Better Living Through Chemistry: A Discussion with Hamilton Morris
Extract one part genetic positioning as son of Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris, combine with continued training as a peer-review journal-published pharmacologist, and mix with a desire to demystify psychoactive drugs and their underlying chemistry, and you may get someone like Hamilton Morris. For close to a decade, Morris has been VICE’s chief correspondent for much of their experiential drug coverage, appealing to veteran psychonauts and discerning scientists alike for the work he’s done on his TV show Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, now in its third season on VICE TV.
He’s also seen the birth of a new psychedelic industry sprout up around him. With millions of dollars now pouring into publicly traded biotech firms and psychedelic clinics, Morris’s beat now appeals to more than just countercultural holdouts — and the current season of “Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia” reflects these developments. In the episode “ULTRA-LSD,” a UNC pharmacologist sifts through thousands of virtual LSD variants to find solutions for mental health ailments like schizophrenia. “Natural Tramadol, Synthetic Ibogaine” follows an African Tramadol addict through a traditional Bwiti ceremony. The outlaw tradition of clandestine chemists, such as infamous methamphetamine manufacturer Uncle Fester and Stryke, is intercut with the academics seeking to rehabilitate these substances for those traumatized by the Covid-19 era. Throughout the show, Morris gives both the underground practitioners and the institutional rehabilitators ample opportunity to demonstrate how their creations continue to transform people’s lives, good or bad.
Lucid News caught up with Hamilton Morris just after Biden’s inauguration to discuss Hamilton’s work both on and off-camera. In this wide-ranging interview, Morris speaks to the ways indigenous spiritual traditions can inform Western medical inquiries into psychedelics, the mandate of his show to counter scientific illiteracy, and his own vision on how psychedelics can be integrated into Western society.
This interview has been edited for publication.
How would you define the term “psychedelic”? What makes a chemical psychedelic, as opposed to merely dissociative or entactogenic, for instance?
So you have things that are very clearly psychedelics, and then you have things on a liminal periphery that are arguably not. Classical psychedelics like LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, DMT, Bufotenine, that sort of thing, are acting via the 5-HT2A receptor. They’re serotonergic in their mechanism. And everyone agrees that those are classical psychedelics. Then you have serotonergic psychedelics that are a little bit different, like 5-Meo-DMT, that are still called psychedelics, but don’t have many of the characteristics that people associate with the psychedelic experience. They don’t produce visual distortions. They cause dissociation from the environment, and they even have a different pharmacological mechanism, acting predominantly on the 5-HT1A receptor. Ketamine is strictly classified as a dissociative anesthetic. But it has many of the visionary characteristics that people associate with the psychedelic experience. And then you have Salvinorin A. It’s chemically and pharmacologically, and experientially, totally different from a classical psychedelic experience. But we still feel comfortable calling it psychedelic, perhaps for lack of a better word. So every time you think of some component of the definition of what a psychedelic experience is, there will be exceptions to the rule.
In your interview with Joe Rogan, you expressed a form of egalitarianism towards drugs, as opposed to a “soft/hard drug” distinction which elevates certain drugs over others. How do you balance that with the largely unknown risks of novel research chemicals?
We have this idea that things that are natural are inherently good or safe. But how many people had used salvia before it became widely available as a drug in headshops in the United States? Not very many. We also have a way of associating things that are little known with danger and things that are well-known as being safe. But we’re routinely finding FDA-approved substances have unanticipated risks associated with them. The FDA just recommended the withdrawal of the anti-obesity medication Lorcaserin. That’s something that’s been used by who knows how many people. Now they’re saying that it might promote certain cancers.
Even alcohol and cannabis — there’s still fundamental debate about exactly what the neurocognitive consequences of chronic use are. There’s an alarmist attitude toward anything that doesn’t have a well recognized history. Yet, people act as if anything that has been used for generations must be safe by virtue of its history. And I don’t think either stance is correct.
Who is the intended audience for the show?
The ideal viewer is a very smart, open minded person with a good sense of humor, who loves science and is open to learning new things. I’m aware that the chemistry in the show is extremely dense. For so long, we have been sheltered from the reality of these substances. I felt that it was my responsibility to show people exactly what it is. We have a crisis of scientific illiteracy in our country. And it imperils all of us. It’s not good for people to be disinterested in science. I think it is every scientist’s moral responsibility to educate the public and make science as interesting as possible, because the survival of our species depends on it. Truly, it’s nothing less than that.
Right now, Coronavirus is mutating. People are terrified of vaccination. My DMs are flooded with people asking if I believe in vaccines. This is not a good time for science. And so when scientists wring their hands and say “How dare he show science that could potentially be dangerous.” I wonder, do you want to keep science as boring and insulated from the public as possible? Because we’re looking at that right now. And it’s not good.
I have always felt that the best way to learn about chemistry is to do chemistry, but most people can’t do that. So I thought, ‘Okay, most people have never seen what synthesis looks like.’ Wouldn’t it be amazing to show people exactly what it looks like? Because it’s so beautiful and so strange and exciting. I think that people are more receptive to it than you would imagine.
Spirituality pops up pretty consistently on your show, and it often conflicts with the rational-materialist worldview of the scientific community. How do you personally reconcile these two positions?
Although I am a materialist in the sense that I don’t believe in the supernatural, I think that many spiritual traditions and shamanic traditions have a tremendous amount to contribute in terms of the ways that they construct the experience. For example, my experience in Gabon with Iboga included things that would never be part of Western medicine. There’s no medicine that is used under fasting conditions, except for maybe in surgical procedures, and some unusual instances. And yet, when you use Iboga, under those circumstances, it immediately becomes clear that it’s an extremely intelligent, well-constructed way of administering the substance. One of the lessons of Iboga is that you don’t need anything. Under the circumstances of the religion, it emphasizes those attributes of the substance, so you don’t sleep, you don’t eat, you barely drink any water. As you do that, you come to recognize that you are okay. You don’t need all the things that you think that you need. You are okay, you’re alive, and you will continue to live. Under less strenuous circumstances, you might not get that same message.
Will there be an integration of the spiritual traditions and the Western medical tradition? I think it’s going to be a hybrid. I hope that some of the lessons of the spiritual-shamanic traditions will be integrated and used to maximize the benefit of the experience.
In terms of constructing the psychedelic experience, what would an appropriate Western container for it look like? Would it be a maloca for ayahuasca ceremonies, or would it be more in line with a ketamine clinic?
I would like to see freedom. I would like to see people able to do whatever it is they want to do. Some people want to use psychedelics with their friends and walk in the park. I would love to see them have the freedom to do that legally. And if some people want to use psychedelics in a stroboscopic VR experience with a vagus nerve stimulator attached to their neck, I’d love them to have the freedom to do that. I’d love for people to explore every possibility that they want to explore in the same way that we can listen to music any way that we want. There is no right way to do any of this stuff. The right way to do it is the way that is best for you, as long as they don’t hurt anybody else.