Head Copy Editor
Do you like counterculture learning about uncommon lifestyles and beliefs? Are you a big fan of docu-series? Do you enjoy interdisciplinary content and learning? (You go to Whittier College, so you better.) Do you just like learning more about the world? Then do I have the show for you!
In one of the most stereotypical things Vice could put out, Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia is a television show exploring the chemistry of drugs and psychoactive chemicals, the cultures around the world that use them, and the everyday people that advocate and disavow them. Hosted by chemist and investigative journalist Hamilton Morris, Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia explores everything from the cultural history of indigenous peoples using naturally occurring psychedelics, to users and advocates of traditionally hard and ‘scary’ drugs, such as meth and PCP. It even covers massive medical advancements, like the rise of Xenon as an anesthetic and therapeutic drug in eastern Europe, and tracing the production of medical ketamine to secretive, untraceable factories in China. Morris interviews and studies recreational users of both legal and illicit substances, mainstream and underground scientists that manufacture and study the neurological effects of drugs, and law enforcement and government officials that outlaw these chemicals.
The show first premiered as a traditional television show in 2016 through Viceland, but episodes had been released through Vice on YouTube for several years prior. Many of these early episodes are now exclusive to YouTube and, thankfully, are free to watch, alongside some official episodes. The full show, however, is a Hulu exclusive.
The YouTube era episodes are a great place to start, as they explore much more diverse content. One of the most popular early episodes is “Medical Miracles with Ambien,” where Morris travels from Africa to Europe to North America, documenting cases of the popular sleeping drug’s ability to almost reverse the effects of people suffering from traumatic brain injuries. Through an unknown chemical action in the brain, Ambien was able to give a man the ability to speak again, reversed the effects of a severe stroke, and even revived the consciousness of a man thought to be brain dead — an absolutely insane topic that still doesn’t have much coverage in mainstream media. Other episodes of this era include a legal loophole in Holland permitting the active chemical in magic mushrooms to be sold as truffles, as well as the recreational abuse of AIDS medication in South Africa.
The first series of the main television show stays in South Africa, documenting the recreational use of Quaaludes there, as one of the only countries in the world that still produces and prescribes the drug. It also delves into Quaalude’s role in the culture of the African lower class in the post-apartheid nation, and the theory that it was introduced as a recreational drug by the apartheid government as a form of control over the native African population, perpetuated by a racist and pro-apartheid government doctor, Wouter Basson, who was convicted for weaponizing street drugs to help prevent an uprising against the apartheid government.
The show doesn’t get any less wild from there either; the following episodes follow advocates of PCP as a recreational drug over-sensationalized by the media (alongside a cameo from former PCP addict Steve-O), the religious and cultural use of one of the most potent psychedelic plants discovered, salvia, within the indigenous people of Mexico and the Yucatán Peninsula, and rumors in the fishing communities of Madagascar that some local fish have the ability to act as psychedelic drugs, and that eating them can produce vivid hallucinations, among other things. That’s just season one.
Following this are even more journeys into Native American cultural and religious use of peyote in the southwest, the Thai governments’ ban on kratom, a natural opioid with seemingly very little risk for addiction (remember: other opioids are morphine, heroin, and prescription painkillers), and its trees being destroyed to near extinction within Thailand. The show also explores ketamine (recreational drug, horse tranquilizer, anesthetic, and experimental depression treatment) and its mysterious origins, including how, despite being sourced from and produced in bulk in Asia, it doesn’t have an academically documented way to be created. The chemical formulas needed to do so are considered trade secrets in India and China.
While the subject matter is obviously diverse and fascinating, mini documentaries on drugs from the perspective of a chemist can be daunting, to say the very least; it was definitely my first impression. Morris, however, makes the science of these chemicals as quick and educational as possible before going back to reviewing the humanistic aspect of these stories. Though he can’t avoid the technical terms of advanced chemistry, he breaks down manufacturing and medical chemistry of drugs pretty quickly, usually in only a minute, and describes what each series of chemical reactions does and what purpose it serves rather than lay out a list of elements and molecules in an equation.
In addition, if it’s necessary to recreate a drug in a lab as an educational example, he usually refers to an acquaintance, Dr. Jason Wallach, Ph.D, who already has a professional lab and chemistry experience, to assist him so the show can return to the narrative and interviews as soon as possible. Wallach is a common guest on Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, and helps not only with the pure chemistry, but its actual application in drug and street culture. In a perfect example here, he helps recreate the methodology and process underground scientists with limited resources use to create PCP, instead of with a sterile, efficient, expensive lab method that doesn’t relate to the actual gangs producing and selling the drug, as well as the people buying it.
To end, if you still aren’t convinced this is a show worth watching, I’d like to give you one final example. “Synthetic Toad Venom Machine,” the premiere of season three, aired and was advertised on YouTube to promote the show in December of 2020, and was how I discovered Hamiton’s Pharmacopeia. It’s possibly the best episode to sum up everything the series is about.
After a several year break, this opener to the new season is one big correction to the season two premiere, which was about the search for an anonymous scientist calling himself ‘Albert Most,’ who discovered the Colorado River Toad has an extremely potent psychedelic in its venom, and became the first documented person to smoke it in the 1980s. Morris ended up interviewing a fraud claiming to be this man, and this episode was a do-over that discovered the actual person who published this research and his enormous impact on the world. In this, he interviews a science teacher who was falsely arrested after a disgruntled employee accused him of giving drugs to kids by using the Colorado River Toad to teach his students, and, after the resulting media frenzy that never reported that he was found innocent, subsequently destroyed his career in the name of the insane ‘War on Drugs.’
Morris is then contacted by several people who knew the man who went by ‘Albert Most,’ and it turns out he was a political activist and amateur anthropologist and biologist named Ken Nelson. Nelson was a far-left anti-war and anti-nuclear advocate who joined the army only to learn military techniques to use for civil disobedience, as well as nonviolent and violent protests at nuclear power plants. As a young man, he was an avid reader of academic anthropology journals and read of an ancient Native American site where thousands of toad fossils were found in the Carolinas for an apparent ritual use. This, combined with the theory that ancient Native Americans religiously used other psychedelics besides peyote in the southwest (something that, to be clear, still cannot be definitively proven), motivated him to teach himself the biology and chemistry to identify an unknown psychedelic organism that could’ve been the one in question.
Nelson eventually settled on the Colorado River Toad, and, with no equipment and nothing other than his self-taught scientific background, drove to Arizona, milked a toad of its venom, dried it, and smoked it without hesitation. Fortunately, his hypothesis was right, and he smoked a potent, relatively safe and healthy psychedelic drug instead of toxic venom. He then published his findings under a pseudonym and moved on with his life, eventually getting Parkinson’s Disease and dying shortly after his interview with Morris. Morris went on to expand on Nelson’s research himself for the episode, going to a scientific conference on the toad in Mexico to advocate for the synthetic production of the drug instead of having people hunt the toads to be milked, resulting in a sharp decrease in population in the last few decades. The synthetic production of the drug was also something Nelson himself advocated for in his research, and, with the help of his old friends in the area, he was publicly revealed as Albert Most. Morris and Nelson’s friends began making money in his name, which was to be donated to Parkinson’s research in his honor.
This episode brings together every aspect of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia and creates an educational, politically-charged, and humanistic message. Giving voices to people personally traumatized and permanently hurt by the U.S.’s ‘War on Drugs.’ It shows how a self-taught activist made one of the biggest scientific discoveries of the 20th century in American ecology, and advocates for the venom’s drug, a derivative of DMT, that has a history of underground therapeutic use and consistently gives people strong religious and spiritual experiences, before donating to the cause of curing the disease that killed the man who started this whole phenomena. Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia gives voices to the underbelly of society and traditionally oppressed minorities, provides an educated and nuanced view of the ‘War on Drugs’ failures while remaining relatively unbiased, and documents underground and illegal science that, as the years pass, could be information and progress lost to time as the pioneers of early drug culture get older and pass.
If that isn’t worth watching, I don’t know what is.
Featured Photo Courtesy of Danilo Parra