Weekender | Talking drugs with the king of psychedelia

Plenty of people do drugs, but a comparative few try to understand them. Hailed by his internet following as the new Hunter S. Thompson, Hamilton Morris has built a name for himself as the reigning king of all things psychoactive. From Sapo frogs in the Amazon rainforest to Haitian zombie powder, Morris has tried it all, written about it and spawned a loyal band of fans who follow his writings through Harper’s Magazine and Vice, among others. Both a scientist and a journalist by trade, Morris examines drugs and drug culture through an academic lens. His travels have taken him around the world and through a mind-boggling array of alterations in consciousness.

On a sweltering August afternoon, I met with Mr. Morris in his Williamsburg apartment to learn about the murky world of gray-market drugs and just what it means to explore psychoactive substances. Witty and hyper-articulate through his trademark gravelly baritone, Morris was unflinchingly straightforward throughout our hour-long interview, and he even took the time to show me his assorted cacti – some of which were from Morris’ hero, pharmacologist and drug pioneer Alexander Shulgin, himself.

Though shamans and the like have led their flocks to chemical enlightenment for time immemorial, the 20th and 21st centuries have witnessed the rise of the modern day “psychonaut,” an individual who uses psychoactive drugs with the intent of expanding and exploring his own consciousness. Morris is often branded as such by his readers, but he is quick to deny this classification.

“The vast majority of people who call themselves ‘psychonauts’ are just people who do a ton of drugs that are actually very well-explored,” Morris said. 

According to him, only the first people to test the limits of a new substance really deserve to be labeled psychonauts. Most drug users hardly fit this description. 

However, my conversation with Morris quickly moved to the throngs of people worldwide who have unwittingly become a peculiar breed of guinea pigs-cum-psychonauts as they consume substances that are almost completely untested.

The rise of the Internet spawned a vast online market for “research chemicals” in the late ’90s, and the market thrives to this day. Though these compounds are marketed as “not for human consumption,” most are actually taking advantage of perceived governmental loopholes. The thinking goes that the government can ban individual substances, but it can’t ban every substance that produces a specific effect. Consequently, designer drugs are born and made widely available on the Internet as gray-market alternatives to substances that are illegal in the United States.

Unfortunately, as highly publicized mephedrone – commonly known as bath salts – and synthetic cannabinoids like Spice and K2 have repeatedly demonstrated, the general public does not always fare well when presented with experimental substances it knows little to nothing about. The Wild West of the chemical market has little to no regulation, and though governments can ban substances, it would be impossible eliminate the complex network of buyers, sellers and the new kinds of products it constantly churns out. It’s a dangerous environment to be sure, but Morris doesn’t think the market should be treated as a public hazard.

“Just because [the research chemical market] is dangerous doesn’t mean it should be prohibited or should be regulated in such a way that people don’t have access to it,” Morris said. “People will doubtlessly die in the future, and many people have died in the past [as a result of the market].”

He admitted that irresponsible decisions can often result in tragedy, but Morris did see an unexpected upside to the chemical market’s nearly complete lack of regulation: The circumstances provide scientists with a wealth of information that would be impossible to gain from ethical studies.

“We … learn a huge amount about toxicology as a result of those people overdosing,” said Morris.

As an example, he cited Alexander Shulgin and his 2C-T series of drugs. After he synthesized the 2C-Ts, Shulgin carefully and safely experimented with them on his own. However, once the 2C-Ts reached the research chemical market, people began to overdose and die after taking them in conjunction with other substances.”It was discovered that they have this enzyme inhibition effect, which is really interesting, and which never would have been discovered if [they] were only used by responsible people,” Morris said.

Morris himself fell headfirst into the rabbit hole of research chemical culture when he read about Shulgin in The New York Times Magazine’s 2005 article. Though Morris was scientifically interested in drugs throughout high school, his chemical experimentation never went beyond salvia and the extraction of salvinorin A. Teenage drug culture didn’t appeal to him, and he found his school’s druggie population off-putting. His horizons expanded greatly after his college-age exposure to Shulgin and once he started to monitor the on-line research chemical market. 

“That’s when I really became obsessed,” he said.

He continued his independent research, began writing for Vice and quickly gained a reputation for his unconventional twist on scientific writing. As his monthly column/film series “Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia” reflects, Morris is particularly interested in psychedelics. Hallucinogens’ effects on the brain are poorly understood, and Morris believes they still have a vast amount of information to offer the scientific community about the “mind-brain connection.”

He also finds psychedelics intriguing on a more anthropological level. Whether they use mushrooms or toads or vines, many disparate cultures are bound by their mutual respect for the properties of psychedelics. In addition to causing euphoria, psychedelics can also bring about a profound, mystical experience.

“I think with the classical serotonergic psychedelics there’s this luminous, spiritual, holy quality to them,” he said. “You feel very connected to the world. It feels like a healthy, beneficial thing.”

This same emotional experience has proven beneficial in therapeutic contexts: both MDMA, a component of ecstasy, and psilocybin, magic mushrooms, have been used to help patients struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. Morris referenced a recent Johns Hopkins University study that helped bring some positive media to the two drugs and their effects. Still, he finds studies like this one somewhat indicative of America’s problematic perceptions of drug use. For any sort of psychedelic experience to “work,” Morris stressed that people must be open to the host of complex psychological effects caused by the drugs.

“In America, you take drugs to feel good and that’s it,” he said. “And if it doesn’t make you feel good, then why would you be using the drug?”

Even a bad experience can be meaningful, Morris continued, and shouldn’t necessarily be categorized as different from other “bad” things that people encounter on a day-to-day basis. 

“In some cultures, part of being alive is taking ayahuasca and [encountering] death. It’s not comfortable, it’s scary, but that’s okay,” he said.

Despite his support of drug legalization, Morris was pessimistic that change will happen anytime soon. Vocally favoring legalization is a risky political strategy and most legalization activists’ arguments do little to curry favor with non-supporters. He acknowledged that the effects of Reagan’s War on Drugs can still be felt around America and added that he also believes the media is also to blame for the United States’ puritanical views on drug use, especially in comparison to other developed nations.

“People  think that the media is manipulating people and it’s this huge government agenda to make people afraid,” he said. “But what they don’t realize is that there’s no overarching authority saying, ‘You have to write about drugs in this way. You have to demonize them. You have to make people afraid of them.'”

Countless substances have been scheduled by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) since its inception in 1973, even though genuine research chemicals like 2C-N and DOET were scarcely used outside of laboratories, if at all. Furthermore, it is easy to schedule a drug, but very few drugs in history have ever been de-scheduled. According to Morris, this is a ridiculous blanket approach. Everything should be legal, as the DEA has hardly made the nation any safer by banning entire families of chemicals. Some of the most dangerous chemicals are barely regulated at all.

“You can get [scopolamine] at CVS,” he said. “[And] the research chemicals that are used as brain-lesioning agents, like ibotenic acid, are all readily available.”

Still, Morris is far from optimistic that drugs will ever be regulated more rationally. America’s tense relationship with drugs will likely stretch on indefinitely, even if Americans grow more comfortable with the consumption of marijuana and other psychedelics.

“I think that everything has continued for this long already says that people are completely insane,” he said.

The original version of this article stated that Shulgin’s Aleph series had caused multiple deaths due to the drugs’ enzyme inhibition. This effect is actually true of Shulgin’s 2C-Ts; there are no known deaths associated with Shulgin’s Alephs. The current version reflects this change.