Psychedelia is the culture and experiences of psychedelic substances. Where did all the research on psychedelic drugs go? Could psychedelics be used in psychotherapy? How are hallucinogenic drugs used cross-culturally? In this episode of This Anthro Life Adam and Ryan explore the world of psychedelic drugs with Hamilton Morris of Vice’s Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia. We discuss his fieldwork in the Amazon where he hunted for a locally important frog, the potential diagnostic, medicinal, and therapeutic uses of psychedelics, as well as the obstacles in the way of studying human consciousness. Special thanks to Alice Kelikian and the Brandeis Program in Film, Television and Interactive Media for sponsoring the interview!
Who is Hamilton Morris?
Hamilton Morris is a journalist for Vice, scientist, and an anthropologist who seeks to understand hallucinogenic drugs 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, but you will have to listen in to see for yourself!
When asked what drew Morris into his field he responded
“I like good stories. That’s a big part of it. I think that there’s a lot of great stories in this area. Some of the best stories I have ever heard, a lot of weird stories, a lot of people that dedicate their lives in a really serious way to these substances. They have a passion a religious almost passion for these things and that belief, I think, is really compelling from a storytelling perspective.”
To Learn More About Morris and his Projects Check Out The Links Below!
On the Importance of a Holistic Approach
Hallucinogenic drugs are frequently used in settings that call for creating an altered state of mind, but that is not their only use. Morris holds firmly that there are diagnostic uses for psychoactive drugs that need to be considered. The problem is that in the US hallucinogenic drugs have been largely demonized. Morris points to the example of MDMA, or ecstasy. The drug is highly demonized due to its recreational uses, but it started out as a psychotherapeutic drug and then spread into rave scene. It is important that we do not take on the mentality “the way I use a drug is okay [medicinally] and the way you do it is wrong [recreationally or cross-culturally]” because much of this mentality is unfounded and the drugs themselves are understudied.
Morris feels it is his responsibility to tell as much as the story as he can show that often the “pros outweigh the cons for people who use them carefully”. The way he does this is through a combination of his training in anthropology, chemistry, and journalism. When asked about his use of a holistic approach he responded
“In some ways I think it is the only way to do it because the story is never as simple as just the chemistry or just the interview. There is always some anthropological aspect to it.”
To learn more about the psychotherapeutic aspects of MDMA check out the link below
On the Uncertainty of Psychedelics
The 1960s and 70s in the US brought on a crackdown on recreational drug use, which resulted in much of the research on the beneficial properties of hallucinogenic drugs to come to a standstill. The demonization of these drugs and some methodologically unsound work done in the 60s has forced scientists studying psychoactive drugs to proceed cautiously.
Timothy Leary’s work is largely what Morris is referring to when he said “methodologically unsound”. Leary is known for overextending the potential benefits of psychedelic drugs. In his Concord Prison Experiment prisoners were administered psilocybin to test to see if it would stop inmates from returning to life of crime and eventually to prison. Leary found that the drug did help, but follow up studies showed that Leary had not counted prisoners being brought back into prison for new crimes. In addition, much of his study involved group therapy and follow-ups with the prisoners, which may point more to the importance of social support more so than the powers of psilocybin.
There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding hallucinogenic drugs because of the taboos tied to studying it as well as the illegality of procuring substances for study. Recent years have shown a resurgence of research on psychedelic drugs, but much of this research just reiterates what we already know. Like the John Hopkins study of mushrooms that Morris pointed out is essentially just confirming that the mushrooms are psychedelic. However, there have been some larger steps taken in the usage of psychedelics medicinally like in NYU’s Psilocybin Cancer Anxiety Study
Overall, scientists are proceeding cautiously in order to not repeat mistakes of the past and because of the uncertainty of what will happen in the actual psychoactive experience.
Check out these links to learn more about recent studies on hallucinogenic drugs
Is There Something Human About Psychedelic Drugs?
The ways that psychedelic drugs are used, how they are valued, and if they are considered taboo varies cross-culturally. As Morris explains, ““we take it for granted or assume that it is always the case that psychedelics are used in some kind of mind expanding consciousness exploring spiritual capacity” however this is not the case. He cites the use of ayahuasca as a diagnostic tool to identify illness and its use in Oaxaca as a very deliberate means to connect with Christ. The drugs are being used in different ways and oftentimes it is far from “a crazy untethered journey”.
That being said, psychedelics do appear in cultures across the globe, which begs the question: is there something inherently human about using psychedelic drugs? Like many of the questions we pose here on This Anthro Life, it does not have an easy answer.
Morris suggests that access to certain plants may have been partly based on early human’s interpretation of its nutritional content and the ease with which they could find it. Size could have played a role in Europe, for instance, where the larger Amanita muscaria was likely easier to find than the smaller Psilocybe semilanceata. The larger size could also have been an indicator of nutritional content to early humans. In this foraging setting, early humans were likely able to find hallucinogenic plants by eating whatever they foraged.
As Morris says,
“There are cultures all over the world that really value this experience and why that is the case is a very complicated question. Why human beings like the psychedelic experience”
There is something that humans as conscious beings find particularly valuable about the mind-altering state caused by psychedelic drugs, but only further study can hint as to why that is.
Check Out These Links to Learn More About Psychedelic Drugs Cross-Culturally.
Are Psychedelic Experiences Goal Driven?
It does not have to be. Morris suggests that “life is painful and boring for a lot of people” and that feeling can drive a desire to alter one’s state of mind. When he was filming his hunt in the Amazon for the frog Phyllomedusa Bicolor for its dermorphin, he found that
“The life of these Mayoruna Indians in the Amazon is really hard. [They are] Being eaten alive by blood sucking insects every day of their life, they have to struggle for food, they have to struggle with malaria, they live a difficult existence and anything that allows a momentary alteration of their existence can be very valuable”
In the US we constantly have access to distractions that can draw us away from a mundane existence (i.e. phones, books, video games, social media, etc.), yet we still place a high value on hallucinogenic drugs. Morris implores us to imagine what it is like living like the Mayoruna with access to limitless distractions and imagine how much more valuable the dermorphin from a frog would be to them.
Check Out the Links Below to Learn More About Morris’ Experience with the Mayoruna and More!
On Drug Scheduling and Its Impediments to Science
Drug Scheduling sorts drugs into categories from 1-5 with 1 being the drugs that have a high level of potential abuse and addiction and 5 being those drugs with little to know chance of abuse. The process of categorizing drugs in this way is controlled and decided by the DEA and the FDA. Those drugs that fall into Schedule I are deemed illegal to sell, distribute, manufacture, etc. This creates a problem for scientists who want to study human consciousness through the use of psychedelics as they must toe the line to avoid potential arrest.
Psychedelics are a particularly useful way to study human consciousness because it is only hallucinogenic when it comes in contact with the brain. Morris sees them as an important tool in understanding humanity. It was seen this way before, as psychedelics were used frequently in psychotherapy. Even drugs like heroin were used medicinally before they were removed to Schedule I.
In Morris’ own words,
“All these things are used and a lot of what makes one drug considered medicinal and another demonized is nonsensical. I mean the scheduling of these substances is completely absurd, in general but when you actually look at it when you look at the list of controlled substances there is no rhyme or reason to any of it”
Morris discusses two examples of the movement of drugs that are helpful to scientific discovery into the Schedule I tier, 2C-I phenethylamine and. 2C-I was synthesized by Alexander Shulgin in the 1970s-1980s. It got moved to Schedule I and was not defended because no one was using it at the time. It turns out that the drug would have been useful in studying the 5-HT2A receptor. This receptor has been connected to mental disorders (i.e. schizophrenia, depression, obsessive complusive disorder, etc) . By making drugs like 2C-I illegal we lose “real tools and once you limit the set of tools that scientists and therapists have access to you are hurting humanity”.
Through his work, Morris hopes,
“To make people recognize this simple idea that prohibition is not a viable solution for any of the problems that exist culturally surrounding drugs. It doesn’t deter drug use, if anything it makes drug use more dangerous…it maximizes the harm.”
Check Out These Links to Learn More Psychedelics in Psychotherapy and Drug Scheduling