“Play Safe”, a word with Eddie Einbinder

In March 2017, HOPS - Healthy Options Project Skopje had the pleasure to host the projection of the documentary “Play Safe,” followed by a discussion on harm reduction, led by the director, Edie Einbinder. Einbinder is also the author of the book “How to Have Fun and Not Die.”

In 2008, Edie began presenting strategies on harm reduction and overdose prevention in more than 200 institutions and conferences throughout the world. He gives lectures in prominent universities, high schools, homeless people and youth clinics.   

In his lectures, Edie combines the documentary “Play Safe”, wherein a real, shocking and educational manner he conveys knowledge to the public on harm reduction policies and practices. The characters depicted in the documentary strive to undertake all necessary measures of caution when using the drugs of their choice, such as: Adderall, cocaine, DMT, heroin, ketamine, LSD, marihuana, alcohol, cigarettes, cigars, MDMA, methamphetamine, mushrooms, nitrogen oxide, oxytocin and salvia.   

In the beginning, can you tell me about your motivation to work with people who use drugs? 

The population of young people who use drugs is, and always has been, the one with which I most identify.  In one form or another, since the age of ten, I have been frustrated by the lack of health education, counterproductive drug policies and social stigma around substance use. I was also raised by mental health professionals and have been reading or formally studying in this field most of my life. This background in conjunction with my own experience translates into most of the work I do with young people who use drugs, from overdose and disease prevention in my films and writing, to my Harm Reduction Psychotherapy and Field Coaching work at The Center for Optimal Living in New York City.
 
As I could see you deliver lectures on harm reduction at universities, so in your experience, how are harm reduction policies perceived in higher education in the USA?

I’d say 95% of the response from the high school and college students everywhere I’ve been has been positive. They feel that this is a realistic way to respond to the drug problem. That learning as much as we can decrease the dangers that criminalization, lack of regulation, lack of education and lack of treatment and support all add to the drug scene.

As for the perception from the higher education institutions that these kids attend, this is a different story. While I believe that the individuals in administrative roles at these schools are not bad people and that they likely personally might even agree with us, they are often obliged to act in the role of their job, their allegiance to the institution, and in many cases, from my communication with these departments, I know that these schools act as a business, and that money and reputation often seem a higher priority than the physical and mental health of their students. Many of the policies at private institutions and of states throughout the U.S. are counterproductive to decreasing the harms of drugs.

On campus, there is often no Good Samaritan policy. This deters people from taking their friends to the hospital when they are drunk or high. Disciplinary committees are often more focused on punishment than providing support. There are free van rides taking kids from the library to housing, but not from the bar to housing. Kids can lose students loans and scholarships for infractions.  Most rules are still based in trying to scare kids away from using drugs and getting in trouble, instead of accepting the reality that a certain number of students will use drugs, and that supports should be in place to make sure that as many students as possible will survive and succeed. 

I have been told straight out that a school currently cannot afford to be seen condoning my form of drug education because that could imply that there is a drug problem on campus. The schools that are most concerned about this stigmatized image are the ones with the actual worst drug problems on campus, ironically most in need of more honest drug education that will prevent overdose, and also decrease the taboo nature of these discussions.
З Why did you decide to promote this film on a European tour and what was the response of the audience? [And could you compare it with the response of the Macedonian audience?]

Jan Stola and I have been speaking about a possible tour through Europe since after the screenings in Warsaw and Vilnius in 2013. I was in Vilnius for the International Harm Reduction Conference. A big thank you to the Jan, Ayesha Mian, Irena Molnar and their colleagues at YODA: youth organizations for drug action, for hosting and coordinating this tour for me.

I would travel anywhere in the world that would host me and be willing to engage in productive discussion around these issues. I hope to continue to travel, to Canada next month, and maybe a South American tour and a visit to Accra, Ghana in the next 18 months.

There is a tremendous amount to learn from our varying cultures, their use, laws, and perception of drugs around the world. The cultural gap was obvious at the first screening of this trip in Antwerp, most severely around alcohol use by young people. The Alcohol episode provoked a clarifying discussion of the differences in use, and potential reasons why, from America to different parts of Europe. I have long felt that the stricter laws and extreme thinking about alcohol in America is what’s led to its drastic misuse and danger.

Kids in America have a more all or nothing mentality around their use of alcohol, while kids in Europe are more likely to have been introduced to this substance in more responsible settings, by people who care for them. Health professionals had trouble believing that the alcohol episode was typical of a drinking scene at most any random university. All this said, ideally we wouldn’t be generalizing. While each country I’ve visited varies, so does the particular population in the audience, which might be somewhat irrelevant to where we are in the world. In Warsaw I spoke with mostly medical students who I believe were studying abroad. In Belgrade, it was a handful of Anthropology students and a large number of people who I think we’re just more into the art and drug scene in general.

Here in Skopje, I was pleased to have met with the smart and open-minded staff at HOPS. And their presence definitely added to a broader conversation around types of substance use treatment that exists in different parts of the world. I did find it interesting to learn that outside of the problematic use of opiates and benzodiazepines, in Macedonia use of other types of drugs is rarely seen as problematic, and is not a prevalent social issue. That really treatment does not exist for people who use Speed or Marijuana, for instance. 

This then made sense when a member of the audience was openly speaking out loud during the cocaine episode, judging these people as not having a real problem, or not using real drugs. In New York City, and throughout the U.S., we certainly have different drug users who judge each other’s drugs of choice, but seeing these views conveyed during the screening here seemed to magnify this issue to me. I find that in working with the Harm Reduction Psychotherapy model in groups helps to facilitate members’ ability to relate to one another, irrelevant to how different their drugs of choice may be.

The marketing done by HOPS did achieve a greater diversity within the audience than most places on this trip. I was as happy to see a mix of patients, parents, politicians and mental health professionals. I very much enjoyed the people and the space at our event here in Skopje, and I thank you.

You are in Macedonia now for the promotion of your documentary film “Play Safe”. Could you tell me more about the film?
I wouldn’t say I’m promoting the film, but simply rather trying to educate people in harm reduction practices with drugs, and using this film series to either do that directly, or to promote conversation with health professionals and parents around how they can better engage young folks and clients in these discussions and work.

After around a year of a lecture tour based on material from the book How To Have Fun And Not Die through the U.S. and Canada, I realized that film would be the most consumable, accessible, and desired medium for students. Primarily, in 2010 and 2011, a crew, mostly made up of students and I filmed real people, also mostly students, using the most common drugs in the college scene, ideally in the safest way possible. If not actually used in the safest way, we’d discuss how it could be safer. I do believe that film, in the technological times we are in, is the most efficient way to reach any population with internet access. I think that younger folks especially learn better listening and seeing for themselves, as opposed to just reading. In particular, when teaching details such as safer injection or making oneself vomit, visual aids are important. I would still say that literature should be a complimentary piece to any films. And vice versa. Our goal with Play Safe, was to create an objective, honest, accurate educational tool, so people could learn how to prevent overdose and disease, without the usual additional messages that try to demonize or glorify drugs.

It seems like you are doing a kind of missionary work for harm reduction. Do you think harm reduction policy is better recognized nowadays than it was years ago?

The book, film and lectures have been well received. Though none have been mainstream, and all lack the kind of exposure I would hope for in these types of works. Though again, the internet does help level the playing ground, regarding access to a public audience. I plan to continue all of this work. And I encourage others to create works on these topics, particularly towards public education. Anything that will help to decrease the stigma and taboo around these topics. Hopefully, working towards better understanding of drugs and our relationships with them.

While certain countries may be backtracking at the moment, regarding access to harm reduction treatment and drug policy reform, I do believe that on a global level the values of Harm Reduction are better recognized now than they used to be, and that overall we are headed in the right direction, to a treatment system based on compassion and science. I think that we will eventually reach a time in which all drugs will be legal again, and that people who have problems with them will be treated as patients instead of criminals. And in this frame, that education, regulation, and open minded, individualized treatment will reduce the harms for all involved.

The interview was conducted by Irena Jovanovska.
 
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