people is really what our lives are about in the end," Harris says. "He wants to make a difference, start a café—something—to help lives. He just needs to find the right thing."
A gallery owner in the area, who asked to remain anonymous, has another concern: cigarette smoke.
"Addictive people trade off their addictions," she says. "And when I pass by places where they had AA meetings, people would come out and start smoking—I mean, it's a hugeamount of smoking. If one person in the Santora, even outside on the sidewalk, smokes, it comes into the gallery. And that's one person," she complains.
The gallery owner also doesn't think art is the best vocational choice for McKie's venture. "We're pushing up daisies. We're not selling. And if we're not selling, and the Santora has been an art group for 13, 14 years . . . We've lost some really good artists that have names. If we're not doing it, I don't see how [McKie's proposed gallery] is going to work. And that's going to add to the frustration."
But it's not just hesitant landlords; it's the city and county, as well.
"I make my living in politics, so I deal with officials on a daily basis. Very few [officials] are actually aware of what's going on," Star says. "The only person wanting to attack the problem is Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez. We talked about drug use and AIDS, and she's the only elected official that's willing to go out of her way to do something about it."
When contacted by the Weekly about her thoughts on Metheds, Sanchez's office released the following statement: "Although Congresswoman Sanchez has not discussed the specifics of the proposed program for recovering LGBT meth addicts with Mitch Star, she understands the growing meth addiction epidemic, particularly among young adults ages 18 to 25, and supports drug treatment centers/programs for recovering meth addicts. In 2008, Congresswoman Sanchez secured $188,000 for the Phoenix Academy of Orange County Drug Treatment Program."
Sanchez's concern is an anomaly, Star says. "The OC Board of Supervisors doesn't even know what's going on. [Assemblywoman] Mimi Walters looked at me like I was a piece of trash when I approached her at a community event about AIDS and drugs in Orange County.
"Our public officials have no idea," Star continues. "There's no reason to. There's no public outcry. Offices aren't being slammed with letters and e-mails and correspondence."
Star points out that neither of the two major LGBT nonprofit organizations within Orange County, the Center OC and AIDS Services Foundation, offers its own programs for meth treatment.
But Ginger Hahn, executive director for the Center OC, insists, "The Center OC is very interested in the prevention of meth use among youth as well as raising awareness in the community about the epidemic—that's where we believe we make the most impact. At this point, we are not involved in treatment or recovery services—we intend to stay focused on prevention. We have just presented a proposal to fund a youth-driven methamphetamine prevention project to a foundation for consideration."
The Center will guide you to meth-related resources—including referrals to Crystal Meth Anonymous, which meets every Sunday—but when the Weekly called the Center recently asking about meth, a courteous man suggested calling Ed McKie.
But the numbers are there. The same Orange County Methamphetamine Needs Assessment produced for the OC Methamphetamine Task Force reports that in 2006, within Orange County, the highest rates of methamphetamine are in Santa Ana. At 55.4 percent, more than half of treatment admissions were the result of methamphetamine use. And nearly half of all lab seizures in Orange County from 2001 to 2005 were in Anaheim and Santa Ana.
Even the state of California has acknowledged the issue: Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger gave $11 million to the Me Not Meth campaign, aimed at the gay community and now splashed all over billboards and the sides of buses in Los Angeles and Long Beach. But not in Orange County.
The dearth of meth-related programs here comes as no surprise to West Hollywood City Councilman John Duran. "I did 10 years behind the Orange Curtain," he says, with a laugh. "That's what I tell people: I did time in Orange County."
* * *
McKie is taking a break. He's back at his stenography business, waiting for the IRS to process his 501(c)(3) application for Metheds. He says he's going to rest for maybe a month.
McKie only recently recovered from pneumocystis pneumonia—a type of pneumonia that really clobbers people with immune-system deficiencies—but that didn't stop him from marching a four-mile parade route in the sun at LA's Gay Pride festival with Me Not Meth. He says people were shouting from the sidelines how long they had been sober.
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Meth is a dirty topic, one that's embarrassing for many addicts to address publicly. McKie and others acknowledge that some of the most vocal opponents of the whole idea of Metheds are members of the gay community, people who accuse him of airing their dirty laundry.
But with success stories like that of West Hollywood and state-sponsored campaigns like Me Not Meth as examples of what is possible, McKie's remains determined to pull back the Orange Curtain just wide enough for Metheds.
"I'm finally getting back on my feet—I do not do hospitals well. But I proved once again that the human body can endure many illnesses provided one does not just give up. Besides," he adds, smiling, "I do not have the money it takes to lounge around in a hospital room for weeks."