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Movers And Shakers

Clandestine chemistry and psychoactive drugs in film: Hamilton Morris talks about his career

The journalist and scientist discusses his work documenting clandestine chemistry and the societal impact of psychoactive drugs

by Bethany Halford
February 7, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 5

An image of Hamilton Morris
Credit: Danilo Parra
Hamilton Morris explores psychoactive drugs and their chemistry in Hamilton's Pharmacopeia.

In the opening sequence of each episode of his documentary series Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, journalist Hamilton Morris remarks that he’s been fascinated by psychoactive drugs for his entire life. “I love to study their chemistry and impact on society. And my work has allowed me to investigate extraordinary substances around the world,” he says. “Yet there are still mysteries that remain.”


Hometown: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Age: 33

Favorite element: Xenon. In the third season of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, he visits a xenon therapy clinic in the Czech Republic.

Must-have travel item: A heavy 95 W ultraviolet lamp for illuminating fluorescent compounds

How Morris occupied himself during the pandemic lockdown: Filming crystals growing and plants blossoming in his father’s office

For the third season of the series, which began airing on the Vice TV cable network Jan. 4, Morris spent late 2019 and early 2020 traveling the world from Green Bay, Wisconsin, to Gabon and from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to the Czech Republic, all in search of stories about psychoactive drugs and the people who make, take, and study them.

Morris says he aims “to tell interesting stories that aren’t about drugs themselves but about the characters and the science that surround those substances.” The series explores the rich history of psychoactive compounds as well as the chemistry used to make them, often illicitly. This season features chemistry that will be familiar to readers of C&EN, including the controversy over the source of the pain medication tramadol in tree roots found in northern Cameroon and the structure of LSD bound to the 5-HT2A serotonin receptor. There’s also chemistry that’s rarely captured on film, such as a Mexican drug cartel making methamphetamine on a 100 kg scale.

“Chemistry is beautiful, and it is extremely interesting, and I think that by entering these taboo areas, it can make it a little more exciting for people who otherwise might not be interested,” Morris says. “I can’t even tell you how many emails and messages I receive from people saying that they used to think chemistry was boring, then they watched the show, then they took an organic chemistry class, and now they’re majoring in chemistry or now they’re going to graduate school because this was the first time they had seen chemistry depicted in a way that they thought was really thrilling.”

As expected in a series documenting psychoactive-drug makers, scenes show glassware and other, occasionally improvised, chemical synthesis equipment. Chemists might be surprised to also find narrated chemical reaction schemes and even mechanisms—hand drawn in a tidy script by Morris himself. “From an educational perspective, I think that it’s a great way of representing these reactions,” Morris says. “I try to make it fast enough that, for the people who are bored by it, they’re not totally miserable. And for the people who are interested, it’s all there.”

Morris says Vice TV’s legal department originally told him that if he was going to show chemical syntheses of illicit drugs, he would have to skip a step. But he pushed back. “I actually think that skipping a step is totally irresponsible,” he says, pointing out that such an omission could create dangerous synthesis conditions in a lab or lead to products that are toxic if consumed. “You are in no way protecting people in scrambling the chemistry. If anything, you’re making it more dangerous by misrepresenting what’s happening. And you lose any educational benefit.”

Regarding concerns that showing chemical syntheses will prompt viewers to attempt chemistry that could be harmful or consume substances that are contaminated with hazardous reagents, Morris says: “I’m far more worried by the dangers of scientific illiteracy than potentially dangerous scientific knowledge.”

Although Morris is best known for his work as a filmmaker, he studied science as an undergraduate. But he says most of his knowledge of chemical synthesis has come during the decade or so he’s spent researching the chemistry and pharmacology of psychedelic compounds at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. The first episode of the third season features Morris demonstrating a low-cost, green synthetic route for making 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine (5-MeO-DMT), a psychedelic natural product secreted by the Sonoran Desert toad. In the episode, he urges attendees at a conference for toad enthusiasts to consider using a synthetic version of 5-MeO-DMT instead of extracting the compound from toads to prevent harm to the creatures and to conserve their habitat.

His background in chemical synthesis, Morris says, often informs his filmmaking: “I’ll see a reaction. I’ll know that it’s beautiful, and I’ll think, ‘This could be so much fun to show other people the beauty of this reaction.’ ” He cites, for example, the alluring blue hue that a solution takes on when lithium is added to liquid ammonia in a Birch reduction—a reaction that’s used to make methamphetamine.

I genuinely believe there is pretty substantial therapeutic potential in these compounds that has been left untapped for the better part of a century.

Morris’s interest in chemistry started as a child, when he, like many young scientists, developed a curiosity about explosives and poisons. As a teenager, Morris’s fascination with chemistry and psychoactive drugs converged when he extracted salvinorin A from salvia leaves. A few years later, as a college student, he began writing a one-page column for Vice magazine called Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia. The column transformed into a “small, extremely low-budget” pre-YouTube documentary series that Morris made with two other people and a single camera. Morris then began doing pieces for news shows, and in late 2016, the first season of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia premiered on Vice TV.

The series is not without controversy. Surprisingly, Morris says he doesn’t get much flak for showing people making illegal drugs in clandestine labs. The criticism he gets instead is often unexpected. For example, some people in the psychedelic community believe, because of the history of prohibition and the war on drugs, that synthetic methods should be kept secret.

“I don’t entirely disagree with what they’re saying, but I think that it’s a question of short-term benefit versus long-term benefit,” Morris says. “There’s always a short-term benefit in hiding. There’s no long-term benefit. If you want to actually cause social change, you have to be open, and you have to be transparent.” Watching the series, you can tell that Morris is an advocate for destigmatizing the use of psychedelic drugs.

Morris also says there is a strong political dimension to making documentaries about psychoactive drugs, which were scorned for decades but are now being studied as treatments for neuropsychiatric disorders, like depression and addiction. Because of that stigmatization, Morris says, he’s frequently told he should feature people using psychedelic drugs only in a way that shows the drugs are beneficial. “I think that’s all well and good, but I won’t do that to such an extent that I would be dishonest about anything,” Morris says. Because psychedelics have been demonized for so long, he says, he would like to show them in a favorable light. But ultimately, Morris can report only what he observes—and the reality is not always positive.

Morris says that making Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia has become so difficult that this is likely to be the last season of the series. He cites the challenges of traveling to dangerous locations and working long hours, as well as the sensitivity required to strike the appropriate balance between providing information and not doing anything that might promote risky behavior.

And Morris is concerned about his sources. “I’m working with people who are, in some instances, committing crimes in the context of their research,” he says. “There’s a tremendous amount of sensitivity required in order to tell their stories and depict the scientifically and sociologically interesting aspects of the work they’re doing while ensuring that they don’t lose their freedom as a result of telling their story. It’s a tremendous responsibility that I take very seriously.”

As for what’s next, Morris plans to devote more time to his pharmacological research on psychedelic compounds—research for which he had to scrounge funds in the past but has become a hot area in recent years with the success of drugs like ketamine for treating neuropsychiatric disorders. “I genuinely believe there is pretty substantial therapeutic potential in these compounds that has been left untapped for the better part of a century,” he says.

But Morris says he enjoys both filmmaking and science, so he is likely to make other documentaries in the future. “The scientific literature contains some of the best stories you’ll ever encounter,” he says. “It’s kind of unfortunate that there isn’t more of a narrative component to a lot of these articles, because behind every article there is always a story—a human story—that is fascinating.”


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