Chemist, journalist, and filmmaker, Hamilton Morris is working to change our perception of psychedelic drugs.

By Emily Jensen.

In an episode from the third season of Vice TV’s Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, the show’s host and creator, Hamilton Morris, takes a huff of Xenon, a rare gas used as a general anesthetic, before delving into how the odorless, colorless gas has formed over the course of a billion years. He calls the episode one of the most eye-opening for him personally—in it, along with Xenon, he investigates the more commonly used nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas. “It kind of went back into these reflecting artificial-natural dichotomy concepts that are interspersed through every episode of the season. All this nitrous oxide in the air is naturally occurring, but it’s naturally occurring as a result of human disruption of the chemistry of soils from factory farming.”

Morris began the show as a web series on psychoactive substances on Vice in 2009 before transitioning to Vice TV in 2016. Now in its third season, the show has covered everything from Quaaludes and methamphetamines to peyote and psychedelic toads.

As the show itself has evolved, so too has the public perception of drug usage. During his 2020 presidential campaign, Joe Biden openly acknowledged his son Hunter’s struggles with drug use and addiction. And rather than being rewarded for taking a “tough on crime” stance on drug usage, politicians are now challenged for their past criminalization of drug use if they want to appeal to progressive voters.

Morris is matter of fact about these changes. “These politicians, probably most or all of them, don’t really care one way or another. What they care about is pleasing people,” he says. But even changing cultural norms has not prevented a show centered around controlled substances from being enormously difficult to produce, particularly during a global pandemic, and as such, the third season will be his last—for now.

“I see all of these things as different ways of investigating reality,” he says. “I think that can be done scientifically, I think it can be done with filmmaking, I think it can be done with writing. It’s just a question of what sorts of things you’re investigating.”

Now returning to his chemist roots as an adjunct faculty member at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, Morris spoke to us from his home in New York about what goes into producing Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia and the changing perception of psychedelic drugs.

Emily Jensen: We see in many fields this idea that natural is good and chemical is bad. How does that dichotomy play out when talking about psychedelic substances?

Hamilton Morris: There is ultimately a sort of spiritual idea that natural things are healthy and good, and artificial or synthetic things are bad. But nobody can really pinpoint why that is the case within a materialistic framework. So they recruit various, often sort of pseudo-scientific ideas, about the entourage effect or accessory alkaloids modulating the experience. Which can be real, but I think that they are typically overestimated in their importance, or they are discussed without sufficient evidence, because they allow people to perpetuate these spiritual ideas that have existed for decades, if not centuries.

EJ: When you are dealing with terminology that a wider audience may not be familiar with, how do you make that accessible?

HM: My technique has been to make it not accessible. When I was in college, there was often a lot of emphasis on science communication, and it’s your responsibility as somebody that is developing an expertise in this domain to be able to communicate it to people. I always thought there was something condescending and patronizing about the way science communication was discussed by scientists, as if people couldn’t be exposed to the reality of science because they couldn’t handle it, or it would be too complicated for them.

I always appreciate seeing people talk to me as if I’m their equal, even if I don’t understand exactly what they’re saying. Because I think, in that dumbing down, there’s often distortion. So that’s always been my technique, to try to shoot it as beautifully as possible, and create something that is artistically, aesthetically appealing for anyone, but also technically precise enough that it’s meaningful to any scientifically literate viewer, so that everyone can appreciate it.

EJ: When you first set out to make the show, did you get pushback from Vice about this approach?

HM: There was some pushback. There was legal pushback or stylistic pushback. I would say that they have, especially in this most recent season, been unreceptive to virtually everything that I think is good and useful. And that’s fine, I don’t look to them for stylistic inspiration. They just provide the money to make the show. But yes, there’s always a fear that if you don’t do things in a certain way people won’t get it. And maybe they won’t, that’s a risk you take. I just try to think, “What would I like to see, what would excite me?”

There’s a tremendous amount of dedication that pretty much no one will ever notice. Even showing things like the crystallization of methamphetamine—in the same way you have left and right hands, there are two hands of the methamphetamine molecule, one of which is not a controlled substance, and is used in over-the-counter nasal inhalers. So we extracted the legal isomer, or enantiomers, of methamphetamine and filmed the crystallization of that. And so the crystallization is actually showing methamphetamine in all these shots. And showing a cartel synthesis of 100kg scale of methamphetamine synthesis is something that’s never been shown on television before.

EJ: In one episode, you showed a PCP chemist but covered his face and distorted his voice. On an ethical level, how do you go about filming people where revealing their identity or their work might be harmful to them?

HM: It’s very difficult. In that instance, voice distortion, disguising their identity, sometimes disguising the location of the interview or the location of the laboratory. And that is about as much as you can do. I mean, it doesn’t seem like law-enforcement priority is cracking down on participants in television interviews. But there’s a tremendous responsibility to ensure that nobody is harmed as a result of speaking with you and providing information.

The chemist in that particular interview actually died. His lab exploded. So that’s the other thing—many of these stories are lost for that reason. It’s very sensitive to talk about it, and they’re often living precarious lives, and then they don’t talk about it and something happens and the story is totally lost. I feel a responsibility to try to document some of that information, because it can disappear so easily because of its sensitivity.

EJ: How did you first get into the space of controlled substances?

HM: It’s a gradual process, starting with interviewing people. I used to primarily do print journalism, interviewing people who were doing relatively low-risk work. I’m also a chemist, and so my own familiarity with this area helps me communicate with people and gain their trust.

A lot of these people rightfully don’t trust journalists. Journalists have a shameful legacy of reporting on this subject, having absolutely no idea about what they’re talking about, acting as unwitting pawns for a prohibitionist government. There are a lot of reasons not to talk to someone who is telling a story about psychoactive drugs.

EJ: On the flip side of that, some of the coverage of psychoactive drugs that has become more accepting has faced criticism for perpetuating spiritual tourism. How do you cover that so that you’re not contributing to a potential colonization of those communities or ideas? 

HM: I feel that white people often make a huge deal out of problems of drug tourism, that I never hear from the people in those communities, because their livelihoods often depend on this money from drug tourists. So you might find an academic anthropologist wringing his hands about the effects of people talking about mushroom shamanism in Huautla de Jiménez, but certainly in Huautla de Jiménez that is not something I ever encountered. If anything, there’s a tremendous excitement that outsiders are coming in and willing to pay money to be associated with their traditions. Whether or not that’s a good thing, it really depends on a number of factors. It’s complicated.

It’s a problem certainly when there’s an idea that that is the only valid way to have a drug experience. People are sometimes putting themselves at risk in order to have what they believe is the only authentic type of experience with that substance, which was certainly the case in the early 2000s, around the time I moved to New York. The idea was you weren’t authentically connected to psychedelics unless you’ve been to South America to use ayahuasca and [take part in] some version of a shamanic ritual. Now there’s been a move toward medicalization and the clinical model of psychedelic experience.

EJ: Why do you think that it’s evolved that way?

HM: I think people are very insecure about their motivations for using psychoactive drugs. They feel, at the very least, subconscious shame, and so they need a justification or framework that allows them to feel as if they’re not doing something bad by being interested in drugs. So orienting your use in a shamanic model to validate something that otherwise might be considered bad by certain people, and the same is true of the medical model. Because you don’t want to just say, “Hey, I think psilocybin-containing mushrooms might enrich my life. Therefore, I wish to use them.” You say, “I have OCD, I have depression, PTSD, and I want to use these substances medically as a treatment for my disorder.” And many people probably do have those disorders and probably could benefit.

But I think, within that,there’s a larger pattern of justification, because the vestiges of the war on drugs have left a lot of people extremely insecure about the use of psychoactive substances. And they feel like they can’t just say they like it, they need to medicalize or shamanize whatever it is that they’re desiring.

EJ: What’s been the most challenging episode to put together from a logistical standpoint?

HM: The premiere was very difficult to put together, because in it, I synthesize a large quantity of 5-MeO-DMT, which was not a controlled substance in Mexico. But it’s so much easier for a lawyer to just say, “No, you can’t do that, it’s illegal.” And that was what was happening. They’d say, “Look, it’s DMT. It’s illegal.” And I’d say, “It’s not DMT. It’s a completely different chemical, it just has DMT in its name.”

But you’re dealing with people who aren’t chemists. And so it turns into this nightmarish battle of opinions. It was legally difficult, it was scientifically challenging. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, organizing that little shoot.

EJ: Are there specific topics or substances that you wanted to cover that you haven’t been able to because of those hurdles?

HM: One was showing a complete synthesis of LSD. We did show some LSD chemistry, but not quite as much as I might have liked to have shown. I’ve gotten a lot of the bucket-list things that I wanted to capture over the years. I think it would have been interesting to show cryogenic, fractional distillation of Xenon from the air. The main plants that I was aware of that were doing that happen to be located in Wuhan, so that didn’t pan out during the pandemic.

It’s inevitable that some of the things aren’t possible to show, but there’s also so many things that we do that I would have never expected to see. There’s also certain people that, for various reasons, are hard to speak with, certain chemists who are in prison, or chemists who can’t take a legal risk associated with being involved in in the documentary. That’s a lot of what determines the pieces—you reach out to 50 people and maybe five of them respond and you construct the story out of what you can get. But there are always these vestiges of the stories that might have been told that linger.


Images courtesy of Ioulex and Danilo Parra