Hamilton Morris is an American writer, scientific researcher and journalist. Born in New York City, Hamilton studied anthropology and science at the University of Chicago and The New School. Morris serves as the science editor for Vice Magazine in addition to being a science columnist for Harper’s Magazine.
Hamilton is best known for his role as the host of Viceland’s show, Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, which began as a monthly column for Vice Magazine. In the show, Hamilton takes viewers on enthralling journeys through the bizarre and exotic world of drugs. While Hamilton demonstrates a strong interest in the pharmacology of drugs, it is his commentary on the social and political context surrounding drugs keeps viewers hooked.
Fascinated by his work and his process, I caught up with Hamilton to talk about his journalistic process, as well as garner his insights on pharmacology, prohibition and addiction.
In the past, Hamilton’s show has covered drugs ranging from DMT, PCP, Quaaludes, Kratom, Psychedelic Toads, Ketamine and many others. One episode examines the disturbing and mind-boggling history and present-day realities surrounding quaaludes in South Africa.
“I am usually guided by personal curiosity, and often, the drug is just a portal to a larger narrative,” said Hamilton. “While the episode is about quaaludes, it’s actually a story about the chemical and biological weapon program that the apartheid government in South Africa orchestrated and their role in the dissemination of methaqualone into the streets. So, it’s a fascinating story about Project Coast, and it has deeply complicated and troubling characters.”
Hamilton is referring to Wouter Basson, who in the 1980s was in charge of the “Project Coast” program, a government-sponsored biological warfare program designed to suppress and kill non-white populations in South Africa and uphold the power of the apartheid government. Basson is thought to be behind creation and large-scale introduction of Mandrax into the streets. Basson was later tried for 67 crimes against humanity.
“I don’t think anyone fully knows what happened- maybe no one will ever fully know. There were aspects of the story that we couldn’t even introduce in the piece,” said Hamilton.
The story is a troubling and complex one and while exact facts cannot be ascertained, what is apparent is that drugs hold as much danger as they do potential. Indeed, the story of institutions and governments weaponizing drugs in order to propagate subjugation is certainly not a new one.
In the United States, the war on drugs and prohibition have long been used as tools of oppression against minorities, particularly Black communities. The Nixon administration used drugs as a way to “disrupt” Black communities in particular, practically enslaving them, feeding private prisons and destroying lives. Hamilton is highly critical of this history.
“I have spent my entire adult life talking to people whose lives have been destroyed by prohibition and policing,” said Hamilton.
Our episode on MDMA is about my friend Steve Gill and how his life and scientific research was destroyed by his arrest and about the tragedies of prohibition and how it has interfered with hobby chemists.
Today, police brutality is a key issue that is being talked about. However, we cannot talk about racism without talking about drugs and all of the different legal frameworks that allow drug law to be weaponized and used toward discriminatory ends.
While the police do some things that are helpful, the DEA is an organization funded by taxpayer money used to lock people up for nonviolent drug trafficking. It’s insanely negative, and that could be abolished completely. Ideally, the resources allocated to arresting people for drug crimes would be reallocated to analytical chemists so we could carry out enhanced surveillance of a market to prevent that misrepresentation.”
The DEA has been heavily critiqued for its inherent bias reinstating racial disparities under the guise of enforcement and protection. Indeed, the foundation of the DEA is based on a conception of drug usage that prioritizes punishment over rehabilitation and prosecution over care. Morris believes that our issue with drugs is not limited to policy and politics but that the very conception of drug usage in the United States is a problematic one, both in terms of institutions as well as drug users themselves.
“I think that one of the tragedies with drug education in the United States is that drug use is framed as exclusively negative and self-destructive. Consequently, the idea of harm reduction doesn’t enter the equation.
For people who use drugs, I think getting out of the self-destructive mindset is important. If used effectively, they can be tools to better your life. At the same time, I also don’t believe in drug elitism, for example, some people say if you are going to use psychedelics you have to do it in a spiritual, shamanic, or therapeutic way.
I have a laissez-faire attitude about drug usage; People should be able to do what they want, as long as it doesn’t hurt other people.”
While Hamilton believes in the harm reductionist framework and de-stigmatization of drug use, when it comes to people with addictions, he believes that individuals taking control of their own narratives and actions is essential.
“People, in general, need to do their absolute best to take responsibility for themselves and their choices in the use of drugs.”
Perhaps because the climate around drug education has been abstinence-oriented, there’s a really dangerous attitude of people blaming the opioid epidemic and the doctors that prescribe this medication. That’s just another take on this prohibitionist narrative- of arresting the people who do bad drugs, arrest the dealers who sold the bad drugs, when that doesn’t really get you anywhere. At the end of the day, you are still framing yourself as a helpless victim.”
The DSM-5 has a chapter dedicated to substance-related abuse disorders. Addiction is often framed, diagnosed and treated as a disease with potentially psychological origins and often manifesting as an acute physical dependence for most substances. Framing addiction in this way clearly complicates the notions of personal responsibility.
Rehabilitation therapies and recovery focussed principles of addiction advocate a “responsibility without blame” approach. It is undeniable that there is an element of personal responsibility in addiction. Of course, the issue of personal responsibility itself is affected by many factors such as genetic predisposition, psychiatric conditions, socio-cultural context and several others.
While personal responsibility is a factor, there is also the larger issue of governmental policies and private corporations. In 2019, Nan Goldin led a protest at the Guggenheim Museum against the Sackler family, the owners of the OxyContin manufacturer, Purdue Pharma. Goldin herself was prescribed opioids, suffered from addiction issues and almost overdosed before becoming an activist against the opioid epidemic and Big Pharma.
Hamilton is critical of Nan Goldin’s work and activism targeted at pharmaceutical companies and their owners. He believes that the focus should be on education and individual responsibility.
“Nan Goldin, the artist, photographed a lot of downtown drug addiction. In recent years she has been saying that she got addicted to oxycodone and had no idea that it was addictive. I’m skeptical of this. She spent her career photographing heroin addicts in New York City somehow didn’t realize that oxycodone was similar?
Everyone just jumps onto the bandwagon and is throwing their pill bottles at the Guggenheim because of their secular money involved in the funding of this museum—it’s nonsense. Pharmaceutical companies did everything in their power to try and change drug education to create an atmosphere of liberal prescription of opioids was considered the humane and medically responsible thing to do.
I think that we are in a really complicated position and no one benefits from playing a victim in this situation. I acknowledge that not everyone can be a pharmacologist or a scientist and that it’s unfair to expect people to have that background. However, basic education and acknowledgement of its addictive qualities could lead to a cleaner market.”
While Hamilton’s point about education and responsibility is a critical one, some physicians, while acknowledging that over-prescribing is part of the problem, point the finger at corporations such as Purdue Pharmaceuticals, the American pain Society and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Others, like Hamilton, argue that the blame is overstated. The issue of responsibility is a complex one and the blame game is not be a constructive way to frame drug-related issues. Many patients are unaware of the specific make-up of their medications. In order to counter this, education and acknowledgement are key.
Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia is quite radical in its honest portrayal of drug usage and the issues surrounding them. Unsurprisingly, these candid explorations have attracted critique.
“Sometimes I will be criticized for talking to people who aren’t exemplary users of psychedelics, some ask, ‘How could you possibly interview someone who smokes DMT and believes in Pizza Gate. You are making all DMT users look crazy.’
The larger point here is that one cannot evaluate a drug based on its users, which are bound to be varied in background and belief. We should be able to separate a problematic user from pharmacological realities or facts about that drug.
Ultimately, I think that we are doing just as much of a disservice in creating a false narrative that we are in creating a positive one. So if someone like Micheal Pollen writes a book about the history of psychedelics, and that history only includes psychiatrists and clinicians, but he doesn’t address the illegality of them and the circumstances in which people use them, what is he really writing about?”
Hamilton’s approach towards drugs is a scientific one, that, while acknowledging social and political factors at play, arises from deep pharmacological curiosity and passion about the compounds of drugs themselves. Hamilton’s work often invites controversy precisely because he engages in fearless investigation that refuses to be confined or moulded by conceptions surrounding drugs. Hamilton’s lens is candid and scientific, whilst also being mindful of context and humanity. Guided by curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge, Hamilton never fails to take viewers and readers on a journey through the polarizing, complex and ever captivating terrain of drugs.