Why OC Must Lose the 'War' On Sober-Living Homes

This is your county on drugs.
This is your county on drugs.
Jeff Drew

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time in the evening. But here you are, and you cannot say that the neighborhood is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy, like your memory when you try to distinguish every goddamn identical-looking neighborhood in South Orange County. Yes, you are in the kitchen of a Mediterranean stucco-sculpted wet dream, talking to a girl with a shaved head and enough metal in her face to fill a tackle box. You are in either San Clemente or Dana Point or some fucking place down in Almost San Diego. All might come clear if you could just detox and shoot more Afghan Ambien. Then again, it might not. A small voice inside you insists that this epidemic lack of clarity is a result of too much of that already. The day has turned on that imperceptible pivot where 5 p.m. changes to 8 p.m. You know this moment has come and gone, but you are not yet willing to concede that you have crossed the line beyond which all is gratuitous damage and . . . and . . .

When you don't have the actual words to describe how you feel, bastardize Jay McInerney's. All addicts steal, am I right, Orange County? Besides, J-Mac fits as you're stirring inside this white, two-story house on the corner of a quiet street. Sure, on the outside, the paint on the walls and trim is not cracking, the front lawn is mowed and well watered. No, it's not the house that's fucked up, it's you and your five roommates who are. Or at least we were until very recently. Total strangers before we arrived, we now gather nightly in the back yard to talk and smoke and think about anything other than the Rally Monkey on our backs. The only thing missing from our previous lives is the repeated sound of beer bottles clanging as they hit the metal trash can bottom. And the contents of daddy's medicine cabinet in our real home.

We'll repeat this drug-free evening Kumbaya ritual for a few weeks, before an entirely different cast of addicts replaces us. Yes, this is but one of those sober-living homes that have sprung up along the Orange Coast like sage scrub. The hundreds or thousands of them (depending on who is doing the counting) extend from San Clemente up the coast to Huntington Beach and inland from Aliso Viejo to Garden Grove. Welcome to the so-called "Riviera of Rehab."

These homes are all the rage—if by all the rage you mean otherwise-decent folk rage against them. And us. And me.[1] They fret about keeping up the look and property values of their upscale neighborhoods. And don't forget the children, we must protect the precious children. But we are their sons and daughters, their brothers and sisters. For about a decade, the same region raging against sober living homes has been gripped by what one mom mourning the loss of her addict son calls the "Orange County O.D. tsunami."

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You know what her boy needed more than anything? Detox and a stay in a sober-living home. What's that, Orange County? Not in my back yard? That's exactly where we were before landing in these Mediterranean stucco-sculpted wet dreams.

[1] By "me," I don't mean to imply that I, Matt Coker, am an addict—it's new journalism, folks.

*     *     *     *     *

Gathering of the NIMBYs at the Laguna Hills Community Center
Gathering of the NIMBYs at the Laguna Hills Community Center
City of Laguna Hills

One evening last May, after a day dealing with a major headache and nausea, I was feeling jumpy. I needed a walk. I wandered around until I found myself in Laguna Hills, noticed a bunch of busybodies heading into the Community Center and went inside to see what all the holler was about. Fer fuck's sake, the subject was me.[2]

That is, 600 people crammed in to complain about Orange County's latest bogeyman: the people who reside in sober-living homes. We smoke, talk loudly, down Red Bulls all night and litter sidewalks with ciggy butts, condom wrappers and spent needles. (Jesus Christ, I've been living in the wrong sober-living home!)

Listening with much patience from a long table on a stage in front of the frothing crowd were three Orange County-based state legislators, each with faces awash in concern.

"This is a major issue in our area," harrumph-harrumphed Assemblyman William Brough (R-Dana Point), who noted with disgust that the state legislature has been dealing unsuccessfully with residential rehabs for 30 years. Another Republican, Laguna Niguel-based state Senator Patricia Bates, mentioned this was the fourth town hall on sober-living homes she and her staff had participated in over the past year. Assemblyman Matthew Harper, GOP of Huntington Beach, noted it's small wonder nothing gets done about shutting these homes down when the legislature and governor's office are solidly Democratic (i.e., dope-smoking, coke-snorting, pill-popping degenerate Communists). The former school board member did acknowledge OC has been gripped by a drug epidemic for years, but he wondered why some of these damn residential rehabs have to be next to elementary schools. Imagine that: A developer put homes next to a school!

Each legislator boasted of sponsoring, co-sponsoring or supporting bills aimed at regulating sober-living homes. Next up were attorneys who have been helping cities go after the "bad actors" who own and operate the places generating the most neighborhood complaints. I won't bore you with the history lesson on how we got to where we are today, when most sober-living home laws die in the legislature, as it really boils down to this: Drug and alcohol addiction is considered a disease of the brain, and people being treated for diseases have many, many rights under the U.S. Constitution; the California Constitution; and various federal, state and county laws. So good luck regulating patients' temporary homes.

One audience member asked why not prohibit smoking at sober-living homes, under the theory that second-hand smoke from them harms children. The question came after San Clemente resident David Hurwitz gave a presentation about the sober living home in his upscale Talega tract that "changed the character of the neighborhood." Fourteen people packed into a four-bedroom home fill the street with cigarette smoke, complained Hurwitz, who organized the opposition that went on to hire an expert to measure the amount of nicotine sticking to windows next door to the sober living home.

The helpful lawyers at the town hall answered that you cannot regulate smoking only at sober-living homes because patients receiving care cannot be singled out or discriminated against. Any new laws would have to apply to all homes in a jurisdiction. Meanwhile, as sympathetic as the Orange County legislators were to the gathered residents, the idea of being a conservative Republican championing the making of a smoke-free city—on public as well as private property—was too hard to swallow. The whole idea of regulating private property and impeding small businesses already puts these GOP stalwarts on unfamiliar ground. "I'm a pretty small government conservative legislator," Harper said at one point, "but I recognize there is significant externalities here where there is justification for increased regulation." I believe he then threw up a little bit in his mouth.

*     *     *     *     *

Going to the meeting was a mistake. It only compounded the depression I suffer from because of my addiction. So I left early for one of the few South County libraries still open at night. I did some reading and discovered, sure enough, sober-living home operators are not the only ones making killings off Orange County's opiate epidemic. So are the lawyers crafting new laws and regulations in Reagan Country.

Newport Beach established an ordinance in 2008 regulating sober-living homes, but three operators sued. The city settled those suits in October 2015 by doling out $5.25 million to the companies. Further, the suit established that Newport Beach has a history of cracking down on sick people, and by state law, such a precedent makes it nearly impossible for the city to craft any new regulations narrowly focused against them. That was one of the first points raised by the attorneys at the town hall.

One of two homes named in the Dana Point lawsuit
One of two homes named in the Dana Point lawsuit
OC Weekly

In Costa Mesa, the city passed a law in 2014 limiting where and how sober-living homes can operate. A legal challenge by Solid Landings Behavioral Health led to a settlement where the company agreed to close 33 sober-living homes in the city. Orange County city officials cite this as a rare win in the battle to regulate. Dana Point has sued two Capistrano Beach sober-living houses affiliated with two treatment centers, contending that their operations violate state law and the city's zoning code. The homeowners say the city's lawsuit is baseless. San Clemente this year repealed a moratorium on sober-living and drug/alcohol treatment residences, not because the regulation was baseless but because the city council passed subsequent ordinances that made the moratorium moot. All temporary living establishments, including sober-living homes, must now secure boarding-house permits and be located more than 300 feet away from each other. The city also upped the fines against repeat nuisance offenders, a regulation that must be applied to all, not just sober-living operators.

Perhaps it is the drug-induced paranoia talking but based on the tone and the turnout of the town hall, I don't think these cities and others are done targeting sober-living homes. I think back to the two times during the confab that Brough received raucous applause for saying he does not understand why people are trying to stay sober in residential neighborhoods in the first place, that his idea of treatment is you go off to a hospital or commercial space to kick drugs and alcohol.

He obviously has not been paying attention to what's been going on in the insurance industry, which I discovered via the computer in the library is his fourth biggest contributor behind tribal government, real estate and, by far the largest, "uncoded." If you were to add contributions to Brough from hospitals and nursing homes, pharmaceuticals and health products and health services to his insurance industry take, that super-sector would move up to second place.

Why is what insurers are doing lately significant? Because scientists say you need 90 days to recover from addiction. Some rehab operators will tell you it can be 120 days or more depending on the patient's level of denial. But at least three months is more than what insurance companies have beaten into our heads for decades: 28 days in a medical rehab. With Obamacare mandating that millions of previously uninsured Americans must be covered, and the number of addicts hooked on opiates increasing, the industry now says give 'em two days of detox and the rest of the month in a sober-living setting. That's what they are willing to cover. Cue the explosion of unlicensed sober-living homes.

I know: paranoid.

[2] Not really me, Matt Coker, but me, my addict alter-ego.

*     *     *     *     *

Taite
Taite
Cliffside Malibu

Brough said something else twice during the town hall: Cliffside Malibu is the "model" for drug treatment. So after heading back to my temporary home I tore through my backpack to find the business card for Richard Taite, a successful businessman who bought a house in Malibu to retire in but, after kicking a crack cocaine addiction, decided instead to "give something back" by turning it into a rehab. Everyone from Lindsay Lohan to Orange County billionaire Henry Nicholas has been treated at Cliffside.

After getting this "model" maker on the horn, I found out Taite is no fan of regulating sober-living homes along the "Riviera of Rehab." He concedes a small percentage of "bad actors" are creating nuisances, but he finds the entire debate misguided. Operators trying to get people well should not be the target, it should be the insurance industry and, especially, the pharmaceutical companies that are getting people sick.

"What we've got right now is the worst epidemic we've ever had, and it's getting worse," he says into the phone. "With opiates, every 19 minutes there is an overdose death. What that really means is the problem is so bad, literally only 10 percent of the people who need treatment are getting help.

"During an epidemic that is getting worse, not better, significant changes are coming down the pike. What a select group of five affluent communities want to do throughout the coast, including Newport Beach, Malibu and others with wealthy constituents, is put pressure on their representatives to craft legislation that is basically NIMBY. That's fine, I get that, everyone wants treatment facilities somewhere not in their back yards. We're only talking about less than one percent of the population. But the effect is, in the entirety of California, 2.5 million people suffer from prescription drug abuse, alcoholism and illicit drug use. These are the people who will be injured if these laws pass. It is a war on treatment."

The father of the finest addiction rehabilitation facility in the country, and arguably the world, is not worried about legislation affecting his bottom line. Cliffside Malibu operates under a state license and has been around long enough that it would be grandfathered in by any new law. If other sobriety homes disappeared, it would help his business because "over time, Cliffside would be the only game in town. It actually makes us more valuable in the market space."

So why oppose regulation?

"Because sobriety gave me a life," Taite says. "I'm going to be 50 in a couple months. I have a 3-year-old son and a daughter who is 6 and a half, but if I were not a sober guy, I wouldn't have any of this. I look at the sober community as my people. It's important that we take care of each other in this community, it really is. We only have each other. To go ahead and pose onerous restrictions to protect a select few affluent people and punish everyone in central Los Angeles, Riverside and the totality of the state seems selfish to me."

*     *     *     *     *

My head was jumbled before I got sober.[3] It is again thanks to being overloaded with so much information and conflicting opinions. It makes me question reality. Are we really embroiled in a war on treatment? Maybe some nice folks are not opposed to people getting well in their neighborhoods but upset that there are just so many of these sober-living places in their particular communities.

"What you're referring to is a legitimate concern, I hear you, and you're talking about over-concentration in one place," Taite says when I ask him about it. "If that's a concern, you have to be mindful of how you're going to implement a policy that doesn't create a crisis within California. Singling out treatment facilities would never pass and, even if it did, it would never stand up to litigation."

 

Basically, if you have a sober-living home with six beds, you are protected by law and must be treated the same as any other home in a neighborhood. Any more beds than that and you need a state license and, depending on the municipality, probably a conditional use permit. Taite says there is legislation winding its way through Sacramento that would allow state and local regulation of six-bed homes if the same owner or leasee has similar residences in other cities, even on opposite ends of the state, as all the beds would be counted together.

"The way they are going about it is so overreaching it's not an acceptable practice," Taite complains. "The reason they did it is their intention is to allow municipalities to literally determine who and what they want in their community, to give them all the power. It literally gives local governments the teeth to discriminate against treatment centers."

That would make a really, really, really bad problem worse, he fears.

"If it happens, it will cause a huge epidemic throughout the population of the state. It's already bad, because only 10 percent of the people who need help are getting it."

Taite finds it ironic that homes where addicts are getting sober are the focus of regulation in the first place when, in many of the exact same neighborhoods there are people in non-sober-living houses being much bigger nuisances.

"You can go into all these communities and find shooting galleries and crack houses and all types of illegal drug activity going on, and instead of cracking down on those types of behavior, which is inherently unsafe to the community, they are making the solution, treatment, the focus of a problem," he says. "That really is outrageous to me. It's the polar opposite of how we should be behaving as Californians. It's not a very evolved or mindful approach to this problem."

I know from some former buddies in meth that there are many Orange Countians unaware that there are sober-living homes in their neighborhoods because they are so skilled at staying on the down low. Taite puts a number to places—99 percent—meaning it's one in 100 generating complaints. Yet cities are talking about laws that apply to all.

"I think cities are using bad actors to make life difficult for treatment centers with good reputations, that are actually serving the communities and solving a social problem," he says.

As for those 1 percenters, Taite concedes he does not know what the legislative remedy is for them, "but I do know the solution to the epidemic."

Then he says something that blows my mushy mind: "Really, if we get a handle on it, there is no need for regulations because there will be no market for treatment."

But that would put Cliffside out of business!

"From your mouth to God's ears."

[3] Just to be clear, although the narrator is sober, I, Matt Coker, am not, as I still enjoy the occasional ale and/or spirit.

*     *     *     *     *

Taite and I chatted for a bit on his recent Real Time With Bill Maher appearance, which helped promote Prescription Thugs, a documentary in which he and Cliffside Malibu are featured.

"Back in the early '80s, late '70s, people who ran pharmaceutical companies were different than they are today," Taite tells me. "They were typically scientists who did things for the public welfare, for the public good. When Reagan was president, it was the first time a bill was signed into law that allowed pharmaceutical companies to advertise their products on television. The scientists then got pushed out, and the CEOs with MBAs came in and took their place, and they essentially monetized these companies that had worked for the benefit of the populace. Where before the scientists were taking 10 to 20 percent profit and doing good work, these people who are sharks that need to make money, quarter over quarter, year over year, because they have shareholders to answer to, replaced them. That culture changed, and we had the commercialization of all these prescriptions, all these medications.

"Here's the thing: You may have seen a commercial for restless leg syndrome, but have you ever seen a commercial for a prescription opiate? Never, and you never will, because those drugs sell themselves."

When it comes to regulations, those companies have fought like hell to avoid anything that will keep opiates out of the hands of addicts, Taite maintains.

"We are a depressive society. I don't know if it's got to do with the income disparity or life's just hard, because life is hard, and life beats you down. And if you get enough of those knocks, you develop what's called a learned helplessness. What that means in layman's terms is a person starts telling themselves, 'What's the use? I might as well stop trying.' And that is at its essence clinical depression. Painkillers, if you are taking them at a time in your life where you have hopelessness and depression, you're done, you're hooked. Because they call opiates painkillers for a reason: It actually works better on emotional pain than it does on physical pain."

*     *     *     *     *

In 2005, when what Assemblyman Brough called the "model" Cliffside Malibu opened, two out of 10 people treated there had problems with prescription opiates. Just 11-and-a-half years later, it's nine out of 10.

"This is the worst epidemic we have ever seen," Taite says, "and no one seems to care." He cites a new phenomenon he is seeing at Cliffside: Addicts making appointments to get treatment "like they are dinner reservations, because they don't understand the enormity of the problem.

"What's happened about five times already is you set an appointment to come in a week later, you put down a deposit to hold a bed, we send you an itinerary, and we're calling and calling the day before and the day of, and there is no answer. Finally, someone picks up the phone and says, 'I'm sorry, he died yesterday.'"

Fuck me. I want to get better but I also don't want everyone hating me. Not that I'm not used to it. Just ask my spouse and kids and relatives and friends and cops and former bosses and co-workers.

Orange County knows me and knows me well. It's why those South County moms whose children died from drugs banded together years ago. It's why they have joined law enforcement in seeking to decriminalize those who find someone overdosed, so nearly dead people won't have to be dumped in front of emergency rooms or otherwise left to expire. It's why sheriff's deputies in several OC cities carry anti-opioid drug kits that can keep an overdose victim alive during the crucial moments before paramedics arrive.

Man, this story bums me out. But there is something I can do about it. Despite the shakes, nausea, anxiety, insomnia, blackouts, depression, blotchy skin, forgetfulness, mood swings, chronic diarrhea, extra amperage that will be required to get an addict off and the other drivers on the road, I can go somewhere right now that will make me feel a whole lot better.

Don't worry, Orange County, it's definitely not a sober-living home.


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