Episode 98 – Hamilton Morris on Chemistry, obscure compounds and working with VICELAND

At first glance, one may easily dismiss Hamilton Morris, 30, as on of those millennials who needs to get a “real job.” Ah, but looks can be deceiving. This millennial journalist, writer, researcher, editor, and documentary filmmaker is well-read, well-spoken, well-traveled, and well-versed in ways that put most of us old hippies to shame.

Hamilton Morris was born April 14, 1987, to parents Julia Sheehan and renowned documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, and raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He studied anthropology and science at the University of Chicago, and at The New School, a private research university in Lower Manhattan. As a sophomore, he began writing Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, a monthly column for Vice Magazine. That evolved into a series of articles and documentaries for VBS.tv, an online network founded by filmmaker Spike Jonze, and is now owned by Vice dot com. Vice brought the series to HBO and Viceland TV. He is also the science editor for Vice Magazine, and a Vice correspondent.

Morris’ unconventional research into psychoactive drugs is not just Dude, Where’s My Car?-type fodder. He’s the media’s go-to consultant for psychoactive drugs, and still conducts pharmacological research at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, with an emphasis on the synthesis and history of “dissociative anesthetics” — a class of hallucinogens which distorts perceptions of sight and sound, and produce the feeling of detachment — dissociation — from the environment and self, according to his Wikipedia page. His research has been published in technical, clinical, and pharmacology periodicals, like the Journal of Analytical Toxicology. He is also a regular contributor to the esteemed Harper’s Magazine.

Being comfortable in front of the camera, Morris’ first TV appearance was in a 2002 1st-generation iPod commercial. He has gone on to produce at least a dozen video documentaries on his own, including, Nzambi: Wade Davis’ Theory of TTX-Mediated Zombification in Haiti, and Swaziland: Gold Mine of Marijuana. His Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia has aired at least six episodes on Viceland, including The Story of the South African Quaalude, and Magic Mushroom’s in Mexico. He’s a contributor to the What’s In My Baggie? documentary He’s currently writing a book about clandestine chemistry and the murder of 1970s iconic mycologist, Steven H. Pollock, who published many articles on the potential of mushrooms to treat illness and improve quality of life. Pollock also penned Magic Mushroom Cultivation.

Where In the Cosmos Is Hamilton Morris?

His may sound like a psychonaut’s dream job, but Morris’ interest goes beyond getting high and zoning out. “His reporting is focused on the role psychoactive drugs play in different cultures and the international drug trade,” says his HBO bio page. Indeed, there’s work involved. No rest for the wired.

Morris was 13 when he had his first drug experience. It was with a friend, smoking Salvia Divinorum in that friend’s Volvo, he said in a June 2, 2012, Guardian interview. He recalled feeling “Just astonishment that those states are even possible, that anyone can reach them so effortlessly.”

Morris is cautious about what he ingests. He saw a friend at the university go “permanently insane” — he became schizophrenic, he told the Guardian. And, as he’s posted on a Reddit thread earlier in the year, there are a few drugs he will never try: 4-chloroamphetamine, 6-hydroxydopamine, domoic, and ciguatoxin. Still, he is frequently asked how he landed such a lucrative gig, which some think is all about dudes going wild. He explained on that same Reddit thread:

” … Creative work isn’t something you do because you took a special class or have a certain degree. It’s work you do because you want to communicate something, so if there are stories you want to tell, you should go tell them however you can.”

One Urban Dictionary user, Mark Twilight, offered a wonderful, detailed definition of a psychonaut in a November 25, 2001, entry that should dispel any negative connotations outsiders have about the word. Yet the stigma remains.

” … the goal of the psychonaut is to learn about self and reality by transcending normal consciousness. Psychonauts are distinguished from purely recreational users of psychoactive substances in their desire to learn and grow from these experiences.”

In a September 18, 2013, Longform podcast, Morris explains the passion for and the importance of his work.

“It’s a shame that there isn’t more of an interdisciplinary approach to a lot of scientific investigations, because often the result is that misinformation is produced. Again, there’s misinformation in journalism and there’s misinformation in science. And if you combine the best elements of both of those disciplines you can come a little closer to the truth.

“If you want to understand a drug phenomenon, you’re going to need to talk to people, you need to interview people, you need to look at the drug policy, the chemistry, the history — there’s a lot of different factors that need to be examined in order to understand even the most simple minute drug phenomenon. And if you’re approaching something purely as a scientist, as an academic, there are huge limitations as to what you can do.”

The Government Says Drugs Are Bad, mmmmmkay?

Morris has come across some strange and spooky stuff in his ongoing research. There was the weaponized use of methaqualone [Quaaludes] in South Agrica. There were the TTX zombified Haitians. There was Burandanga [scopolamine], AKA “The Devil’s Breath” — a potent and easily delivered (blowing powder on unsuspecting victim will suffice) South American drug, said to totally numb peoples’ free wills and render them suggestible to any command an ill intentioned person may give them. What is truly frightening is the US government’s interest in this type of drugs that turn people into zombie slaves. And then there’s murder and intrigue.

In July 2011, Morris became privy to some tantalizing information on an old cassette tape about the February 1, 1981, murder of 33-year-old mycologist Steven H. Pollock in San Antonio, Texas. Reminiscent of a scandal like Watergate, where witnesses were afraid to speak, and the pursuit of the truth was an occupational hazard. Morris’ July 2013 Harper’s Magazine article, Blood Spores: Of Murder and Mushrooms, is a long read, but one so compelling you can’t set it down until you reach the end. And we are left with questions. So many questions.

Since receiving that cassette tape, a nagging desire to solve Pollock’s murder and honor the man’s diligence in working to create psychoactive medicines one day from his own superlab drove Morris. But in reading Blood Spores, one sees the hurdles of digging into a major cover-up, making the pursuit of truth rather dicey. At one point, he posted a call for “research assistant wanted” in an August 2014 blog entry. What became of that, or what the book’s status is are unknowns. Did it get too dangerous? Or did he hit too many walls? Or is he simply too busy to pursue the project?

In Blood Spores, Hamilton opens with the receiving of the “fragile-looking” cassette tape, labeled “Police Crook 6/17/81,” from one Gary Davis, a retired psychology professor. Davis told him the cassette had been stored in his mother’s home for the past 30 years because he was too afraid to let anyone know he had it. Davis told Morris on the tape was a recording of “two police officers discussing their involvement in Pollock’s robbery and murder.”

Eager to share the information with a fellow mycologist — someone who knew Pollock and would appreciate it, Morris attended Paul Stamets lecture, How Mushrooms Will Save the World.

“I am hesitant to bring up the subject of Pollock in public …” Morris writes in Blood Spores. “I tell Stamets I have obtained the Pollock tape and I think I can solve the murder, in response to which his face changes. ‘You know, Steve was assassinated by the police,’ he says, suddenly unaware of his surroundings. …”

Stamets offered further advice: “this information should be treated with due caution. Some of these cops, if still living, could be very dangerous.”

Big pharma and the government are formidable enemies with their intolerance for any desires outside of their oppressive ones. The “war” on drugs is really more about a war on our own free wills — all for the all mighty dollar and ruling power. The futile war on drugs forces the oppressed to find ways around the restrictions, that incidentally pop up like mushrooms when another is cut down.

In an April 2013, New York Magazine interview, Morris explains the pitfalls of the war that cannot be won. The reporter begins:

“Some psychonauts fear the government, in desperation, might take a pharmacodynamic backward approach, looking at the receptor activated by the drug and scheduling backward from there, claiming that any organic molecule that binds to the CB1 receptor and makes you stoned is a Schedule 1 drug. But then they’d have to schedule other drugs with CB1 affinity, including Tylenol. And they’d be ‘banning specific states of consciousness,’ says Morris. ‘If the plan weren’t so futile, it would be utterly terrifying.'”

But the psychonauts persist, despite the risks to their freedoms or health. Casualties are inevitable. Some, like Morris’ schizophrenic friend, may never “make it back.” It’s part of trial and error.

“‘All of this [experimentation] is producing valuable toxicological information that would never exist otherwise,’ says Morris, who also notes that if the government hadn’t made so many drugs illegal, probably no one would be taking synthetics and risking their lives at all.”


~The 411~:





Vice contributions

Viceland: Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia


Harper’s Magazine

Retired Blog


Harper’s: Blood Spore

The Secret Government Program Behind the S. African Quaalude

Vice Letter From Guest Editor

Reddit, I’m Hamilton Morris …

Where’s My Baggie? Documentary


Psychonaut dot com

On Being Stoned, by Charles Tart

Erowid Books Online

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