The host of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia on Vice.com, Hamilton Morris, has traveled from Iceland to Brazil to China and beyond to explore—and sometimes sample—the effects of mushrooms, frog secretions, synthetic marijuana, and much more. Morris screens two previews from the new season of Hamilton's Pharmacopeia and dicusses the history of drug culture, his career, and what's next for his exploration of “ethno-chemistry” with Artistic Director of the Chicago Underground Film Festival Bryan Wendorf.
Hamilton Morris: I was going to start by showing a little bit of this new show that I have on Viceland, has anyone seen it yet?
HM: It might be boring if a lot of people have seen it, but –
Bryan Wendorf: [Laughs]
HM: I don't wanna … otherwise, I think it might be interesting. Okay, so this is from the first episode that came out two weeks ago. This is about the underground manufacturer of the drug Quaalude in South Africa. I'm just going to cut to the end of the piece where I find this lab that's manufacturing the Quaalude. This is sort of representative of the projects that I've been working on generally.
HM: We're secretly taken to an undisclosed location to finally see the lab. You don't have to cover your whole face, even, you could just wear a hat, or something.
Do you enjoy cooking it?
Male 1: Yes, because I know when I finish cooking I have money, you know.
HM: All right, so show me how you do it.
Male 1: Now, this is orth, the orthotolidine.
Male 1: I close it. I wait until it reach temperature.
HM: And, are you worried about the fumes? Should we get away from it now, while it's cooking? Do you know that this is toxic? The orthotolidine. It's not good for you.
Male 1: When I go to the toilet, there was blood.
HM: There was blood in your –
Male 1: Yeah. I was using this thing.
HM: Blood in your urine?
Male 1: Yeah.
HM: You know it's known to cause bladder cancer.
Male 1: Blood cancer?
HM: Bladder cancer.
Male 1: Okay.
HM: Though the mechanism of the condensation is yet to be firmly established, it seems that inside the pot as the temperature climbs towards 200 degrees Celsius, the reaction between the near equal molar quantities of orthotoluidine and Acetylanthranilic acid begins with the carbon anyl addition initiated by lone pair electrons on the toluidine amine, which generates a zwitterionic intermediate that after a series of proton transfers from the ammonium cation and carbocyclic acid allows oxonium to leave as water. The water is removed by heat, driving the otherwise reversible action forward and amitine intermediate undergoes a concerted cyclization producing the quinazoline anone after an additional proton transfer and the loss of a second oxonium as water, producing methaqualone.
Smell is very strong. You can smell the orthotoluidine in the air. The cook is currently boiling off the water before he transfers the reaction mix into a tub.
Smells like orthotoluidine, which smells like burning rubber, which smells like cancer. It has a cancery smell I'd say. He's about to prepare methaqualone free base with this bucket of aqueous sodium hydroxide. That's a smell I like.
Male 1: Yeah, I don't like it. Make my body itch.
HM: It makes you itchy?
Male 1: Yeah.
HM: Do you ever smoke the material yourself?
Male 1: No, no. Never smoke it.
HM: The cook just added a concentrated sodium hydroxide solution to the crude reaction mixture. That's liberating the methaqualone free base as well as orthotoluidine free base, and it's boiling. And it's a black tar. What is the step after this? What comes after this?
Male 1: [Unintelligible]
HM: To what?
Male 1: [Unintelligible]
HM: Does this look good? Are you happy with the way it's going?
Male 1: When it's doing like this, I know that the – there's money in my pocket.
HM: There's something very interesting just happened. You have the crude reaction mixture of the hydrochloride salt, he added aqueous sodium hydroxide. It was a paste, there was some difficulty mixing the two and then almost spontaneously, the mixture solidified into a powder. What pH do you want it to be?
Male 1: Seven.
Male 1: Mm-hmm.
HM: What is it now?
Male 1: It's 18 now.
HM: He's now filtering the neutralized reaction mixture, which is around pH 7, through a pillowcase. This is pH 7, right?
Male 1: Yeah.
HM: Is that a special pillowcase you use?
Male 1: Yeah. You must use the white one, not the black one or the red one.
HM: Why is that?
Male 1: For the color.
HM: Before you were working this job, did you have other jobs?
Male 1: No. I was stealing cars. [Laughs]
HM: So you went from stealing cars to –
Male 1: Always like this.
HM: Organic synthesis.
Male 1: Yeah.
HM: So this is about 800 grams of methaqualone free base. You filter the free base through a pillow ase because it's insoluble in water, it remained in the pillow case while all of the other reactants, I hope, washed through the filter. 800 grams is 4,000 doses. It's ready to be pressed into tablets after it's dried.
[End of TV Recording]
HM: Okay, that's that. I'll play one more short clip. It's not about chemistry, although there's chemistry later in this episode if anyone wants to watch it. This aired last night.
HM: I'm in New Mexico to visit the home of Timothy Wyllie.
Timothy Wyllie: Hey.
HM: Hey, great to meet you.
TW: Good to see you, yeah. Welcome to the shack.
HM: A spiritualist and founding member of the Process Church, who used PCP to inspire his artwork and a mythology in which the Garden of Eden serpent is revealed to be an ancient race of space-gypsy philosophers.
TW: I had taken some PCP, thinking about the Adam and Eve myth. I thought, “oh, we know about Adam and Eve, but who the hell is the serpent?” And, my pen started working. And – so each of the pages I did using PCP, you tune in and you can feel the undertow, what's going on underneath. This reality, which is just like a heartbeat away. When I first came across PCP, that would have been probably in the mid – no, in the early eighties I would say. I saw immediately that this is something very different. I mean, I had experience with acid, you know, with all of that – all the standard entheogens. But this is something very strange; this is something different, because, with your normal entheogen, it – in a sense, you can feel your body and you can leave your body. You’re somewhere else. With this particular molecule, the sense I get is you go up, but you take the – you take it with you.
HM: Dissociative anesthetics are a chemically diverse class that share an ability to disconnect the user's body from their mind.
In 1956, the chemist Vic Maddox serendipitously discovered PCP, and one year later, the drug was being tested as an anesthetic in human surgeries. But dissociative effects limited its clinical application and it soon found a home with non-medical users on the street.
Male 2: When you smoke it, everything goes into symmetrical patterns. It’s like gears – well, like gears come together like this. You understand gear wheels?
HM: And those people use the drug to explore strange realms of the mind that are otherwise inaccessible.
When did you first decide that you wanted to smoke PCP and interact with dolphins? What was the motivation for doing that?
TW: I'd always been interested in dolphin intelligence. Using PCP—especially with dolphins—was just wonderful. I mean, you can just go straight into communication with them.
HM: How would that manifest? What would be an example?
TW: One of the questions I – telepathic questions I had asked was, how do you convey information down through time? How do you store information? And I was out about waist deep one time, there was a dolphin kind of swimming out about 10 or 15 feet away. And I had the impulse to pick up a sand dollar, and when I looked at the sand dollar, the impression that came was that these sand dollars are information storage devices. In other words, dolphins can project cause they use sound to project images. And they project that image onto that, and it stays within, right? Cause when shells grow, they grow holographically if you know what I mean.
HM: I don't know. It's a really interesting idea.
TW: Well, the shell will retain its information as it grows.
TW: So, another dolphin will come along later, will ping that with the same frequency, and they will receive the information stored in the shell.
HM: So this was something – this was a realization that you had. You were –
TW: This was – yes.
HM: You were on PCP, you picked up a sand dollar and you understood its significance in recording information from dolphins?
TW: No, I was in this telepathic bond with the dolphins while this was happening.
HM: Wow. Wow, that's an amazing story.
[End of TV Recording]
BW: So when you started that clip playing, I saw the name Timothy Wyllie, I was like, why does that name sound familiar? And I read the book about the Process Church earlier this year, so I'm looking forward to seeing that whole episode.
HM: Which book is that?
BW: I think it's called Love, Sex, Death.
HM: Oh. Is it his book?
BW: Yeah, I believe so. I think he –
HM: Oh yeah –
BW: Feral House published it.
HM: Right, right, right.
HM: He's a –
BW: I love the graphics, the Process Church, all their publications look so cool.
HM: Yeah, Timothy Wyllie's a great guy. I was trying to find someone who would stand up for PCP. Someone who's an outspoken PCP advocate, and it was surprisingly difficult.
But, he had written this article for High Times in the 1970s in defense of – or maybe it was early eighties – in defense of PCP, and High Times refused to publish it, so he put it on his website. And I read it years ago when I was in school and thought, he seems like a pretty interesting guy. And then, kind of remembered it and called him up and he was very eager. He really wanted me – his condition for the interview is he said that I had to bring him PCP if he was gonna –
If he was gonna do the interview. We negotiated it a little bit and figured something out, but –
But he's a great guy.
BW: John Lillie used PCP in the isolation tanks too, didn't he?
HM: He primarily used ketamine, but he did use PCP after all his ketamine suppliers cut him off toward the end of his addiction. And he got into a near fatal bicycle accident while on the PCP that was sort of like his dissociative rock bottom that scared him straight. He writes about it in his autobiography The Scientist.
BW: I haven't read that book in a long time.
HM: It's good I recommend it.
BW: Can – let's go back and start like, how you decided that this was a – drugs were a subject that you were interested in investigating. You have a background in – you studied neuroscience for a while, and chemistry. Are you – you said it's kind of a weird mixed degree in a few different things?
HM: Yeah. But, yeah, I've been interested in the subject for a long time. I think it's pretty fascinating to a lot of people, but for whatever reason, most people don't go that deep into it. They kind of are satisfied with appreciating it on a surface level, and once you really go deep into a lot of these worlds, they're just full of these characters that are so great that the drugs almost become a secondary issue. It's about the opportunity to meet all these really unusual people all over the world who, of course, have used drugs in interesting ways as well.
BW: Has there been any subject that you've been interested in investigating that is kind of elusive? It's out of reach, that you haven't found the connection to make an episode on?
HM: Oh, absolutely. I mean, every single episode is – at least in terms of the way that I idealize it, it's something 10 times bigger than what actually ends up airing or on the internet. You know, with the Quaalude episode that was the season premiere of this new show that I have, I very much wanted to interview this cardiologist who's this kind of mad scientist, head of the chemical and biological weapon program that the apartheid government had. And, he somehow got away with all these crimes that included, among other things, murder, and continues to practice medicine in South Africa. So, I very, very much wanted to interview him, talk with him about his work and, you know, I tried absolutely everything. I tried to feign various heart diseases to get an appointment at his office.
I called him incessantly from different fake identities; I emailed him repeatedly pretending to be an apartheid sympathizer. There was pretty much – he became a motivational speaker. I went to one of his weird motivational speeches at a high school about stress reduction but also about chemical warfare at the same time.
And really just couldn't do it. You know, I think with some of these people, just the fact that I don't speak Afrikaans has already disqualified me in that specific instance. But, you know, it's hard going into a completely foreign country, a foreign culture and, in some sense, it would be arrogant to expect that I could get access to all the things that I want to. But my primary interest is the world of manufacture, because that's kind of the most elusive, most secretive, highest stakes of the drug world. And it's also, I think, the most technically interesting zone, in terms of the chemistry.
BW: Finding the Quaalude lab, how long did it take to track – is that all in the early part of that episode, how you –
HM: It took approximately three years.
HM: Yeah. And it was a very – I go into the process a little bit in the episode, but it's so complicated and ultimately a little bit boring that I can't really go into the full details. But it was a sort of conventional meet a dealer, find the dealer's dealer, find the dealer's dealer's dealer, find the dealer's dealer's dealer's dealer. And keep moving up the food chain until you find someone that knows how to manufacture it and then make friends with them, and then, you know, continue on with it. Of course, it ends up – there was all sorts of miscommunications. At one point, they were – I was – somehow it got lost in translation that I was making this documentary process and wanting to film an interview, and they thought that I was actually just sort of like, applying for a job to be manufacturing methaqualone in an underground lab in South Africa. It was like, one of the most significant misunderstandings I've ever had with anyone.
HM: And –
BW: What kind of resume do you turn in for a job like that?
HM: No, there was no resume required.
But, it was definitely more money than I'm getting paid now, and I had to politely decline.
So, I mean, it's a lot of work. And, getting into that lab was difficult, and we tried to work some of the difficulties into the narrative structure, which is something I've been working on, is trying to acknowledge the complexity of telling these stories. The actual creative process as well as the story itself.
BW: So, each of these episodes, from conception to final product, take – are they all taking –
HM: No, they couldn't.
BW: Three –
HM: Well, the PCP one also took a very long time, because again, it was a somewhat similar process of moving up this food chain in Compton until I found this PCP chemist who I loved. He was like, really one of the best guys I've ever met. I really thought he was a fascinating person. And at first he was trying to manipulate the film crew and do this sort of fake synthesis. And then he realized that I knew that he was faking it, and then he sort of liked me because I called him out on his bullshit. And we started just talking off camera. And I mean, he was a really big manufacturer and he almost let us film in his lab over and over and over again, and then would – I mean, ultimately he was probably too smart to let us film in his lab, because it takes a degree of recklessness to allow a film crew to film you manufacturing in that instance, a Schedule II controlled substance, if there's any chance it can be traced back to you. But yeah, he let us interview him, he wouldn't let us record the manufacturer, and then shortly after we wrapped filming, he died when his lab caught on fire. So, I mean, it is – it's a real thing, all this – a few people have expressed skepticism about whether or not these things are real, and of course, you could fake it. But I've even analyzed the crude product from that lab in South Africa, and that was methaqualone.
BW: What was – so when you began working for Vice, you started writing for the print magazine, correct?
BW: What was the first drug you wrote about in the print version of the magazine, and how did it evolve into the series from there?
HM: The first things that I worked on were pretty – I wrote a few things under fake names when I first started. You know, essentially just writing reports about the qualitative effects of different, then-obscure psychedelic drugs that now have become a little bit more common. And, there weren't – at least it seemed as if there weren't as many people writing about drugs then. I don't know if that's just a false impression that I had, but I do remember the impression, at least from the editors, that writing about these research, chemical, psychedelics, and psychoactive compounds that could be bought on the internet, was like a very nerdy, esoteric thing that they were sort of unsure whether they wanted to publish it all. And now it's – you know, you see it just constantly.
BW: In some of the – I researched before meeting you tonight, read something, it might have been in that Joe Rogan podcast, it was mentioning where you said the way Vice approached covering drugs in the early days was very different from the way you approached it, when you took charge of it. Can you –
HM: Yeah, I mean, it was more – Vice was a humor magazine. You know, like, there was a time when I first started writing for Vice it was best known for snarky fashion criticism. That was the –
BW: Kind of do's and don'ts thing –
HM: Yeah, do's and don'ts. That was the most prominent thing that Vice did. And now it's something that probably most people aren't even familiar with because it's so old and so different from their current image. But, yeah, it was – you know, they were into things that were funny, things that were sensational, things that were ridiculous. And doing these sorts of ultra-detailed analyses of synthesis or emerging psychoactive drugs was not really something they cared very much about.
BW: Did you have to persuade them that that was something that they should –
HM: It didn't take all that much persuasion because the editor at that time, Jesse Pearson, was a really smart guy, and he trusted a lot of young writers to do what they wanted and gave people a huge amount of creative freedom. I mean, that is the one thing that can certainly be said in Vice's favor, is that they give people a lot of creative freedom. At this point in my career, I've had the opportunity to work at a few other places, and I do really appreciate the opportunity to do almost whatever I want in these things. I mean, even the legal department told me that you know, you can do whatever you want but you can't glorify drugs and you can't teach people how to manufacture drugs. And so I said that I wouldn't but I did –
And it doesn't seem like anyone noticed. So –
HM: I got away with it.
BW: From the episodes that I've seen, I wouldn’t say that – I don't feel like you glorify drugs. I think you approach drugs in a very objective way that neither glorifies them or condemns them.
HM: Yeah, that's partially the hope. Although I do have a little bit of a – I do wanna show a little bit of love for these things, because I just – I have a – drugs like PCP, there's again, there's not that many people that are gonna stand up and say, "this is a really interesting, good thing. Thank you, PCP."
BW: Well, let's talk about that. Like, when – what was the first drug you ever did personally? And what was your first memorable drug experience that you had and how did it affect you? If you wanna get that personal.
HM: Yeah, sure. I mean, I was pretty nerdy in high school. I didn't really use drugs, although I did smoke salvia, which was more prevalent then. It could be bought in pretty much any head shop anywhere. I don't think it was really illegal anywhere at the time that I was in high school. And, I don't know how many of you have smoked salvia. Most people seem to have negative experiences with it, but for whatever reason, I had extremely positive ones. And I really loved that quite a lot. But, it stopped there; just smoked salvia every now and then and that was enough for me. It wasn't until I was in college here in Chicago that I first had a classical psychedelic like psilocybin, and that just further increased my interest in this area.
BW: So, the first was psilocybin of a –
HM: Mushrooms, yeah.
BW: Psychedelic mushrooms, okay. Was that – it's been a long time since I've done any kind of hallucinogens. I don't even know where I would go at this point. Is – are mushrooms easy to find in most metropolitan cities today?
HM: I don't know, I'm not –
BW: You're not really –
HM: I'm not even like, in an onstage way, like, I actually don't have any real involvement with drug dealers.
HM: So I have no idea. But I – we just did a piece about one of the – the fourth episode of this series that's on TV now is about mushrooms. And it was very hard to find a mushroom grower. I would say it was – bordered on being as hard as finding someone who would manufacture PCP on camera. A big mushroom grower, not someone who's growing a small amount for themselves and their friends. Someone who's really producing some serious fungal weight.
BW: So, the series evolved. Originally Hamilton's Pharmacopeia was on – was it originally on YouTube or just on the Vice website?
HM: This is a whole, potentially boring evolution of all this. But it started out with vbs.tv, which was Vice's video thing, which was a pretty small. It's like, I had no understanding that these things would be watched by lots of people at the beginning. Now they're running all the original stuff that was made in 2008 on television. And it's kind of horrifying for me, because I was truly naïve when I made that stuff. I had no idea of – and getting emails from people about things that I made when I was 22 or 23, angry that – about this or that. It's like, is this gonna happen for the rest of my life? I'm going to be getting emails from people that are angry about this thing that I barely even remember, about like, someone else hurting a frog when they're near me.
BW: Oh right, from the –
BW: That was the first episode that I watched, was –
HM: A lot of people that really care about frogs; I care about frogs a lot. I've never –
BW: Frogs are cool.
HM: I want to help them. I want to nourish them. I want to uplift frog communities.
BW: Was – did it bother you when the frog is –
HM: Yeah, it bothered me.
HM: ’Cause I love frogs.
And, so for people who haven't seen that episode, the – it's South American, right?
BW: It's a –
HM: Brazilian Amazon, yeah.
BW: It's a venom?
HM: Yeah. It's a peptide in the venom.
HM: Or it's – I don't know if it's technically a venom; it's a secretion.
BW: A secretion, okay.
BW: And you say it in the episode that it's supposed to be an opiate, but it doesn't really have regular opiate qualities. It's more –
HM: It is, yeah, it's technically – it's a – an agonist of the new opioid receptor. It may have had an opiate effect. It wasn't pleasant, it wasn't – again, this was like – I've always wanted to do these more obscure stories, and even at that time, even at the very beginning, I think initially they wanted me to do something about iowaska, and I thought, oh, it's already been done.
BW: Yeah –
HM: I wanted to do something –
BW: – everybody talks about iowaska.
HM: Of course people had already done the frog thing as well. People had done a lot of things, but it felt like more fertile territory to explore. But in terms of the qualitative effects, it's not really the most amazing thing a human being can experience. There's a lot –
BW: It seems like a lot of work.
HM: Yeah, it's a lot of work. I don't really recommend it.
BW: Yeah. Is there a particular drug that you're anxious to investigate in the future?
HM: Yeah, I mean, there's a lot of demonized drugs that I would like to say positive things about. I would like to do a pro methamphetamine story as well. About the virtues of methamphetamine. A little bit of it is just this contrarian urge to –
BW: I'm blanking on his name but there was a scientist Carl…
BW: Carl – no –
HM: Carl Hart, yeah.
BW: Yeah. Who said –
HM: I tried to intern for him a long time ago.
BW: Did you?
HM: Yeah. Unsuccessfully.
BW: And he says that Ritalin and methamphetamine are chemically very similar.
HM: Probably not – I mean, not chemically or pharmacologically. Maybe Adderall and methamphetamine.
BW: That's it, it was Adderall.
HM: They are. It's just a methyl group away.
BW: But, you know, society has a very different way of approaching one and the other.
HM: Absolutely, yeah. So that's something that I would talk about in the hypothetical episode. And you know, I’d like to watch people manufacturing it again. It's kind of – the chemistry is very interesting to me. It's – obviously it's very profitable. I'd love to watch someone making LSD. That – the season finale of this episode is a bit about LSD synthesis, but we never really showed its synthesis. It's a retired chemist who is really doing everything he can to stay out of the lab these days, 'cause he went to prison for a decade.
BW: Speaking of LSD, the crystal episode is pretty fascinating. It's one I watched doing research. That story seems so bizarre and how did you find out about – I mean, I wonder can I share that with the audience, because it –
HM: Yeah, are you all familiar with the Pickard Lab and that whole tale? It's a pretty fascinating story. Again, this is something that felt very obscure to me, when I was first – it was almost like an inside joke with me and my roommate. This former stripper, Krystle Cole, wrote this book Lysergic, self-published book. You know, it looked as – full of typos, whatever. It's easy – you could easily make fun of this book, but the substance of it is amazing.
It's one of the most amazing stories I've ever read, and me and my roommate at the time, we kind of became obsessed with Krystle Cole because she so – such a funny character. And this is really, like, obscure, psychedelic drug scene stuff that no one knew about. And I – she had a early YouTube channel and I went and interviewed her. And it really blew up, it's the most successful piece I've ever done. I think it has about 10 million views.
It was the first kind of viral-ish thing that I made, and it was because people were so opinionated about this story for reasons that I don't fully understand. You know, she was like, sort of implicated in this weird torture episode where she may have been – you know, I don't – this is a complicated story, maybe better not to even attempt to summarize it. But she was – her and her boyfriend, she had two boyfriends and they were in Doubletree in Houston and there was all sorts of weird mayhem that took place involving injecting his penis with Salvinorin A, and weird stuff.
BW: Somebody's going to make a movie about it.
HM: Okay, so well, that was the thing. So I was like, this is a pretty good – this is like, how naive I was at that time, I was like, this is a pretty damn good story; I should make a movie about this. So I asked her if I could buy the film rights to the story, and she was like, you know, sure, it's $3,000.00. And I was like, I'm in school, I can't – that's a lot of money.
Like, I don't even think I can make – I can't – I don't even know if I can really make a movie about this. So, it's a lot of money to just –
BW: That's what Kickstarter's for.
HM: This was before Kickstarter I think.
HM: And, I was like, all right, whatever, it's obscure. I'll get it later. And then this piece came out, and it turned out to be really unusually successful and there was a bidding war in Hollywood, where Julia Roberts's producer was in a war with the guy that wrote I Heart Huckabee's and all this, you know, stuff to get the rights to the story. It ended up going for a large amount of money and I really hated myself for a while afterwards, for not having bought the rights to it. And it still may be adapted into some kind of a feature film.
BW: Definitely seems that it has that potential. It's –
BW: – bizarre.
HM: It's a great story.
And I'm in touch with the chemist as well. But he maintains his own innocence, which really is a problem if you're trying – you can't be an interesting character and claim you never did anything at the same time. At some point you have to admit guilt so that you can tell the story that people want to hear. So, he won't say anything about the chemistry, he won't really say anything about anything. He just wrote this 800 page book called The Rose of Paracelsus that as far as I can tell does not – it's just about his own innocence.
And, I certainly don't think he should be in prison, I don't think, you know, anyone should ever be in prison for making any drug. But – or using any drug, but I do think he's probably guilty of this crime and I wish he would just talk about it so that people could understand what happened.
BW: When we talked before, we just brought up things like addiction, some of the negative things about drugs, and you've said you've deliberately are kind of trying to not talk about those issues, because they're – that's what is always talked about in drugs. So, you're trying to give the other side, or more positive depiction of even some of the drugs that people probably – would think are indefensible. Right, but you're the defender of the – you know.
HM: And it's not even that I want to deny the negative aspects.
HM: In this PCP piece that aired last night, really what I'm saying is it's factual. That if you really look at the studies, the association with violence and PCP use is not firmly established. There's no causal relationship that is known between the two. And this is sort of just a weird stereotype that keeps getting repeated. Of course there have been violent episodes involving people on PCP in the same way that there have been with people who are drunk or on cocaine or crack or nicotine or whatever. I mean, it happens that people are intoxicated and behave violently. But – and there are all sorts of sensational stories, the Big Lurch story where he ate his friend while on PCP and you know, there's – yeah, he ate his friend.
But for everyone that eats their friend, there's someone else that – that has a really nice chat with their friend. And they become closer and they talk about life and relationships and future goals.
BW: I think this is very common with a lot of drugs when society wants to criminalize them or demonize them, that an – there's an incident that people can point at and say like, oh, that's why we need to ban this. And it's just like, one thing.
HM: Oh, absolutely.
BW: Like, reading, I mentioned Johann Hari's book earlier in private. This – I love this book, read it. Chasing the Scream, by Johann Hari. But he talks about the history of the War on Drugs from the beginning of prohibition and when Henry Anslinger inherited what became the DEA after prohibition ended, he initially said that marijuana was totally safe and fine and nobody – isn't a problem. But he realized that going after just cocaine and heroin, there wasn't enough use at the time to warrant getting his government funding –
BW: So, he eventually had to completely change that and decide that marijuana would drive you insane. And he found this case where some Mexican immigrant had killed his family with an axe and this became this kind of reefer madness story that they used to make – you know, to –
HM: It's always the case.
BW: Yeah. And it – there was no evidence that he – this person – you know, he had mental illness, probably never even smoked marijuana. There were – it was just like, they grafted it on to this story to give his excuse for making something more illegal and getting public outrage about it. And I think there's some – a couple of the episodes you did on – you talk about similar things with – I'm forgetting which drug it is. I watched so many, and so many so quickly.
HM: Oh, maybe it was the truffles in Amsterdam.
BW: Yes, the truffle story.
HM: Yeah, there's a story like that behind almost every prohibited drug. 'Cause it takes one incident that people can point their finger at and say “Look, look at what happened. Can we allow that to happen again?”
BW: Art Linkletter's daughter and LSD was a –
HM: Yeah, this girl, high school student Gaelle Caroff in the Netherlands, jumps off a bridge, may or may not have been on psilocybin-containing mushrooms, all the mushrooms are banned. You have Brett Chidester, who is an emo teen, depressed, his parents are divorced, he was taking acne medication that could have impacted his mood, smoked salvia, wrote in his journal, “I now understand that life is meaningless,” which, I think is actually kind of a positive thing, right. I think the meaningless of life is sort of an uplifting idea, but he writes this, and then several months later kills himself and the mother, in her grief, is going through his journal, trying to figure out what happened. Points her finger at the salvia, it was the salvia.
Dedicates the rest of her life to this crusade to make salvia illegal in the United States. Same thing happened with Ritalin, which was I believe was initially uncontrolled and then some Senator's daughter or something was injecting it. It – pretty much the same thing happened with 2CT7, which was – became illegal immediately after the same guy that wrote The Hurt Locker, wrote this awful Rolling Stone article about how dangerous it was. I can't remember what his name is, but this is just a terrible piece of journalism. You know, really if you go through – you could go through the DEA list of controlled substances and find one person behind almost every single one of them.
That's the way it works. And if no one dies, then the opposite is true. It becomes a little bit trickier to make a drug illegal, and I think that may be the reason that Kratom, which is in the news a lot recently, this sort of uncontrolled opioid leaf, is still not scheduled, is because just – it's not killing people.
BW: I'm all for not killing people.
BW: So this – you've done two episodes that have aired now. How many are in the first season that – it's weekly on –
HM: Yeah, it's every week –
BW: Viceland is a new –
HM: It's a new channel, it used to be H2, which was a History Channel derivative dedicated to rerunning ancient aliens.
That Vice purchased and is now filling with all original content. I don't have a TV, so I haven't seen a lot of the other stuff besides my own show, but it seems like there's some good stuff on it. And it's –it's six one-hour episodes.
BW: Okay. What's in the – what are some of the other topics in this season that you've done?
HM: Yeah, you know, I'll let you all in on the secret if you wanna know. It's salvia –
HM: Mushrooms, hallucinogenic fish.
BW: Where'd – what kind of hallucinogenic fish? That sounds interesting.
HM: It's a variety.
Parrotfish, rabbitfish, surgeonfish, bream.
BW: Are they all in the same oceans, or –
HM: Yeah, Indian Ocean.
BW: Okay. Interesting.
HM: Yeah. So look out for that. But – and –
BW: Go ahead.
HM: Is it Q and A time?
And the season finale, there's kind of breaks the structure of the other episodes. It's been very complicated to produce. It's about this – an old chemist who lived in secrecy his entire life, and turned 90 and kind of wants to tell his story for the first time. I mean, it was a big – had a lab in the center of a volcano that was never discovered. And he kind of feels that he has nothing to lose and wants to talk about his life's work now. So that's what's in store.
BW: Before we go to Q and A, can you tell us about the book that you're working on?
HM: Yeah, maybe that shouldn't have been in the bio because I haven't been working on it at all recently.
I've been, you know, I've just been doing – I've been doing nothing but TV nonstop for the last year and a half. I've been working on this and then before that, something for National Geographic. So, I've been just completely immersed in the television world recently, which has left no room for writing. Which is – it's unfortunate because that's – you get a lot more freedom. I mean, there's a lot of restriction making TV, just little things like, you know, can you talk about something that is copyright – copy written in some way. And it's just a huge limitation, so I do want to write about some of these stories to get the full scope of them out. Even you know, the technical details of how people were doing some of these syntheses. It's, at least from a scientific standpoint, it's pretty interesting stuff. It'd be nice to go into even more depth.
BW: Yeah. Well, I hope that you find the time to –
HM: Yeah, I'm gonna take a break after this.
BW: I guess we should open it up to some questions.
Audience Member 1: I was just curious what you think with the progression towards legalizing things like marijuana and the research on psilocybin the more traditional drugs, there will be less of a drive to continue to create sort of these off the wall drugs like spice or kratom or krocodil or things like that? Will there be less of a drive, or are we just hedonistic by nature and always going to look for that next high?
HM: I don't think there's a single answer to that question. I think that there's – you could divide the market into different subcategories. On one hand, you have people that might call themselves psychonaughts, people that are interested in exploration of unknown psychoactive substances, who are actually interested in seeing what's out there. If someone creates a derivative of the THC molecule that lasts twice as long or has some other kind of qualitative difference. It's interesting, there's certain people that would love to try that. And then there are other people that are the complete opposite and they have no desire whatsoever to be trying untested molecules that were not necessarily designed for human consumption, that haven't been through any sort of clinical or toxicological testing.
And as long as those categories are defined and you don't have people that don't want to be using those chemicals but they're using it because they have to, because they're being drug tested or because they don't have access to the controlled substance that they want, or whatever other reason – they can't afford it. That's the tragedy. It's sad to imagine people that don't want to be using synthetic cannabinoids that are using them because they're on probation or because their urine is being tested, that's awful. And I hope that stops, but in terms of exploration of the unknown, I'm sure there will always be people that are interested in that.
Ann Meisinger: My mic actually does work now, here you go.
Audience Member 2: You fixed it, great. Great, well thank you very much. It's great to be able to see you in person. I was wondering, given the – there's plenty of opportunities for us to hear from anti-drug people about the opioid epidemic and I believe it's real and hitting families all across the country. I was just wondering from your perspective, looking at drugs in a much more objective and your curiosity about them, what your reaction to this is and what you think. If it is a problem, what society's reaction should be to try to stem the tide of these overdoses and fatalities?
HM: It's a good question. I mean, one basic rule in my own approach to these things is I generally don't talk or cover drugs that I haven't tried myself. So even PCP, I have tried measured quantities of analytically confirmed PCP. And I've had very positive, rewarding experiences. Not many, but they've been nice. Which is why I feel comfortable not demonizing it, because I have no reason to. My personal experience has been nothing but positive. I can't say the same thing about opiates.
I've never really used them. That is the class that I have the least personal experience with; I've studied them the least. So I'm most reluctant to make some kind of assessment about their safety or danger. Obviously people die; obviously people have tremendous difficulties with dependence and addiction. And the flip side is that I have friends that, you know, use buprenorphine and other maintenance therapies and lead very happy, productive lives and think that it benefits them in some way. So, it's – I guess the short answer is, I don't necessarily want to cover that at this time. Maybe kratom, maybe something specific relating to the chemistry of the fentanyls, but as like a general, overarching issue, the opioid epidemic in the US is so complicated that I can't really take an informed stance on it that I would feel comfortable sharing.
Audience Member 3: I saw that you recently published a paper regarding the recreational use of dissociatives.
Audience Member 3: And I know that this evening you discussed PCP kind of at length. I was wondering if you could discuss the other side, regarding like, methoxetamine?
HM: Yeah, methoxetamine's a pretty fascinating – this is getting into pretty obscure territory I imagine for most people, but methoxetamine was developed by an acquaintance of mine in the UK. And he is someone that had really crippling phantom limb pain. He had to use cannabinoids or opiates or something to allow him to function because he had this clenching pain in his missing hand. And he was also very knowledgeable about the structure activity relationship of these arylcyclohexylamine dissociatives and went about designing what he thought would be the perfect dissociative that combined all these structural motifs that he thought would optimize the therapeutic properties of the drug.
And that drug was methoxetamine. And, it became pretty popular. It was a – it's a cool idea, it's an interesting history, it's an interesting pharmacology, but beyond that, I think that it's – you know, it's illegal in the UK, its use had declined significantly, and I don't think it ever became particularly popular in the United States.
Audience Member 4: So, do you think that our use of drugs, it's general human experience that should not be regulated at all? Or, you think some types of drugs should be prohibited or not, or short situations that all drugs should be prohibited because unknown consequences basically for people who doing them?
HM: I certainly believe in, at the very least, decriminalization. Obviously there – we'd have to change drug education quite a bit in order to help people deal with some kind of transition to total legalization of all psychoactive drugs. But you know, we take for granted so many other dangerous things that we're allowed to do without problems. People are allowed obviously to carry guns in most of the United States; they're allowed to have all sorts of weapons. And also, there's no regulation whatsoever on most real poisons. When you look at the Schedule I – list of Schedule I drugs, you're not gonna see cyanide on that list. You're not gonna see tetrodotoxin. You're not gonna see methylmercury. You're not gonna see the really dangerous things on that list. They're not there. The drugs that are on the list of controlled substances are drugs that people enjoy using. So, a lot of it has to do with this sort of puritanical mindset where we think being high is bad. A lot of it has to do with, you know, developing a sense of personal responsibility with that freedom, because I think another problem is that a lot of people think of using drugs as a naughty thing. It's a naughty thing that they're doing, it's bad in some way. And I think that's also a kind of damaging attitude, because if you are somehow trying to make it fun, because you think it's self-destructive, you're already putting yourself in a position to have a bad relationship with these substances. So, you know, it's about a cultural shift that has to take place as well as a legal one.
BW: The criminalization of drugs seems, from my experience and what I've read, both seems to be almost inevitably make the problems associated with the drugs worse for the user and for –
HM: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.
BW: It's just –
HM: Yeah. Without fail.
Audience Member 5: I'm curious to hear your thoughts on the growing use of physician-prescribed ketamine for depression.
HM: I – you know, there's an interesting place in Manhattan, the New York Ketamine and Podiatry Clinic. It's – there's two in the same office. And, you'll see some of the most depressed people and some of the people who have the worst foot problems I've ever seen in the same room. You know, I think it's great that this is a therapy that's available to people if they want it. I certainly, in general, am in favor of experimentation. You know, I think that everyone's neurochemistry is so unique, everyone's life experience is so unique, it's very hard to say what will have a therapeutic effect and what won't for a certain person. So, having the freedom to try that out and see if it helps you is a wonderful thing. And I did a shoot at one of these ketamine clinics and interviewed quite a few of the patients, and they said it saved their lives. So, if people are saying this therapy is keeping them alive and it's not causing any substantial bodily harm, then I'm in favor of it.
Audience Member 6: Hi, good evening. You briefly mentioned at the beginning the role of accident in drug discovery. You mentioned Vic Maddox; Albert Hofmann's Bicycle Day as a famous example, as are others. You spoke to Shulgin before his passing about his method of discovery and documentation. So, given that a large amount of our human relationship to drugs have been predicated on accident and that knowledge structure has been sort of embedded in ethno-pharmacological wisdom, different tribes, different cultural attitudes to taking drugs, if now at our sort of main Western civilization, with the end of the drug war perhaps in sight, is there a way of preserving that chance attitude of discovery in the long history of drugs within societies, like in the Amazon for example, with an eye to more mindful use of these drugs by Western society as a whole?
HM: You know, I think accidents or serendipity or whatever you want to call it will always play a big role in medicinal chemistry simply because our understanding of most of these receptors is so incomplete, that we can't have it any other way. Even if we don't want it to be that way, it's going to be that way. The structure of the CB1 receptor wasn't crystalized until a month ago. This is one of the most abundant G protein coupled receptors in the brain, it's the target of THC and so many other therapies. So there's still so much we don't know in terms of rationally designing these substances, that, whether we like it or not, the sort of accidental discovery will always be something that we'll be depending on. I don't know, beyond that what the –
Audience Member 7: I was just wondering if there's a way to combine a double blind [Unintelligible].
HM: Probably, yeah. I think so. Not really, no. I mean, you know, I think it – it's already been happening. We've been – so many of our current therapies are derived from traditional knowledge. That's certainly not a new idea. That's the history of medicine. So, we've been – we've already been doing that from the very beginning.
Audience Member 8: You said that you were strongly in favor of sort of a culture of experimentation, or that that's something that people should be able to do and should be in some sense encouraged to do. But also that drug education would then need to change. In what way would that need to change? I mean, in terms of what sort of risks are involved in experimentation? Things like bad trips and stuff like – what do you think someone should know ahead of time?
HM: I don't know that people should necessarily be encouraged, but they should certainly be free to experiment. And, there are quite a few things that people need to know. That's one of the kind of unfortunate things, is you have to be a little bit nerdy I think to do these things in a safe way. You need to know what a milligram is, you need to have a sensitive digital scale, you need to keep track of your own body in some way. You know, you have to start thinking about drugs in a context outside of the way most people conceive of them as something you use at a party with friends.
So there's kind of like a broad expansion that needs to take place of the way people think of drugs in general. I mean, people are – right now, there's so little trust in people's ability to use their own drugs. If I get a prescription for Ritalin and it says 20 milligram tablets, and they're out of 20 milligram tablets, they won't substitute them for the same number of 10 milligram tablets because they don't trust that I could figure that out. Figure out that tricky math problem of these two 10 milligram tablets being the same as a single 20 milligram tablet. But this – that's where things are right now. And there's zero trust in people's own ability to understand their own body and mind. And you spend five minutes with a psychiatrist and assume that they are somehow gonna know more about you and your consciousness than you would know from your entire life in your own head. So, I think that it's not only good in terms of cognitive liberty, I think it will ultimately allow people to figure out better therapies. Because if you are free to experiment, you might find something that you would have never been given by a psychiatrist. It's – I don't know if that's really an answer to your question, but it's a complicated question.
BW: Well, cultures that have more – that have healthier attitudes towards drugs generally have people whose function in that culture is to be the guide that teaches people how to use those drugs, or is the designated person to do that research.
HM: In a shamanic –
HM: – context. Also, this is, you know, there are more drugs that exist today than have ever existed any other time in history. It's just an unfathomable number of psychoactive drugs that are available and it grows every single day. So the situation is more complicated, and it's – I try to keep a pretty close track of everything that's going on, and it borders on being a full time job, to see all these new stimulants, all these new synthetic cannabinoids. All the new synthetic opioids, and it just keeps growing. No drug goes away. Prohibition doesn't ever eliminate anything, it just keeps growing. So, that's another educational problem, is how do you even prepare people for this subject that's becoming bigger and bigger every single day. And, I don't know.
Audience Member 9: Okay, so I've always been interested in hallucinogens like ’shrooms, so recently I've done them. But there was a point when I was doing my research about how it's called ego death. Have you achieved that, or no?
HM: I don't – I mean, a lot of these terms are not necessarily meaningful. Even the term ego is something that I'm not a huge fan of, but maybe I have, probably I have. But, it's not like an objectively meaningful term, so I don't know. Even – like, throughout the history of psychedelics, people have had different – Timothy Leary had these bardos that were adapted from the Tibetan Book of the Dead and then you know – it's like a whole way of rating these experiences that I've never been a huge fan of. But, I guess the answer to your question is probably, yeah.
Audience Member 9: And also, how does it work chemically? Like, those hallucinogens?
HM: How does it work?
Audience Member 9: Yes. Like, the way – how do they affect your brain?
HM: I mean, in the most simplistic sense, most of the classical hallucinogens bind to a subtype of serotonin receptor called the 5-HT2A receptor, and then there's a number of other ones, 2B, 2C, 1A, that are also often implicated. And this is probably pretty boring, but you know, you can look all this stuff up on Wikipedia. It's been covered quite a bit, and then beyond that there's – that's just the kind of the tip of the iceberg. There's all sorts of second messenger systems and even that – even the molecular neuropharmacology doesn't actually explain the qualitative effects of the drug, which is something that most people don't understand. Like, someone at Vice will say, "oh, I like this PCP thing that you did, but do a little – explain why it makes people strip naked. Scientifically explain that." Or like, "explain why it makes people crazy, scientifically." And what can you say, "oh, well, you know, it binds, it blocks the NMDA channel. And it prevents an influx of calcium and sodium ions and the influx of potassium ions." There's like, a little bit of a gap that isn't covered by the – what's happening on the molecular level and that's something that scientists are working every day to narrow.
Audience Member 10: Hey, yeah, so I just have a question on an issue that's kind of going on within the exercise community – exercise physiology community, and it has to do with stimulants that are finding their way from Japan for sports performance. And one way that they're kind of manipulating them is through methyl manipulation if I'm not – I'm pretty sure that's what it is, yeah. And, what's been going on is that they've been leading to deaths especially within the military and they're not federally regulated yet, just ’cause they keep, you know, moving things around. So, they could find their ways into the American market, and I was wondering if you think that sort of stuff is going to somehow affect the way that other drugs are regulated.
HM: It's really just a version – you see the same thing – I'm most interested in the world of stimulants and psychedelics, but you see the same thing in the world of anabolic steroids, in the world of these eutrophic cognitive enhancers, and in the world of these stimulants that are put into supplements for body builders. I'm good friends with a really swoll guy, big body builder, and he works in a store that sells supplements, so occasionally he'll give me a sample to analyze. And you do often find these dimethylamylamine-type compounds in these like, pre-workout boost powders. And then they prohibit it and they add a methyl group onto the nitrogen or whatever, add or extend the chain by the methylene unit and then it's another stimulant.
It's the same game everywhere. It's the same thing with synthetic cannabinoids, it's the same thing with opioids. It's just an endless game of making the smallest chemical modification possible that it's still legal, and then putting it back on the market. But each new iteration, for whatever reason, often tends to be a little bit less explored, more dangerous, because people start in the easiest place. You know, when you look at the first generation synthetic cannabinoids, like CP 55,940, they're kind of simple derivatives of THC, because that's the obvious starting place. You start with THC, but then they outlaw all those, so where do you go?
You go into this more esoteric territory of the aminoalkylindole JWH 018–type compounds. And it keeps going getting weirder and weirder, and then you have like, MDMB-Fubinica and all this stuff, and it just keeps getting stranger and stranger. They're adding halogens all over the place, and you know, creating potentially toxic metabolites and this is a product of prohibition without question. Most people would not want to be consuming these substances.
AM: We've got time for just one more question.
Audience Member 11: Yeah, I've got a question. I see the show, I think it's really easy for people to see the show as a show on Vice, it's about drugs, it's really interesting, sometimes there's a little bit of a “hehehe” about it. But, I see your show as a love letter to chemistry and sociology, and like it or not, in a country that's so ignorant in science, technology, in STEM in general, you're the only face that we have on television talking about chemistry. Completely. I can't name maybe – I can't name anyone else. We have Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about you know, science and engineering, but you're it.
I'm kind of curious to know where you see this going. If you like television? Your last question you mentioned about how people get bogged down in the technical details. They get lost. There's no one really opening that, to borrow a pun, gateway to understanding chemistry. In a really funny way, you've brought chemistry to America through the funniest venue. To talk openly about drugs and not demonize it. What's next for you? Do you see the importance in that on television? And by television I guess I mean YouTube and Vice, which is millennial television full stop.
HM: That's a good last question. Yeah, I mean, that's kind of one of the great ironies of chemistry, is that it's something that people think is so boring and I almost feel like it's a conspiracy made to make it appear boring because it's actually so interesting. It's like, you know, the only class you could take – organic chemistry is pretty much the only class you could take as an undergraduate and come out able to make bombs, poisons, psychoactive drugs. A lot of very cool, useful things can come out of a low level of knowledge in that area. And, you know, you could get into a whole analysis of how children's chemistry sets have changed, how chemistry textbooks have changed since the Reagan administration and all sorts of weird little – if you look at, you know, post-World War II chemistry textbooks.
Psychoactive drugs are treated as what they are, just chemicals. They're just chemicals, they have some – you know, they're interesting synthetically, they have some medicinal use, there's no political association, positive or negative, with something like harmaline or mescaline or lysergic acid. So, I think that using psychoactive drugs as a way to get people interested in chemistry is great. I think it's really – I think it's a good tactic that anyone should use if they're trying to convince people that it's interesting because it immediately makes something that is totally purposeless into something that has a concrete application. I mean, like I see comments on YouTube saying, oh, I'm furiously taking notes on this PCP synthesis.
And, on one hand you can say oh, that's bad, that guy's gonna commit a crime. But he's not actually gonna do it, you know, he's not. He's not going to go to the trouble of manufacturing PCP, he just got interested in chemistry though. That I do believe. And I think that's great, and in terms of where to go with it, I don't know. I mean, I'm a little bit afraid that there will be some – this is all really new.
I don't know what the fallout is going to be from it. There was a guy in the eighties who published a little manual for manufacturing PCP that he just copied out of the Park Davis patent literature and went to prison for it. I interviewed him about it. He wasn't protected by the First Amendment. I think a lot has changed since then, but this is a lot more than that guy did, so I have some concerns.
But I hope to keep doing it. I'm glad you like it.
BW: Thanks everyone.
AM: On that note, thank you all so much for coming. Thank you Brian and Hamilton for the great talk. Have a great evening.