Hamilton Morris holding amanita muscaria mushrooms. Photo Credit: Vice.
Hamilton Morris is the host and creator of Vice’s Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia. In the series, Hamilton travels the world examining psycho-active substances. He delves into those substances and their effects, user-communities, manufacturers, distributors, and occasionally their inventors.
Hamilton’s show takes a more cerebral, honest approach to drugs. Instead of focusing on struggling addicts and fatal overdoses, he depicts the entire spectrum of drugs and their users.
Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia also has a distinct emphasis on the chemistry behind the production of psycho-active substances. The show recognizes the magic of pharmacology: from the complexity of the natural-synthetic dichotomy, to the aesthetic beauty of an amphetamine crystal and the pure joy of chemistry.
We talked to Hamilton Morris about season three of his show, freedom to use drugs, and more.
*Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Emerald Magazine (EM): What sparked your interest in pharmacology, chemistry, and journalism? Furthermore, why explore the intersection between them in your show Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia?
Hamilton Morris (HM): I studied chemistry, neuroscience, anthropology and a lot of things that were related to the subjects that I cover on the show. Then I started making documentaries about psychoactive drugs. I prefer stories that haven’t been done before. I try to tell the stories [of clandestine chemists and other drug scientists] sympathetically so people can understand the motivations of these people, and in doing so maybe learn a new perspective on the world of drugs. This can help people gain a better understanding of the injustice of prohibition and the beauty of science.
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EM: What is your position on personal consumption of substances? Not only legality, but also from an ethical or general freedom perspective.
HM: I think a lot of people develop these kind of control fantasies. Especially men tend to develop control fantasies or they want to create a world that operates under their personal rules; they’ll say, “well, I like cannabis, so cannabis should be legal. But I don’t like opioids so opioids should be illegal.” I’ve seen this operate in 50 different ways. It has sort of forced me into a very laissez-faire attitude toward other people’s choices. Which is to say, I don’t care. I want to allow people to do whatever it is they want to do. If they want to hurt themselves, I think that that should be a personal freedom. If they want to use things constructively, I’m all for that.
Of course, I’m also aware of the extreme complexity of using powerful substances in a society where there is very little education. In many instances, there is no education surrounding responsible use; no resources for testing and analysis available to people that aren’t analytical chemists. So I’m aware that those things are stacked against the average user. The consumption of these substances is much more dangerous than it has to be. In an ideal world, it could be much safer than it is. A lot of the problems that we consider intrinsic problems associated with the consumption of psychoactive drugs don’t need to be intrinsic problems.
EM: A recurring theme throughout season three of your show was the natural-synthetic dichotomy of psycho-active drugs, and people’s preferences for natural things. Why do you think this preference exists?
HM: It’s very prevalent in our society to assume that natural is better, especially for people that aren’t actually aware of chemistry and pharmacology. Anyone that’s really spent some time looking at it knows that many of the most toxic known substances are natural. Uranium is natural. Mercury is natural. But synthetic things can be sort of frightening. What can you do about the ubiquity of plastics in our environment or these synthetic dyes that are unnecessarily put into the food that we eat? It’s frightening to people, as it should be. So there’s an idea that these [synthetic] things are bad.
There’s also an idea that I think can actually be traced back to the cannabis community that natural substances are inherently better because of their chemical complexity which causes an entourage effect that can never be replicated in a synthetic material. This was actually very widely promoted by NORML. NORML vehemently opposed the approval of Marinol synthetic THC because they claimed that synthetic THC didn’t have the same benefits as cannabis due to the lack of accessory cannabinoids like CBD, CBN, CBG and so on. But that was really more of a political argument than a pharmacological or medical argument. The real reason they were doing that was because they were aware of the fact that Marinol posed a threat to the legalization of cannabis.
It’s fine to make these arguments, and in some cases, they might be valid. But they should be evidence-based because if you’re making this stuff up for political reasons or spiritual reasons, then you might inadvertently cause the extinction of an organism. Or you might just contaminate the way people think about these substances.
When you use a synthetic material, there is this very real advantage of being able to weigh the dose and use a specific quantity. I think [this] is very, very important when you’re dealing with something that has such a dramatic effect on human consciousness, and something that potentially can have a toxic effect as well. You want to know how much you’re taking. That is really the advantage of these things that is not adequately appreciated by most people.
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EM: Gauging the exact amount that’s present in a psychedelic compound is almost impossible for natural substances. For instance, no one is aware of how much psilocybin is in a given gram of mushrooms, so there is utility to synthetic substances.
HM: Most negative experiences that I hear about with psychedelics can be traced to simply not knowing the doses consumed. People will have no idea how much they’re taking; they end up consuming much more than they anticipated, and calling the police because they think they’re dying […]. That’s a bad experience that could be avoided.
If the person had access to pure psilocybin or psilocybin that could be dosed with milligram precision, then they could say — ”okay, 20 milligrams of psilocybin exerts this type of effect and that’s a comfortable dose for me.” That’s not something that people are able to do with natural materials. I think that it’s responsible [for bad experiences, and contributes to] difficulties that people encounter.
EM: In your show, you discuss substances that challenge the distinction between natural and synthetic substances, such as Xenon. Could you talk more about these substances and others that blur the line between natural and synthetic?
HM: It’s pretty much illusory at this juncture; the boundaries between natural and synthetic have dissolved in the anthropocene. We live in a world where everything is a combination of the two.
Even synthetic substances are often partially synthesized from some natural starting material, so sometimes it’s both. Look at LSD. Is it synthetic or natural? Well, the starting material is isolated from a fungus. Then it’s chemically modified by humans. So, it’s natural, but it’s also synthetic — a synthetic material that would never exist without a fungus.
Post from @hamiltonmorris on Instagram.
That’s the case for a lot of things. So, I think that it’s not really the best distinction to make most of the time. And if you’re approaching it from the perspective that natural is better, then you’re setting yourself up to not appreciate a lot of the amazing chemical space in this world.
Is cannabis even natural, really? I mean it’s undergone centuries of human selective breeding and modification to select for different chemical attributes. It’s all kind of unclear where to even designate […] what is a product of nature [from] what is a product of human activity.
Xenon is very much natural. It’s in every breath that we take. It’s part of our atmosphere. But we don’t feel it because it’s present in minute concentrations. But if you take a million liters of air, compress it to a liquid, and under cryogenic conditions, fractionally distill off the nitrogen, the oxygen and neon argon, and the other noble gases — you’re left with xenon. Is that natural? Well, the isolation of it certainly doesn’t occur naturally. But it’s very much naturally present in our atmosphere. [When] you consume it, [it] exerts an anesthetic psychoactive effect. Is that natural? I don’t know.
EM: One episode in particular of your show, A Positive Methamphetamine Story, focuses on prejudices people hold against specific substances. Why do you think these prejudices arise? Neuroscientist and author, Dr. Carl Hart asserts in his book Drug use for Grown-ups that race is linked to some of the prejudices people hold against substances. Do you agree?
HM: I think it’s race and its class. In the case of methamphetamine, I think it’s probably class. [With] these two very, very similar drugs, amphetamine and methamphetamine — one is used by affluent college students and people who have access to psychiatrists who will prescribe it to them. The other is a black-market commodity that is relatively inexpensive and doesn’t require any medical psychiatric intervention to obtain. So, one is typically used by poor people — methamphetamine.
But then there’s another layer which is dosage. When you have methamphetamine that comes through black market channels instead of coming in through measured tablets, the way a pharmaceutical commodity does, you just get a bag of crystals. Typically people will smoke or snort large, unmeasured doses of this material. That can produce really adverse reactions.
On top of that — because this is primarily consumed by people who have less money, less medical resources, less professional opportunity — you find that these people probably get into worse trouble as well when their use becomes problematic. They don’t have the same resources available. They’re not doing this with medical guidance, and so you have a problem. That’s really more a product of poverty and various socio-economic factors, then it is an intrinsic pharmacological issue. But it gets blamed on the substance itself.
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EM: In other interviews, you’ve talked about drug-determinism. What exactly is this?
HM: Drug determinism or pharmacological determinism is the idea that a substance must do something that is an intrinsic property of that substance. So, if you consume heroin, it must make you a dysfunctional person because that’s what heroin does. If you consume fentanyl, you must die because fentanyl is the drug that is responsible for deaths. If you consume PCP, you must go crazy because PCP is the drug that makes you crazy. If you consume GHB, you must be a victim of some drug facilitated sexual assault. Because GHB is the date rape drug now.
In none of the examples that I just gave is rape, addiction or any number of outcomes an intrinsic pharmacological property of that substance. It’s entirely dependent on the user. In recognizing that, you can better avoid some of these problems.
Any drug can be used in any number of different ways that might be completely unrecognizable to someone who’s operating from the perspective that a specific drug has to have a specific outcome. You have children that use methamphetamine [via prescribed medication such as Desoxyn]. You have a low dose ibogaine being used as a stimulant in France in the 60s. You have MDMA type substances like alpha ethyl tryptamine being used as an antidepressant in the U.S. There’s all this other potential that exists within the substances that is limited when we think of them in this extremely reductive deterministic manner.
EM: Do you think that drug testing could help make drug consumption safer?
HM: Yeah, having testing facilities would be tremendously beneficial. It’s […] kind of a win-win for everyone. It’s a win for users. It’s a win for scientists. It’s even a win for law enforcement because then they get to collect data on what substances are circulating on the market. No one should ever be opposed to information no matter what your perspective is. That’s a way for everyone to collect information, so that’s something that I don’t think should be controversial for anyone, no matter whether you’re pro-drug or anti-drug. […]
What also happens quite a bit is people approach their drug use as an inherently self-destructive activity. I don’t actually encounter this as much now as I did 10 years ago. But there was a kind of idea of like, why would I care? I’m getting fucked up so who cares if there’s meth in it or whatever. But what if you instead frame this as something that isn’t self-destructive, and something that you’re trying to do in the most constructive way?
[…] There’s also an educational intervention that needs to take place.
EM: Is this the last season of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia?
HM: […] I loved making [Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia]. But it was a damn chaotic experience. I don’t think people can even comprehend how difficult, stressful and frightening it was to make that show with very, very few resources.
When people think of a TV show, they think there’s a trailer with people doing hair and makeup, and a set with lights. This was not like that. Just me and a small number of other people. Sometimes I was filming it myself. I was working 13 hours, 14 hours a day, seven days a week for a year. Couldn’t do anything else. Couldn’t see my family, couldn’t have any kind of social interactions. It was really very stressful for me. But more importantly, it was very, very stressful for the people that I’ve worked with and who are my friends. It’s hard to ask that of other people as well. So if there were a situation in the future with better resources or an opportunity to make a film, I would love to do that. I hope to do it and I’m sure I will do it at some point. […] But right now, it feels like the time to do chemistry for a bit. […] There will be no shortage of interesting stories and material that will be generated by this chemistry research.
Right now, I’m just synthesizing new chemicals. It’s done in a university with a lot of oversight. But the basic idea is synthesizing new compounds and characterizing their pharmacology. See how rodents respond to them, and if the results are promising, maybe that can become a new treatment for this or that disorder.
To Support Hamilton and view his exclusive podcasts, visit https://www.patreon.com/HamiltonMorris