From iboga-worshiping religious groups in Central Africa to xenon-inhalation enthusiasts in Europe, journalist Hamilton Morris takes us around the world in the newly released third season of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia. A beloved series among psychonauts, chemists, and overall drug nerds, the Pharmacopeia explores substances both ubiquitous and obscure—think LSD and bufotenine—while diving deep into the undercurrents of what makes society tick, and where drugs play a role. We caught up with Morris to chat about the Drug War, what it was like filming during the pandemic, WTF xenon is anyway, and whether drugs can actually save the world (spoiler: they can’t, but there are ways they can help).
DB: So first things first, what was it like producing the season during the pandemic?
HM: The season was made during the pandemic, which certainly encouraged some stylistic and storytelling changes that wouldn’t have been present in the past and which came from a number of different factors. I was disconnected physically from many of the people I was working with. It suddenly became extremely difficult to travel anywhere to do interviews. So on one hand, certain types of things became much more difficult, but other things that were difficult in the past became easier.
In the past, I had no time, so capturing a time lapse of a growing plant ended up being tremendously difficult, since there was all this negotiation that had to occur with the filming of time lapses and chemical reactions, because often you don’t get these things on the first try: crystals growing or seeds germinating or some kind of specific color change. Now, we had time to perfect certain things that we wouldn’t have had the time to even think about in the past.
So what’s an example of something you got a time lapse of this season?
Growing crystals of methamphetamine. I think that seeing a drug or chemical or plant is something beautiful that helps people appreciate these things for what they are, without the influence of social or historical factors that can distort the way we understand them. At the end of the day, it’s a colorless crystal, and everything else about it is something we impose upon it with our culture, laws, and receptors. So I wanted to show methamphetamine crystals growing. The R-enantiomer of methamphetamine is an OTC nasal decongestant in the United States so we used that to film time lapses and then reversed the image in post.
What’s the craziest or most interesting thing you saw while you were in the process of making the season?
I don’t know if “crazy” is the word, but a lot of what I filmed in the xenon clinic was pretty unexpected. What I liked about the xenon work is that it’s something that’s never really been filmed before. Xenon therapy is almost entirely unknown in the English-speaking world. The same is true of shamanic cebíl ceremonies in Argentina—those have never been filmed before either.
At the end of the day, methamphetamine is a colorless crystal, and everything else about it is something we impose upon it with our culture, laws, and receptors.
The use of iboga to treat opioid addiction in Central West Africa is also something I don’t believe has ever been filmed before, which I find sort of ironic because most people in the US exclusively know iboga as a treatment for heroin addiction, yet in the region where Bwiti is practiced they don’t use it for that despite the fact that they are facing new problems associated with tramadol addiction. Tramadol is widely and inexpensively available in 225 milligram tablets and many people are developing an addiction. So yes, there is a sort of irony that in this region, where many people are battling addiction to opioids, they’re not using a plant that is used everywhere else to treat opioid addiction. But the traditions are changing and now iboga is being used in Central West Africa to treat opioid addiction and that’s very exciting and something I wanted to capture for my documentary. I’ve always wanted to see that particular use of iboga and ibogaine introduced to people who have been using it for centuries, especially because there hasn’t been opioid dependence in that region until recently. Hospitals will have morphine, and that’s sort of a thing, but the heroin trade doesn’t go to Central West Africa; and the pharmaceutical opioids traditionally were too expensive or had not caught on culturally, so there is not a culture of opioid use in that region of the world. So people who are encountering it for the first time are in a uniquely vulnerable position for that region, whereas in the US, we grow up on a diet of horror stories about opioids.
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So let’s go into some more details about the xenon episode. For those in the audience who don’t know, WTF even is xenon?
Xenon is a noble gas. Noble gases are a column on the periodic table of elements. They are called noble gases because historically they’re believed to be unreactive. So probably the best known examples are helium and neon. They are not chemically reactive substances that are used to make compounds. As you go down the periodic table, you have heavier noble gases like argon, krypton, and xenon.
Xenon is a very dense gas. It’s so dense that it can be poured like a liquid into a container and you can float a foil boat on top of it. It’s far denser than air. It has the opposite effect of helium on your voice. Whereas helium makes your voice high pitched, xenon makes your voice low. It happens to bind to the glycine site on the NMDA receptor, which induces a nitrous oxide-like or ketamine-like dissociative anesthetic effect. Arguably, it’s the only psychoactive drug on the periodic table of elements. Elements like lithium or rubidium that are psychoactive aren’t psychoactive in the elemental, metallic form.
What did xenon feel like?
It felt like nitrous oxide, but stronger by weight. It’s a little difficult to make a direct comparison. I’ve never had nitrous oxide under comparable circumstances, which was a breathing circuit that scrubs CO2 and allows rebreathing of the anesthetic gas. Most people, when they use nitrous, inhale a balloon filled with it and they have a dissociative, euphoric, semi-psychedelic experience, but then it’s over. I was laying in a bed continuously inhaling a combination of oxygen and xenon for an hour and I’ve never tried anything like that with nitrous oxide. Xenon is pretty much unheard of outside medical circumstances. One of the things that made the experience with xenon so compelling and interesting was that I could remain in that psychological space for an extended period of time.
Is xenon safe?
It appears to be safe, but it’s not as well studied as some other anesthetics. There are many things that appear safe based on a limited number of experiments, and then are found to be unsafe once they’re used by a larger patient population. Nitrous oxide is a great example of that. It was considered unreactive and safe, and it really wasn’t until they started experimentally giving people nitrous oxide for long periods of time that they realized it exerted a specific type of bone marrow toxicity that could make it fatal under certain circumstances by interacting with metabolism on vitamin B12. So it appears that xenon is safe, but at least one and maybe two people have now died in the Czech Republic, people who run these clinics. I don’t think those deaths are a result of a specific xenon toxicity, but I think it’s an occupational hazard for people who run those clinics, like how nitrous is an occupational hazard for dentists: Having a nearly unlimited supply of a high-potency euphoriant predisposes one to use it excessively.
So to change the topic, how does the War on Drugs play into your work on the series?
It plays very strongly into the methamphetamine episode. It’s not as explicit and didactic in the realm of drug policy as many other things, but I try to implicitly communicate ideas that help people come to a personal understanding about those things on their own. That’s the hope because I think people can get jaded by statistics, so I try to humanize these issues and contextualize them in a story that allows people to understand it on more of a visceral level.
With the meth episode, it shows how the prohibition and regulation of methamphetamine, as well as its precursors, have made it cheaper and more available than it has ever been before, while destroying a culture of home synthesis in the US and shifting the manufacture to Latin America.
People often talk about psychedelics as this panacea for mental health healing, conflict resolution, environmental justice and more. But as much as I believe in the benefits of drugs—psychedelics and beyond—I don’t think they’ll actually save humanity. What do you think?
No, they won’t save humanity, but we can stop using drugs to destroy humanity. That would be a start. I think they could evolve from being a source of unfathomable human suffering in the War on Drugs to a tool that could, at the very least, introduce some richness and joy into people’s lives and in some instances treat diseases and psychological disorders. I try to have a balanced perspective on this, but the way things are now is about as bad as it could be: We still have people locked in cages for Cannabis. We have scientists who can’t research psychedelics. We have a public who’s ignorant of the injustices of the War on Drugs and the lost potential of these substances, and their rich history—which could have beneficial ramifications ranging from revitalizing religion to revitalizing psychiatry, art, and music.
There’s a lot of potential there, but to begin to scratch the surface, we have to stop locking people up and destroying their lives for being associated with drugs in some way. And in part, in order to do that, we need public support for psychedelics. That’s the overarching hope for what I’m doing: to help cultivate a less judgmental, more constructive, healthy attitude toward these things so that when the next ballot measure or politician comes along, maybe there can be more votes advocating for this instead of against it.