Q&A

Psychonaut Hamilton Morris on Drugs After Prohibition 

Nick Gillespie speaks with Viceland's Hamilton Morris about why he's so interested in drugs.

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What will American drug culture look like once prohibition is finally over and we can start to legally use more substances in more settings? No one is better situated to start that discussion than Hamilton Morris, the 32-year-old host of Hamilton's Pharmacopeia, a documentary series that has aired for two seasons on the Viceland cable channel. The show explores the variety of drugs that are available, how they work, and how we might best use them to fulfill our hopes and dreams.

In one early episode, Morris confounds the conventional wisdom by telling "a positive story about PCP," a drug about which even legalizers typically have nothing good to say. He visits with Timothy Wyllie, an artist and visionary who used the drug as part of his creative process. In another, Morris travels to the Brazilian Amazon, where locals get high on a substance taken from hallucinogenic frogs.

Morris also does laboratory work at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, where he and his collaborators create new medicines for testing and research trials. In May, he sat down with Reason's Nick Gillespie to talk about how the drug war has warped the conversation about intoxicants and what a post-prohibition landscape will look like.

Q: Why are you so interested in drugs?

A: I need to think of a better answer to that question, because I get asked it a lot. They have an absolutely enormous influence on our culture. So much of our political landscape is dictated by drug policy and the prison-industrial complex. Philosophically, medically, scientifically, drugs are a huge subject. Once you start seeing the world through that lens, you realize it would be crazy not to be interested in drugs.

Q: People seem to be getting more interested in erasing the arbitrary distinction between legal and illegal. Why is that happening?

A: I think journalism is largely driven by this swinging pendulum of novelty. For a long time, it was novel and interesting and engaging to report on how dangerous and horrible and life-destroying drugs are. Somebody pulled their eyes out on PCP; somebody ate their best friend; somebody set themselves on fire.

But then the novelty of scare stories wears off and the pendulum swings in the opposite direction. It's more engaging to say, "Hey, those psilocybin-containing mushrooms that you thought were a drug? Well, it turns out that these guys at Johns Hopkins actually think they're a medicine. Isn't that a novel take on all of this?"

Q: What do you think of food writer Michael Pollan's How To Change Your Mind?

A: I was amazed by his restraint. He created this extremely palatable, sterile history of psychedelics where, if you read the book cover to cover, it's very hard for any reasonable person to think psychedelics are bad. So on that level, I think it's fantastic.

On a more pedantic level, I resent how much emphasis is placed on the clinical use of these things. They should be legal regardless of whether or not they're viable treatments for depression, or [obsessive-compulsive disorder], or anxiety, or end-of-life pain.

Q: How does looking at drugs as medicine limit us?

A: I have nothing against thinking of drugs as medicine, because they often are. But the distinction between drugs and poisons and medicines is illusory. These categories aren't chemically or pharmacologically meaningful.

I just don't want that to be the be-all, end-all of our understanding of the subject. Do we go back to a prohibitionist interpretation of these substances if the medical model fails? There's something a little bit precarious and fragile down this path, though I know it's working really well from a political perspective.

Q: One of the most memorable episodes of your show is about PCP, which you depict in both a positive and a negative light. What's going on in that episode and what can we learn from it? 

A: I had proposed making a TV show for Vice about drugs, and one of the executives said, "Oh, we already have this tentative show that's about all these crazy drug stories." I objected [to that framing] and he said, "You can't say that something like PCP is good." I said, "Sure you can. Of course you can." And he said, "If you can tell me a story about how PCP isn't bad, then we'll do that." So that was the pilot for Hamilton's Pharmacopeia.

PCP became shorthand for a bad drug experience. If you had something negative happen to you, you say there must've been PCP in whatever drug you thought you were taking. It's a perfect example of a substance that's been totally mischaracterized. When used carefully under controlled circumstances, it's no worse than anything else. Pretty much every drug has the potential to be extremely dangerous under certain circumstances.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. You can listen to the full conversation, and don't forget to subscribe to the Reason Podcast.