Drugs Over Dinner

By Keri Blakinger 06/04/15

Michael Hebb and Angel Grant initiated a format to inspire discussion.

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There are some topics that just don’t make for polite dinner conversation. Michael Hebb and Angel Grant don’t care about that, though. The couple founded Drugs Over Dinner, a project that officially launched on April 21.  

Hebb explained, “It’s a set of tools and a website—hopefully a movement—to give people permission and inspiration to have a conversation about drugs and addiction with people they’re close to and people within their community.”

Visitors to the website are greeted with the message: “23 million Americans struggle with drug or alcohol addiction.” Next, a statistic pops up: “Only 11 percent get treatment.” Then: “It’s time for a compassionate conversation about drugs and addiction.”

After that introduction, would-be meal planners select a group of people to invite and then choose the intention of their dinner before picking reading, viewing, and listening options for dinner guests. The idea is that each guest will come educated and prepared for a discussion.

This method of dinner planning has been massively successful in the past; in 2013, Hebb launched Let’s Have Dinner and Talk About Death: Death Over Dinner. 

The Vashon Island resident has a lot of experience with dinner planning. He said, “I’ve been convening people at the table as my primary practice for 10 years. About 20 years ago, I realized this was my life’s work.” Though it may seem like an unlikely business model—and Drugs Over Dinner is not a money-making venture—Hebb has managed to carve a career out of it. A former restaurant founder, Hebb teaches at the University of Washington and works helping major organizations convene their leaders. He’s a big believer in the power of the table to spark conversation.

Apparently, he’s good at what he does. In a May 1 interview, he said, “There’s been about 100,000 death dinners in the last 18 months, with incredible coverage nationally, internationally, and regionally. We’ve heard back from thousands of people that they’ve had transformative experiences with their families and friends.”

With that sort of positive feedback, Hebb wanted to take on another topic. Grant, who’d served as the Death Over Dinner content director, suggested addiction—it was a topic she knew well, from personal experience. 

Grant began using drugs in her early teens and continued using into her 20s. Now, she’s clean and has traveled the country teaching yoga and meditation. After cleaning up her life, though, Grant was still bothered by the silence that she saw surrounding addiction. 

“I grew up in South Carolina,” she said, “and there’s such a culture of shame and guilt in the South that once I stopped doing drugs, the people I met after a certain year had no idea that I had been shooting up heroin and cocaine and doing all of this stuff. So for me, there’s so much shame around it.” She added, “The shame keeps people quiet and so the shame keeps people from healing.” 

“When people talk about addiction and drugs,” she said, “it tends to be super black and white and I wanted to change that, or at least offer an honest perspective.”

With a goal in mind, the couple turned to others for help with the project. Hebb said, “One of my dear friends Jamison Monroe is one of the leaders in teen rehabilitation and Angel and I reached out to Jamison and said, ‘We’re thinking that we want to take on drugs as our next topic, would you be our partner in this?’ So we convened one dinner as a test dinner and filmed it so we could kind of study it.”

Thus, on Jan. 28, 2014, a group of addiction experts got together for the first Drugs Over Dinner. They ate steamed halibut in banana leaves and an almond red curry. Some of them drank wine. 

Some of the guests at that initial dinner, held in New York City, included addiction specialist Dr. Gabor Matè, author Daniel Pinchbeck, outspoken drug war critic Dr. Carl Hart, and Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann

Matè said, “There were a lot of heavy hitters at this dinner … so it was a wide-ranging conversation. Rather than focusing on the experience of addiction, there was a lot of discussion about the theory of addiction.” 

The theory of addiction is something Matè is well-versed in; in 2008 he wrote In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, a book that synthesized real addiction stories, personal experience, and addiction research to help unravel the causes and appropriate responses. He explained, “My point about addiction is that it’s all about trauma … it’s a response to human pain and suffering.” Matè said that stands in contrast to some of the existing theories of addiction: “The mainstream understanding is that it’s a disease of some kind.”

Although he conceded that addiction theory will probably not be the focus of most Drugs Over Dinner gatherings, he said that the dinner he attended was “a good beginning,” adding, “I think it’s an important initiative, it’s something that’s very poorly understood in our society. I think we need to talk about it because it’s much more pervasive than we realize. It’s more than just drugs.”

Today, Matè, Hart, and Pinchbeck are all on the project’s advisory board, along with a smattering of former addicts, addiction treatment providers, businesspeople, and policy advocates, including Arianna Huffington, her daughter Christina, former Harvard Medical School faculty member Dr. Ned Howell, civil rights leader Michael Skolnick, and National Association of Drug Court Professionals CEO, C. West Huddleston, III.

Also on the board is Leonard Buschel. Buschel, who has written for The Fix in the past, is the founder of Writers in Treatment, the non-profit organization responsible for the Reel Recovery Film Festival. 

An energetic and quotable man in his 50s, Buschel seems like just the sort of person to have over to dinner. He’s decided to host one of his own and said he’ll be inviting six or seven friends to a favorite Studio City restaurant that’s closing soon. 

“Initially,” he said, “I thought, ‘Well what’s the purpose?’ Maybe it’s like asking what’s the purpose of art. It’s almost like a performance art piece. It’s very transient like a Tibetan sand painting. It’s beautiful and we all appreciate it and then it’s gone. The idea is discussion—discussion among people—when everyone gets to say something and be heard.”

Hebb said, “They’re designed to not create an exchange of platitudes, or a policy argument, or a blaming, or shaming conversation but to create introspective, compassionate consideration of these issues. There’s 23 million Americans struggling with addiction. It’s not a small thing. So let’s start to look at it individually and as a culture.”

Buschel said that, even though the events are transient, he hopes the effects will be long-lasting. “Maybe,” he said, “when people have unscripted conservations some new idea, some new thought, some new epiphany can appear, which in the best case scenario something can be implemented to change the tide of addiction in America.”

Keri Blakinger is a writer and prison-reform activist living in upstate New York. A staff writer for The Ithaca Times, she has also been published in The Washington Post and Quartz. She last busted 10 drug myths and requested that you not tell her where the next AA meeting might be.

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