Its Only an Evil Cactus if Donkeys Chase You: Ethics and Psychedelics with Hamilton Morris

When TAL first interviewed Hamilton Morris, it was shortly after he and his production team had finished season 1 of Hamilton’s Pharmacopoeia. Now, Morris has completed two seasons of his critically acclaimed show on VICE. This time on TAL, Morris has a more reflective tone.

With Adam Gamwell and Ryan Collins, Morris shares his experiences as a filmmaker in traditional and counter-culture environments. These experiences have given Morris a unique window into psychedelics, underground pharmaceutical research, and the ethics of sharing information. The last point hits home for many anthropologists and social researchers, who also must be wary of the unintended consequences of sharing information. Depending on what is at stake, information can endanger informants and friends. Similarly, journalists and ethnographers are confronted with the challenge of presenting multiple sides of a story while safeguarding underrepresented voices.

On this episode, Hamilton Morris opens with an anecdote on Douglass Sharon and San Pedro and Peruvian cactus shamanism. Sharon, an anthropologist, ethnobotanist, and shamanism scholar is a figurehead in Peruvian anthropology. However, Morris notes Sharon’s recent reluctance to talk about shamanism. In part, his reluctance results from ethical considerations for the communities Sharon had worked with during his extensive career. From that anecdote, Morris set the tone for the episode: shamanism, healing and ethics. We were in for a journey.

Authenticity, Ethics and Psychedelic Experience

Morris’ work rests at the  intersection of cultural perceptions of psychedelic experience, healing, and tourism. As Morris notes, an American tourist going to Peru to experience a healing ceremony probably has an idea of what a psychedelic experience is like. They know how it feels, what to expect, and what they want. Yet, when that outsider experiences traditional healing by way of a shaman in a remote setting they might be surprised. Morris notes one example where a tourist he encountered was shocked by their experience in a Peruvian setting. They exclaimed, “That’s not a psychedelic experience.

Authenticity is a term wrapped up in perception, expectation, and experience that anthropologists love to debate. How one experiences the authentic is through the lens of their own worldview. As a result, what is authentic to one group may not be authentic to another. Authenticity is therefore complicated by tourism. Where individuals venture out to experience the authentic, they are often greeted by an experience they did not anticipate.

Seeing Donkeys with the Evil Cactus

Cactuses are such a fun part of this episode. As Adam notes, Morris once said that if he had a religion it would be this [psychedelic San Pedro] cactus. Listeners, my words cannot do justice to the conversation on cacti in this episode. You’ll need to tune in to learn more. Also watch Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia. But, what we can take away from this is that how we treat (or consume) a plant carries an immense amount of cultural baggage. Whether snorting tobacco (no typos there), parsing out the benevolent from the evil cactus, or fervently debating the taste of cilantro, there may not always be agreement on the proper use of a plant. We need to go out and experiment.

Proper Peyote: Who does it right?

Who does a ritual correctly? Who has the right to do a ritual correctly? What are the legal, religious, and political complexities of doing so? These are but some of the questions anyone might experience when having a cross cultural experience. A catch 22 here comes with the questions of who, if anyone will represent a tradition? Filming, as Morris has done, can call authority into question while also bringing up issues on who has the right to participate? Likewise, legal protections, rites, and even growing peyote become contentious. Tune in to learn more.

Learn More About Morris and his Projects

Hamilton Morris is a journalist for Vice, chemist and plant scientist and an anthropologist who seeks to understand hallucinogenic compounds and human consciousness through a scientific and cultural perspective. He has traveled all around the world studying psychoactive drugs by participating in rituals and consuming the drugs his informants are using. He documents his experiences on Vice’s Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia.  Morris’ adventures are reminiscent of anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis’ own studies. Listen in to hear for yourself and don’t forget to check out these links:

Hamilton Morris Twitter

Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia

A Psychonaut’s Adventures in Videoland

Hamilton Gets High For A Living and Invites You to Watch

Lazy Lizard School of Hedonism

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Special thanks to Alice Kelikian and the Brandeis Program in Film, Television and Interactive Media for sponsoring the interview. This Anthro Life is an official collaborator with the American Anthropological Association, The Society for Applied Anthropology, SAPIENS, and EPIC. Be sure to check them out for more thought provoking anthropology content.

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Huge thanks to Photographer Ben Gebo, for permission to use his awesome portrait of Hamilton.

Copyright: Ben Gebo:



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