“Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia”: A deep dive into psychedelia

Holly Fortner, Contributing Writer

Picture your daily struggles. Perhaps you’re feeling lower than usual for longer periods or can’t seem to talk about your problems naturally. You go to a doctor, get referred to a clinic and suddenly you’re lying down and easily chatting — all with the help of a bit of LSD.

Earlier this year, Netflix released “How To Change Your Mind,” a psychedelic-centered docuseries following author Michael Pollan showing psychedelics in a new light. Its four episodes focus primarily on psychedelic therapy and its histories. LSD, psilocybin, MDMA and mescaline all receive their own tailored episodes on the modern medicinal properties they have for treating patients of mental illness.

If you’re interested in psychedelics, then the chances are that you’ve probably seen or at least heard of this series. There is, however, a show that came before it. While not a true predecessor, Vice TV series, “Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia,” explores the same psychedelics as “How To Change Your Mind” — plus a little extra underbelly. For those wanting a documentary series with more dirt under its fingernails, this is one to consider.

Beginning in 2009, “Pharmacopeia” was first written as a monthly column article for Vice Magazine by psychonaut  — or “mind sailor” — Hamilton Morris as a college sophomore. The column later graduated to a short online documentary series on YouTube from 2012 through 2017, gaining popularity on the site. 

After the show’s success on YouTube through the years, Morris produced 20 full-length documentary episodes of “Pharmacopeia” for Viceland, now Vice TV. The show ran for three seasons from October 2016 to February 2021.

Charmingly gawky in his all-white ensemble, the series follows Morris as he travels around the world, exploring the history and chemistry of various psychedelics and other psychoactive substances. Morris delves deep into the clandestine side of psychoactive substances, gonzo journalism style, capturing on camera the illicit manufacturing of drugs and the opinions of the people who make them.

Morris focuses on a few of the well-known psychedelics that “How To Change Your Mind” also covers — LSD, psilocybin, MDMA and mescaline. But, “Pharmacopeia” goes beyond these basics and into some truly obscure waters. 

Just from season one alone, Morris seeks out Quaaludes, a popular party drug once thought to have completely died out in the 1980s but is still used recreationally in post-apartheid South Africa. He explores PCP over-sensationalism, traditional Salvia ceremonies in Mexico, psychedelic mushroom rituals and toxin-producing ’dreamfish’ rumored to cause hallucinations.

Ranging from mundane to extreme incidents, what Morris experiences on his journeys is what the audience sees in “Pharmacopeia,” and it’s both humanizing and humbling. Morris refrains from popular demonization of even the most stigmatized substances — see season three “A Positive Methamphetamine Story” — leaving viewers to make their own judgments.

In perhaps the most cinematic episode of the show, season three premiere episode “Synthetic Toad Venom Machine” sees Morris comically haggard and run down as he corrects a glaring journalism mistake of the season two premiere, “The Psychedelic Toad.” 

In season two, Morris details the mysterious discovery of the Sonoran desert toad as a source of psychedelic experiences via secreted venom. This information was found within a 1983 pamphlet circulated anonymously titled “Bufo Alvarius: The Psychedelic Toad of the Sonoran Desert.” The pamphlet itself is a guide that goes through the description of the Sonoran toad and how to harvest the 5-MEO-DMT in its venomous glands. 

“I propagated a lie,” Morris says in the season three episode as he rewatches his old conversation play out with Alfred Savinelli, the man who originally confessed to being the pamphlet’s long-lost author. The real author of the Bufo alvarius pamphlet, revealed in the season three premiere, was not Alfred Savinelli but instead Ken Nelson — a reclusive psychedelic researcher, environmental activist and veteran. 

While at the 2019 World Bufo Alvarius Congress, the season three premiere sees Morris expanding on Nelson’s research to offer a sustainable alternative to milking toads, making the episode a groundbreaking discovery in chemical synthesis and ecology. In a controlled laboratory in Mexico, Morris successfully films the first-ever synthesis of 5-MeO-DMT.

Upon the show’s closure, Morris is currently devoting more time to his pharmacological research on psychedelic compounds at the University of Sciences in Philadelphia and acts as a consultant for COMPASS, a psilocybin start-up company. He releases podcast episodes from time to time on his YouTube channel and Patreon where he discusses psychoactive substances with various other figures in the community including Michael Pollan of “How To Change Your Mind.”

There’s a whole world of extraordinary mind-altering chemicals out there; some are well-known and some aren’t. “Pharmacopeia” works to understand these substances rather than propagating stigma. It’s a refreshing must-watch for anybody seeking to expand their knowledge or change their minds.

“Pharmacopeia” currently streams on Hulu, Vice TV and Pluto.

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