Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia: An Appreciation

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Peder Clark. Dr. Clark is a historian of modern Britain, with research interests in drugs, subcultures, health, everyday life, and visual culture. He completed his PhD in 2019 at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and currently holds a position at the University of Liverpool.

Hamilton's Pharmacopiea Title Card
Image courtesy ViceTV.

For the unfamiliar, Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia is a documentary series that follows a young chemist, the titular Hamilton Morris, as he travels the world investigating the eccentric and esoteric cultures of intoxication surrounding the production and consumption of psychoactive substances—both common and uncommon. There is plenty of material here for the average Points reader. Indeed, prior to penning this article, I was surprised to learn via the search function that it hadn’t previously been written about on Points. After the (COVID-delayed) release of the third season earlier this year, it seems an appropriate time to discuss the show’s appeal—not least because Morris has hinted that this may well be his Pharmacopeia’s final run.

The very first episode, screened in 2016, is a good place to start. It has many of the defining features that makes Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia a compelling busman’s holiday for drug historians. In the opening sequence, Morris sets out his pitch: “I’ve been fascinated by psychoactive drugs my whole life. I love to study their chemistry and impact on society. And my work has allowed me to investigate extraordinary substances around the world.… Yet there are still mysteries that remain.”

In this episode, Morris finds himself in South Africa, interviewing consumers of Mandrax, the discontinued brand name for methaqualone, which is perhaps best known from its 1970s heyday as Quaaludes. Initially synthesized in the 1950s, methaqualone was used as a sedative, but it soon found its way into recreational contexts, especially nightclubs and discotheques. This consumption and the drug’s apparent addictiveness soon caused its production to be discontinued and its use criminalized in most countries.

But, as Morris discovers, it is very much still a going concern in the townships of South Africa. Produced in pill form, Mandrax is commonly ground down and smoked, typically from the broken mouth of a bottle—consumption practices that are unflinchingly filmed by Morris and his team. The immediate effect on the drug consumer is often alarming; keeling over, apparently unconscious, before recovering sufficiently to groggily describe the high to the attendant film crew. It is, in all honesty, uncomfortable viewing (about which more later).

Morris moves the narrative beyond consumers, though, to ask the question of how and why methaqualone made its way here. He uncovers a story that takes in the longer history of the notorious cardiologist Wouter Basson, known as “Dr. Death,” and the apartheid South African government’s chemical and biological warfare program, “Project Coast.” It’s a fascinating and jaw-dropping story, and Morris handles it both clearly and concisely with expert commentary from researchers such as Chandré Gould who did much to uncover the atrocities of Project Coast.

All of this would of course be more than enough material for most television programs, but the episode goes further and details the illicit barter trade between abalone sea snail poachers and Chinese groups involved in the production of the precursor necessary for methaqualone synthesis. This dizzying side-plot is all washed down with a 30-second chemistry-lesson-on-fast-forward that explains with an alphabet-soup of scientific terms precisely how methaqualone (or, as in most episodes for legal reasons, a compound similar in formula) can be synthesized.

This brief synopsis provides many of the reasons why Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia is, if you’ll forgive a pun, addictive viewing. The stories are often intriguing and highly suggestive for further research.The methaqualone episode alone sent me on an internet wormhole around “Basson’s Brownies,” alleged super-strength MDMA that might or might not have been connected to the labs supervised by the infamous Dr. Basson.

Subsequent episodes cover everything from ketamine to “psychedelic toads” and from kratom to psilocybin mushrooms. Drug historians who struggle to recommend topics to post-graduate students might well be encouraged to watch an episode or two for potential research trails.

But it’s also Morris’s own presence that makes his Pharmacopeia so watchable. He is affable and engaging and clearly explains often highly complex histories and chemistries. And he has the enviable knack—much like the BBC’s Louis Theroux who Morris bears more than a passing resemblance to—of making interviewees comfortable enough to disclose more than they perhaps intend. Morris is also a careful listener. Inevitably his programs uncover substance consumption that is stigmatized or racialized, or he interviews people who express outlandish or even offensive views. Morris approaches each with calm and equanimity, occasionally offering the viewer a cocked eyebrow or a pursed lip to indicate what he might really be thinking.

I make it apparent from the title of this piece that I’m broadly a fan of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, but I should also make it clear that my recommendation isn’t wholly unreserved or without qualification. As one might expect from a program produced for Viceland (or ViceTV in the US), Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia sometimes leaves itself open to accusations of exoticization, voyeurism, or exploitation. As mentioned above, the footage of Mandrax consumers is awkward at best, and Morris’s admission that Vice asked him to remove an upbeat disco soundtrack from this sequence in the final edit begs important questions about the director’s intentions and about ethical considerations.

Hamilton Pharmacopeia Methacqualone
A scene from the first episode of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia.

In another encounter between Morris and a sick methaqualone producer, Morris suggests that some of the manufacturer’s symptoms, such as blood in the urine, might be a toxic and cancerous side-effect of his illicit profession. This exchange is arguably highly problematic, not least because of the evident power differential between an educated, presumably comparatively affluent, white American and a Black South African man engaged in a highly illegal and dangerous occupation just to make ends meet.

Morris has reflected on some of the mistakes and missteps that his series has occasionally made. The third season, for example, opens with a mea culpa by Morris, correcting a mistake from the previous season’s premier that misidentified  the author of a somewhat famous pamphlet about so-called psychedelic toads. “I propagated a lie”, Morris disarmingly explains. And Morris is largely empathetic to his subjects in a way that perhaps many other documentary-makers are not, giving a voice to the often stigmatized consumers of drugs of ill-repute. Morris is seemingly aware of the tensions inherent in his warts-and-all approach: “If anyone is in danger, it’s the subjects,” Morris told The Guardian in 2016. “They’re the people making a sacrifice and putting themselves in precarious situations.”

Morris’s training and inclination may make him a chemist—he has published academic papers about dissociative anesthetics—but he also appears to be interested in psychoactive substances for perhaps many of the same reasons as many Points readers. Mind-altering intoxicants, of course, provoke a perhaps innate fascination for people of a certain bent, but, beyond that, many of us recognize drugs as a lens through which to view many other subjects like politics, empire, race, gender, criminality, or the environment, to name but a few.

Perhaps it is at this point that I should make the stock observation in any profile of Morris’s work and note that Hamilton is the son of Errol Morris, the documentary filmmaker, who, among other things, was indirectly responsible for the video you may have seen of Werner Herzog eating his own shoe. The German director’s unusual meal was the result of a lost wager with Morris, who Herzog claimed would be unable to complete and distribute a film about a pet cemetery, which was ultimately released as Gates of Heaven (1978). Morris would go on to become a master of the genre, with films such as 1988’s The Thin Blue Line which presaged contemporary interest in “true crime, or 2003’s The Fog of War, an Oscar-winning film that explored the legacy of the Vietnam War through extended interviews with former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

This digression into family history is another way of saying that with regard to Hamilton Morris, the apple has not fallen far from the tree. While Hamilton, as the title of his series might suggest, centers himself in his films’ narratives more than his father, he shares Errol’s inquisitiveness, inventiveness, and perhaps even mischievousness. But as with all parental relationships, the influence cannot be considered one directional. Errol Morris’ latest film, My Psychedelic Love Story, documents the relationship between Joanna Harcourt-Smith and Timothy Leary. It’s a rare pleasure then to listen to a father-son conversation about drugs on the younger Morris’ new project, a podcast series which will probably be of as much interest to Points readers as his Pharmacopeia.

One thought on “Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia: An Appreciation

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: