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Weekender | Talking drugs with the king of psychedelia

Journalist Hamilton Morris blends substances, science

Published: Thursday, October 4, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, October 9, 2012 18:10


Melissa MacEwen / The Tufts Daily

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. 

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