Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Hamilton Morris (@HamiltonMorris), a chemist, filmmaker, and science journalist. A graduate of The New School, he conducts chemistry research at The University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.
Hamilton is the writer and director of the documentary series Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, in which he explores the chemistry and traditions surrounding psychoactive drugs. His research has allowed him to study psychoactive plants, fungi, and chemicals, as well as the culture that surrounds them, in more than 30 countries, using an interdisciplinary approach that combines anthropology and chemistry.
Hamilton’s recent republishing of a book on Bufo alvarius has, at the time of writing, raised more than $205,000 for Parkinson’s disease research.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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This interview was transcribed by Rev.com.
Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss. And welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show. And I’m going to keep the intro short. My guest today is Hamilton Morris, on Twitter @HamiltonMorris, that’s with two Rs, one S. Hamilton is a chemist, filmmaker, and science journalist, a graduate of The New School, Hamilton conducts chemistry research at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. He’s the writer and director of one of my favorite documentary series, that you can find anywhere, Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia. Pharmacopeia, tomato, tomato, take your pick. Lots of vowels at the end, in which he explores the chemistry and tradition surrounding psychoactive drugs.
His research has allowed him to study psychoactive plants, fungi, and chemicals, as well as the culture or cultures that surround them, in more than 30 countries using an interdisciplinary approach that combines anthropology and chemistry. His recent republishing of a book on Bufo alvarius has, at the time of this writing, raised more than $150,000 for Parkinson’s disease research.
You can find him, as I mentioned on Twitter, @HamiltonMorris. Instagram, @HamiltonMorris. Facebook, Hamilton Morris. And on Patreon, at Patreon, P-A-T-R-E-O-N.com/HamiltonMorris. And the reissued pamphlet on what some of you may refer to as 5-MeO-DMT, at least derived from the Sonoran desert toad, can be found at www.psychedelictoadofthesonorandesert.com. Hamilton. Welcome back to the show.
Hamilton Morris: Thank you so much for having me.
Tim Ferriss: And I’m looking at a summary of our first conversation, and we covered a lot. We will have no shortage of new material, but for people who didn’t listen to episode one, I’ll just provide a few points that we explored quite deeply. Alexander, AKA Sasha Shulgin, we spoke a lot about.
Hamilton Morris: There’s some news on him as well.
Tim Ferriss: What is the news?
Hamilton Morris: Did I tell you about his new book that’s coming out?
Tim Ferriss: No.
Hamilton Morris: Oh, yeah. I don’t even know if this has been publicly announced, but — I’m sorry to cut you off right as you were about to summarize —
Tim Ferriss: Please cut me off.
Hamilton Morris: Should I allow you to finish what you were saying?
Tim Ferriss: No, no, you shouldn’t!
Hamilton Morris: Okay! I guess, just very briefly for anyone that doesn’t know who Alexander Shulgin is, he was this brilliant medicinal chemist who was responsible for the discovery of an estimated 200 novel psychedelic compounds. And he wrote these two amazing books, PiHKAL and TiHKAL, that came out in the ’90s, and he died maybe five or six years ago. And they recently found some tape recordings of a class that he gave in 1987.
And they’re publishing it as a three-volume set. And I was sent a review copy of the first volume and it is so cool. It is one of the most amazing — because this man is, no matter how you define it, the greatest expert that has ever lived on the gigantic subject of drugs. He understood the anthropology, the chemistry, the botany, the mycology, the law, the history, he understood every dimension of it. And was truly a genius. And at this time in 1987, it was, I think, a very important moment in the history of drug policy and the history of that research.
Tim Ferriss: 1987 being when this class was recorded?
Hamilton Morris: Yes. And it was, I think, a moment when he was becoming radicalized. When he was realizing that there could be no more playing nice the way he had in the past, because he’d had this very close relationship with law enforcement throughout his career. And then things were getting worse.
Tim Ferriss: Not to go back to episode one, but in part, because he’d done a lot of work for established pharma companies.
Hamilton Morris: Yes. Yeah. He’d worked for Dow Chemical. He’d done pharmaceutical research. He’d worked with law enforcement. He had deep ties to the counterculture. He’d done a little bit of everything. He was friends with everyone, but during the Reagan administration, it was becoming increasingly clear that things were getting worse and worse with every passing year. There was an idea that, okay, psychedelics have to be illegal because they cause hallucinations. And that’s unacceptable in our society, but MDMA is different. MDMA doesn’t cause hallucinations and it can be used therapeutically, and physicians were recognizing that in the 1980s. And then it was placed in schedule one.
So that was the first moment, I think, where he started to think, “This can’t go on the way it’s been going on because they will destroy every new medicine that I create.” And then on top of that, they had just passed the Federal Analogue Act as well. So this was a law that exists to this day. Where they said, “If you’re making something that we will arbitrarily define as an analogue of a schedule one controlled substance, we can prosecute as if it is that controlled substance.” So if you are making DMT plus an arbitrary number of carbon atoms, we can just say that that is DMT and charge you accordingly.
So those two things combined, the destruction of any potential use of MDMA and the passage of the Federal Analogue Act had made him enraged. This was also the period that led to his writing and publication of PiHKAL. So this class that he’s teaching is razor sharp and extremely educational. And I think it’s going to be wonderful. And these books are published this summer.
Tim Ferriss: Will the audio also be made available?
Hamilton Morris: I haven’t asked them yet. I certainly hope so.
Tim Ferriss: Please ask them if they would like a cross-promotional opportunity to put some of the audio on this podcast, I would be very interested to help them. Here’s a bit about Sasha Shulgin, who also, I think it was Dave Nichols — Dave Nichols, or Nichol?
Hamilton Morris: Nichols.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Dave Nichols, who is featured prominently in one of the episodes of season three of your television show, who had a lot of correspondence with Sasha. And said that he considered him more of an alchemist than a scientist, because he was almost like an ethnobotanist, not trying to preserve a first-person objectivity. He consumed and tested many, if not all, of the compounds that he produced, at least for tasting parties and things like that.
Hamilton Morris: Yes. And was proud of it. He made no secret of the fact that he consumed the compounds that he synthesized. And I think that there’s an idea, it’s a very widespread idea, that if you have personal experience with a psychoactive drug, this biases you in such a way that the research that you do is not trustworthy.
But this is something that we don’t evenly apply to other disciplines. No one would ever say that an ethnomusicologist is biased because they’ve listened to music, or because they enjoy music themselves. Or that a sports commentator is biased if they have a past as an athlete. Instead, we would say that this is something that makes him an expert who is qualified to discuss the subject.
So he was very open about the fact that he’d tried an enormous number of substances, but was not dependent on any of them. He did it in order to better characterize them so that he could speak authoritatively to his students, to law enforcement and to inform his own research. Really brilliant guy. And this book is a very exciting text. It actually gave me chills as I was reading it because it’s so good.
Tim Ferriss: Can you tell people where they should look for this?
Hamilton Morris: Yes. I think you can pre-order it on Amazon, Alexander Shulgin’s family has a press called Transform Press. It’s called The Nature of Drugs.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a great title. And for people who don’t know PiKHOL, TiKHOL, those are Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved and Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved, respectively. These are encyclopedic compilations of not just trip reports or descriptions of experiences, but also details related to synthesis.
Hamilton Morris: Yes. And back to the experience. That’s been a big part of this psychedelic renaissance, is talking about how the new wave of researchers, or these objective, dispassionate people who’ve never used them themselves. But not only is that not true. In fact, all of them have used psychedelics, but they sometimes publicly say that they haven’t, which I think is not a good way to go about this. There’s a big difference, I think, between long-term and short-term strategies when it comes to being part of a marginalized subculture.
The short term strategy is to be dishonest and to hide, and to lie about who you are and what you care about. Because if the dominant culture tells you that it is wrong, that it’s immoral, that it’s illegal. That’s what you do, you hide. And that way you can protect yourself, but that only protects you. What if you have children who feel the same way? They’re not protected. What about your grandchildren? If you want to actually create a cultural change, you have to be open about who you are and what you care about.
So one of the most disturbing things that I get sometimes in response to my show is when people say, “Oh, you should never talk about this chemistry. Don’t you realize if you talk about this chemistry, then they’ll make it illegal? You can’t talk about that synthetic route. We’ve got to keep it secret. You can’t show yourself consuming a drug. Then that acknowledges the fact that people actually use these things. And we’ve got to keep it an objective clinical domain.” And sure, if the point is to distort reality in order to sell something, fine, but that’s not what it really is. And that’s not going to help people long-term.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I could not agree more. This is also part of the reason why, slightly different example, but in the process of fundraising for, say the Psychedelic and Consciousness Research Center at Johns Hopkins. Or for phase three studies for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. When I was talking to potential donors, it was a prerequisite in my mind that they’d be willing to use their names, and not donate as anonymous, and thereby reinforcing stigma that I think is largely unearned.
So I wanted people to not just take a public stance, but to be proud of their involvement and to show there were some, I know these are slightly different examples, but reputational upside potential, not just reputational downside potential. And also coming back to your ethnomusicology example, we don’t even apply the same standard to researchers of other drugs or compounds, right? So if you’re studying opiates or you’re studying morphine, and you happen to have been administered morphine in the course of being a patient in a hospital, right? I don’t think it is assumed that that somehow jeopardizes your scientific integrity for studying those things later.
Hamilton Morris: Oh, of course not. No, there’s a tremendous amount of inconsistency and hypocrisy in the way these things are discussed. And I think a lot of it boils down to puritanical objections to euphoria and joy. I don’t think anyone would care about scientific self experimentation with topical capsaicin or something like that. Why? Because it’s not going to cause any sort of euphoria, and might even cause pain and pain is dignified. Pain is good. Pain shows you’re working hard. You’re self-sacrificing. That’s all right. But if you’re having a good time, that’s a different story.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I’m contemplating where to go next. I still have three pages from our last conversation. I don’t think we’ll make it through. But just to give a quick, disjointed recap of the few things I underlined from our previous conversation. Bullet: he realized in high school, after taking salvia, that psychedelics were misunderstood, and likely had more potential than people realized. Jump forward, for those who would like to learn more about psychedelics, Neuropsychedelia by Nicolas Langlitz. Is that correct?
Hamilton Morris: That’s right, he’s got a new book as well.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. So many updates. Is it out already?
Hamilton Morris: It’s out, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: What’s it called?
Hamilton Morris: I feel terrible that I can’t — it’s a meta primatology book. It’s not about primatology, but about primatologists. It’s the primatology of primatologists. It’s really good.
Tim Ferriss: We’ll put a link in the show notes to that new book as well. So tim.blog/podcast, we will have that. We talked about your experience with your cameraman in a hotel in China with the synthetic cannabinoid, UR-144.
Hamilton Morris: UR-144. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Which led to a “fractal of uncertainty” that was very unsettling. So we have covered a number of stories of the unsettling experiences one can have, or put a different way, the dangers of use of some psychedelics. Or more accurately use of psychedelics in uncontrolled, or improperly supervised settings, which includes documented fatalities. So I don’t want to give anyone the impression here that these compounds are without risks, because there’s so many other factors that also come into play, not just the compound itself.
And I have to give a disclaimer here. So excuse me, Hamilton while I do so, but nothing we’re going to talk about in this episode is intended to constitute medical advice. We are not doctors, neo shamans, and this is all for informational purposes only. So caveat emptor, be safe out there. Don’t break any laws. But jumping to the next point real quick.
I want you to fact check me if I’m getting any of these recaps wrong. But low doses of drugs, including, say, cocktails like ayahuasca, can be more beneficial than the overwhelming “What do I do with this experience?” at high doses. And that you have had low dose experiences that helped you to see, I think in this case, “The nicotine gum was inside of me.” So there’s a long story about the nicotine in our first conversation. And we also talked a bit about ibogaine, a bit about 2C-D. And then topics that we might cover next time, which is now this time, including Oliver Sacks and Claudio Naranjo. So now, here we are in the present moment, we didn’t discuss, we’ve already talked about Sasha Shulgin a bit, Oliver Sacks or Claudio. How do those figure into your life as influences or how would you explain either of those figures?
Hamilton Morris: Well, those are — just to go back to what we were saying earlier about people who are in the closet about their drug use. Of course, when Oliver Sacks wrote The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and described the medical student who’s having the olfactory hallucinations after using PCP, he’s talking about himself. But he didn’t want to acknowledge that he’d used PCP, because he didn’t want to acknowledge that he’d used drugs at all. He was addicted to amphetamine for a period as well, possibly methamphetamine. I don’t know. There’s a biography written by Lawrence Weschler that came out recently that — I know Lawrence Weschler, but I haven’t had the opportunity to read it. It might go into that. But yeah, he didn’t want people to know.
As did many people. Carl Sagan would be another example. He wrote a portion of Lester Grinspoon’s Marihuana Reconsidered, and talked about his revelatory experiences with cannabis, but didn’t want his name attached to it, right? So you have all these prominent, brilliant minds that have benefited from the use of these things, but they’re afraid to publicly acknowledge that fact. And that is I think, damaging. But Oliver Sacks in general, he’s wonderful. And he’s an amazing writer. I think he’s one of the greatest science writers that has ever lived. Uncle Tungsten, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. These are really beautifully written books. His book on hallucinations is also very good.
Tim Ferriss: So you can hear that airplane overhead, folks. This is audio verité. If you hear palm fronds in the background, also, part of our experience in the world of COVID. I would imagine you have had to pause for audio a fair amount in your life.
Hamilton Morris: Oh. So much pausing.
Tim Ferriss: The joke that I remember someone told me at one point is, they said, “Why does thunder come after lightning? Because even God has to wait for sound.” All right. So Claudio.
Hamilton Morris: Yeah. Did you ever interview him or talk to him?
Tim Ferriss: No, sadly.
Hamilton Morris: Yeah. Me neither, he wrote some enormous number of books and I’ve only read The Healing Journey.
Tim Ferriss: I really enjoyed that book.
Hamilton Morris: Me too. I can’t imagine being a psychologist and working with a patient for months or years and seeing such gradual change, maybe no change at all. It must be very discouraging for someone that really wants to effect some kind of positive change in somebody that they’re working with. And then when you look at the sorts of accounts that are described in The Healing Journey, it’s like a psychological fantasy of having these immediate revelations that affect profound and lasting change in the people that use these substances. And of course there are similar — for people that are interested in books that describe psychologists administering psychedelics and their patients having very positive experiences, there’s another book written by William Richards called Sacred Knowledge.
Tim Ferriss: Excellent book.
Hamilton Morris: It’s a really, really good book. It’s half clinical primer on best practices with psychedelics, but then it also has a number of biographical sections on Bill Richards’ life, which is just fascinating. And I’ve been moved to tears by — have you seen the video of him administering DPT to the dying cancer patient?
Tim Ferriss: No, I have not.
Hamilton Morris: This was on 60 Minutes in the ’70s. And it’s one of the most moving pieces of television I’ve ever seen.
Tim Ferriss: Did you say DPT?
Hamilton Morris: Yeah, DPT. Although I don’t believe they specify it in the report. I uploaded it to my YouTube channel recently for anyone that’s looking for it. And watching people who are at the end of their life make peace with their own mortality in the presence of their family, and the effect that that has on their family, it causes so many emotions. One of which is it’s almost infuriating to think that this wouldn’t be available to everyone that might want it when you see how beneficial it is.
And I remember when I first heard about end-of-life psychedelic psychotherapy when I was in my early 20s, I thought, what’s the point of that? If the people are at the end of their life, wouldn’t that be the lowest priority, psychologically? Wouldn’t you want to help people that have their entire life ahead of them, that way you can affect the greatest change? But I had no idea that the way somebody ends their life can have a tremendous impact on their family. And if they are at peace with their own mortality at the end of their life, that can relieve a lot of the trauma of losing a loved one.
Tim Ferriss: I have not seen that video and I’ll look for it on your YouTube channel. Bill Richards, for those who want a little bit more context on him, is a beautiful human being. I’ve been really — felt very privileged to be able to spend time with him. I don’t know if he’s still associated with Johns Hopkins, but he was for a very long period of time.
Hamilton Morris: Yes, he is.
Tim Ferriss: He, along with Mary Cosimano, who I want to give a nod, because she’s just an exceptional human. And also very experienced, suppose therapist — therapist may not be the right term, facilitator. I don’t know what term they actually use within Johns Hopkins, but she and Bill, they have one of the larger sample sets, that is in the hundreds of sessions that they have administered legally, mostly involving, I would say psilocybin at this point. Probably in the 30 milligram range, something like that.
But Bill is not just an excellent, from my perspective, clinician, but he also thinks very deeply about the philosophical, theological underpinnings and, or implications of administering these compounds. And so for all those reasons and more, I definitely recommend that people check out his book. Have you met him before?
Hamilton Morris: I’ve spoken with him. I’ve never met him in person though. And he’s so good. It almost worries me a little bit, because when people talk about the potential of psychedelics, I think one thing they don’t realize is that the people that are working on this right now, are the best people in the world. Bill Richards is one in a million. And by definition, one in a million people are hard to come by. You’re not going to have someone as compassionate and skilled as Bill Richards working in every psychedelic psychotherapy startup.
And so when we look at how promising the results are from some of this clinical research that’s coming out of Johns Hopkins, I think it’s important to remember that these are some of the most talented and passionate people to ever enter the field. And it might not be the case that all of these results generalize to a larger population. Though, of course, I hope they will.
Tim Ferriss: It’s really an important point. These are people who have been able to withstand, in many cases, decades of not just resistance, but abuse by various establishments. So they’re not fair weather entrants to this space; they’ve really endured a lot. And that includes many people at Hopkins, including Roland Griffiths and many other research institutions. And I suppose this is as good a place as any to say that, since you and I last spoke on the podcast, which was a few years ago, a lot has happened. An extraordinary amount of acceleration has occurred in the research space, as well as in the for-profit sector related to psychedelics.
Is there anything in particular that worries you? We can talk about the promise, but then there are — maybe the concerns, one of which, I’m just inferring from what you said, would be the assumption that we can scale results. And scale in therapists based on say the results obtained through someone like Bill Richards. Although there has been a high level of replicability within the MDMA phase-three trials. Because they had similar concerns, or similar questions at least, related to Michael and Annie Mithoefer, who are very, very skilled therapists in the MDMA-assisted psychotherapy space. Do any particular concerns come to mind for you?
Hamilton Morris: Yeah. Back to this Shulgin book, there’s a really funny moment where he says that every drug has no side effects for the first five years. So if you’re going to use a drug, you have to use it in the first five years when it comes out, before people realize that it has any problems associated with it. And every new drug does have a hype phase. Ketamine is in its hype phase right now. Then after the hype phase, you enter a more sobering confrontation with its limitations.
Right now, you have a lot of people with treatment-resistant depression taking ketamine, and they’re experiencing miraculous results. Five years from now, some of those people might start to suffer urogenital toxicity of one kind or another that could make people less optimistic about using this as a treatment, casually, right. It’s known to cause damage to the urinary bladder under some circumstances. And we’re going to see in a few years, what happens with more widespread use of it.
And cannabis is also somewhat in its hype phase, where if we’re talking about cannabis as an intoxicant relative to alcohol, which sets the bar very low, in my opinion. Yeah, it’s great. It’s not going to cause liver damage. It’s not associated with overdose. It doesn’t cause the same sort of physical addiction in the vast majority of instances, though of course, some people do develop problematic relationships with it. But I predict in a few years, we’re going to start to scrutinize a little bit whether or not it’s a good idea to be as stoned as many people are all the time. Again, I think it’s certainly better than being drunk all the time, but there’s the cannabis hyperemesis disorder, which is something that wasn’t discovered until relatively recently. And it seems that, that’s a product of new patterns of cannabis consumption.
Tim Ferriss: Are there any other compounds that you think are undervalued or over-hyped at the moment? For therapeutic purposes. So let’s just say, and this could segue to your experience actually, which I’d love to hear about, iboga or ibogaine for opiate use disorder or opiate addiction. What is your evaluation of that?
Hamilton Morris: I think there’s a lot of promise there. I think there’s a lot of promise for pretty much all substance abuse disorders and I predict many sorts of compulsions and addictions in general, which is something I didn’t fully come to appreciate until I went to central West Africa and participated in these iboga rituals, which gave me a far greater appreciation of both the ritual elements and kind of the larger spirit of iboga beyond its antagonism of the alpha three beta four nicotinic acetylcholine receptor.
Tim Ferriss: I think this is the first time I’ve personally ever heard you use spirit.
Hamilton Morris: I know. As I said it, I was, “Oh, did I go there? Did I just say the word spirit?” I said the S word.
Tim Ferriss: Could you tell us more about your experience? I thought that episode of season three, and do you say Pharmacopia or Pharmacopia? I ask this every time.
Hamilton Morris: Pharmacopia is correct, but I say Pharmacopia. It’s always the battle of do you say, there’s endless ones of these where you do look like an asshole and say kratom, or do you say kratom like an American and say it wrong? Both ways are annoying.
Tim Ferriss: Leaving aside psilocybin and our friends across the pond, what was your experience like? Could you speak to some of the experience, whether sort of phenomenologically in the drug experience or plant experience if people prefer, or considering the ritual elements, what were some of the bits and pieces that you felt were particularly impactful? Because in that particular episode, in contrast to some episodes like the xenon gas episode, there’s relatively little footage of you in the actual ceremony.
Hamilton Morris: Yes. And that was very important to me. I wanted to be entirely absent from it, and I have almost complete creative control of my show within the bounds of the law, but one thing that was very problematic.
Tim Ferriss: That means, within the bounds of the law just refers to showcasing chemical synthesis?
Hamilton Morris: I mean, even then I do pretty much everything that I want to do, but I can’t, I don’t know, depict myself committing a crime. I don’t know that I would want to either, but one thing there’s a lot of pushback was showing myself and I didn’t want it to be a part of that episode. There’ve been a number of iboga documentaries made where a white outsider goes to central West Africa and participate in Bwiti rituals and I felt that this was one time I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to show the tradition and more importantly, I wanted to show that the tradition is changing. I think a lot of people have this idea of traditions as being static, unchanging force. And in some cases, actually, there are many aspects of the Bwiti religion that appear unchanged since anthropologists documented them in the ’60s.
But one big cultural shift that has occurred is there are now opioids in Cameroon and Gabon that were not there previously. There is no tradition of using opioids in that region, there is no heroin trade there. Historically, pharmaceutical opioids have been far too expensive to be street drugs. It just wasn’t a market and the naturally occurring opioids don’t exist there. So you have a new pharmacological class of drugs introduced to a new culture that didn’t grow up watching Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream and Christiane F. and Permanent Midnight and daytime television specials about addiction; we’re inundated with this stuff. Imagine if you’d never even heard that an opioid is addictive before, how much more difficult it could be to develop a responsible pattern of use.
And so Tramadol is being pressed in ultra high potency tablets specifically for the West African market. And they’re extremely inexpensive and the addiction has become pretty widespread. So what I found so interesting is that —
Tim Ferriss: What is the clinical application of Tramadol? What’s the indication?
Hamilton Morris: Tramadol is sort of like codeine, it is a low potency opioid analgesic that is unregulated in many countries. It is in Canada, it’s not a prescription drug in Canada. Until a few years ago in the United States, it wasn’t a prescription drug. It wasn’t controlled. So because it’s considered to have a low abuse potential, it paradoxically ends up being one of the more used compounds because it’s more available. This is why it’s really hard to talk about abuse potential as some sort of intrinsic factor of a drug’s chemistry, or pharmacology, because it’s so much dependent on these social regulatory factors as well.
So Tramadol is relatively unregulated because it’s considered relatively non-abusable, but ironically gets used all over the place for that reason. And yeah, it’s a mild kind of codeine like effect but if you take a lot of it, it becomes less mild and like all opioids, if you use it chronically, it can induce dependence and in some instances, problematic addiction. So the idea that ibogaine is an anti addictive drug is not an African tradition. That is something that was discovered in the United States by a New York based heroin addict named Howard Lotsof. Do you know this story?
Tim Ferriss: I don’t.
Hamilton Morris: Yeah, he was a guy who in the ’60s was using heroin. He was friends with a chemist, the chemist said, “There’s a psychedelic called ibogaine, you might think it’s fun.” And that’s all it was, it was just a psychedelic. And he tried it, he tripped, he had a fine time with the ibogaine. And then when he came down, he realized that he hadn’t used heroin and he wasn’t experiencing withdrawals and his concept of heroin had changed. Suddenly he didn’t consider heroin desirable, he saw it as symbolic of death and repulsive and had no desire to ever use it again and didn’t and dedicated the rest of his life to being a sort of crusader for the anti-addictive effects of ibogaine, which he had discovered. And they were later validated in laboratory experiments with rodents. So it is pretty well confirmed at this point in humans and rodents and a number of different models that ibogaine is in fact an anti-addictive drug.
Tim Ferriss: I don’t know the names of many researchers involved with ibogaine, iboga or any similar compounds. Was that in Deborah Mash’s laboratory that those studies were done with rodents or was that somewhere else?
Hamilton Morris: It’s been done in a number, Deborah Mash may have been one of the early researchers on it. It’s been replicated in a number of different labs. This is one thing that’s pretty well characterized at this point. And of course there are also synthetic derivatives of ibogaine, like 18-mc that have slightly different pharmacologies that also exert the same anti-addictive effect that’s hypothesized to be derived from antagonism of this one subtype of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor, the alpha three beta four nicotinic acetylcholine receptor. So this is not part of the tradition in Gabon because, A, there’s no tradition of using opioids and because it’s a religious sacrament, it’s part of a religion called Bwiti. So now that opioids are present in that region, they are modifying their traditions to accommodate the treatment of local addicts and that’s what I wanted to document in my piece.
Tim Ferriss: I thought the documenting of a local being shepherded through the process by these Bwiti elders was really well done. I thought that was a very strong episode.
Hamilton Morris: Yeah, and I think it is important that they understand that they have this amazing medicine available to them because it always also struck me as ironic that everywhere else in the world, people are exclusively using and talking about ibogaine as an anti-addictive drug, but the one place where there’s actually a tradition of using it, where there’s now a problem with Tramadol, they’re just now beginning to recognize that they can use their own medicine to treat people in their community. And it was really cool to see that happening and to see how well it worked.
Tim Ferriss: So providing that as a sort of historical and cultural backdrop, what elements of the experience stood out for you personally, since I can’t ask anyone else about the experience that was depicted in that episode? But it is for those who may have some experiences with psychedelics in the, let’s just call it, perhaps in the Western kind of psychotherapeutic or pseudo-psychotherapeutic model where you lay down and you listen to spa music basically with eyeshades on, this ritualized setting, it could not be more different.
Hamilton Morris: It’s the opposite of sensory deprivation. It’s the most stimulating thing I have ever been a part of. It’s continuous dancing, continuous music, continuous drumming, no sleep, no food, no water, no break, maximum exertion. And they divide the ceremonial space into different regions dedicated to different purposes. So for people that are there for medicinal purposes, they occupy a sort of recessed zone where they lay side by side and everyone dances around them and they take such high doses of iboga that it has an almost anesthetic effect.
They’ll even prick people to make sure that they’re still responsive to the sensation. And if they are unresponsive, that’s the indication that they’ve had enough iboga, it’s time to stop and allow them to recover a little bit. But there’s continuous consumption and everyone must consume it: babies, children, adults, the elderly, everybody takes iboga, but there is a different dose for each person, depending on who they are, what they’re doing in the ceremony and what sort of treatment they’re trying to receive.
And then it’s really very amazing, they have people that wear military outfits and they are an army, a spiritual army who guard the iboga ceremony from bad spirits and they have iboga guns and iboga knives that they use to prevent anyone from entering that might interfere with the healing of the participants. There’s a lot of incredibly beautiful symbolism in these rituals, including burying people alive. And I had read about this and I had always wondered if this is still something that’s practiced, but they will dig a grave and you will lay in the grave on iboga with your face up looking at the stars and just your head protruding from the ground and you spend the night in the ground to contemplate your own mortality. Now, I can’t see that being integrated into our Western medical practice, but I can imagine how profound that could be even without a psychedelic.
Tim Ferriss: Do they observe any cardiac complications in their tradition? And I ask because my understanding is that there have been documented cardiac issues associated with perhaps not iboga, maybe it’s ibogaine administration in places like Mexico, do they appear to run into any health complications?
Hamilton Morris: I asked about that and they told me that they were aware of people that had died using it. And so it seems that they are aware, there’s no pretense that this is a medicine that can’t hurt anyone under any circumstances. They’re aware that it is very powerful and has to be dosed very carefully because ibogaine binds to something called hERG channels, these are potassium ion channels that regulate heart rhythms, a lot of topical anesthetics bind to hERG channels and ibogaine actually has a mild topical anesthetic effect. So if you take high doses of it, it can cause fatal arrhythmias. They didn’t say that specifically; they didn’t talk about observing QT interval prolongation or something like that, but they knew that it had to be used very cautiously and you had to observe each person as they used it.
Tim Ferriss: Well, there’s certainly a lot more to say about how the Bwiti use iboga, there are many different directions we could go. This is as good a place as any to ask you to describe, or actually just answer the question, is iboga itself, this plant from which they derive this sacrament, at risk or threatened in any way? And this is a question of sort of sustainability as the global demand for this continues to accelerate.
Hamilton Morris: Yes. Yeah, no, I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. And I was thinking that it’s funny that these drug laws were extensively drafted to protect us from drugs, but may have actually had the only benefit of protecting drugs from us. And now that more and more people are recognizing the benefit of these substances, there is going to be a tremendous burden on the national reserves of things like iboga, ayahuasca, Bufo alvarius venom, not to mention the even more unusual things that are out there. And for anyone that does recognize the benefits of these things, it’s very important to take sustainability seriously because medicinal plants and especially medicinal animals are widely documented to be destroyed when they are integrated into a popular medical practice. It doesn’t even need to exert a therapeutic effect, rhinoceros horn, pangolin scale, these are things that have no pharmacological effect whatsoever, although pangolin scales were reputed to contain Tramadol at one point, but they absolutely do not.
But that’s all it takes is someone to say something like that and before you know it, pangolins are severely threatened or even worse, human intervention with some of these animals can cause the transmission of viruses, cause pandemics. I mean, there’s a lot of reasons to be very careful about the way that you interact with animals in medical practices, unless it’s absolutely necessary to do so. And I feel conflicted about iboga because on one hand I want so much to sing its praises and talk about the tremendous benefit that I think it had for me even using it just this one time, but I know that when people hear that and understand that, the natural response is going to be, “Well, I want to try that myself,” and an iboga tree has to be about five years old before you can even begin to harvest the roots.
There’s talk about sustainable harvesting, where you only cut off half the roots and leave the rest of the troubles alive, I certainly never observed that in Gabon. Every time I saw anyone harvesting roots, they would kill the entire tree. There’s talk about different types of sort of hydroponic growth or hairy a root culture that can be done to increase the yield, it could also be grown on a larger scale. I did see some people that had small iboga farms in both Cameroon and Gabon. It’s possible, but there has to be a strong incentive and the consumer has to be willing to pay the price to know that what they’re consuming has been responsibly sourced.
Tim Ferriss: So you know that I recently wrote and published a blog post on considering a more ethical menu and the piece was targeted at psychedelic users or people who use compounds that often overlap with psychedelic use or administration like Kambo. And discussing some of the telescoping potential ramifications of these things becoming 10 times more popular, a hundred times more popular, a thousand times more popular, which is not outside the realm of imagination or possibilities.
Hamilton Morris: Not at all.
Tim Ferriss: Actually very easily could be the case. And there are a lot of points that I tried to describe or make in this piece and people can find it at tim.blog/conservation, it’s kicked up quite a lot of discussion and also blowback because some of my recommendations hit a lot of people directly in the wallet who are providers of various things. If we grab one example, let’s just take Bufo alvarius and 5-MeO-DMT as an example, does taking a synthetic route, how contained is the ecological impact of synthesizing versus procuring it from these toads? I mean, this is a fairly, I suppose, easy example. Didn’t expect there to be so much air covered.
And this is maybe a good example to start with because others become maybe a bit more complex to talk about in the sense that if we’re talking about MDMA, people can point to deforestation in Cambodia, or they can look at the dumping of various chemicals used in producing MDMA in Holland and so on in other locations, but how should people think of synthetics and environmental impact? Is there a way to minimize the impact in the case of, say, 5-MeO-DMT?
Hamilton Morris: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. A lot of the examples that you just gave are interesting because they’re completely true. Yes, there’s deforestation in Cambodia to extract safrole from these trees, but that doesn’t need to be a source of safrole, that’s a product of the black market. That’s just because it can be done that way. You can make safrole any number of other ways. You can make MDMA from black pepper, you could make MDMA from catechol, you can make it from just endless different petroleum products, whatever. It’s a relatively simple molecule, there’s hundreds of ways that it conceivably could be made that don’t involve the destruction of old growth trees in Cambodia. The only situation where that is in necessity is where MDMA is a schedule one controlled substance, and the manufacturing distribution of it is controlled by the black market and it’s completely unregulated.
It’s sort of like when people say, “Well, how could you possibly do cocaine? You’re supporting the cartels.” And I understand the point, but the issue isn’t doing cocaine, the issue is the prohibition of cocaine that makes it a black market commodity that has to be sold by cartels. It could just as easily be a regulated market, like anything else, like aspirin. So I think that there’s a lot of misplaced moralism in some of these areas and synthesis does not have to involve destruction of the environment at all. 5-MeO-DMT especially because you can make 5-MeO-DMT from melatonin, and melatonin, I think, is produced microbially, at least a lot of amino acids are produced microbially or there’s such an enormous industry for the production of amino acids, like tryptophan, that they’ve figured out ways to produce those on an enormous scale with minimal ecological repercussions. So you can take a hundred grams of melatonin and convert that to about a hundred grams of 5-MeO-DMT, which is the equivalent of milking thousands and thousands and thousands of toads.
And so the question is, why not do that? Well, one reason is that there’s this sort of vitalist, animist interest in the fact that it comes from a toad, which I understand, I actually think that’s really interesting myself, I don’t want to discount that entirely. And so then the issue is how can we make synthetic materials have the same value as something that is derived from nature? How could you feel that same connection to a synthetic material? Because we think of a synthetic material as something that is soulless, something that is bad, “Oh, it comes from some laboratory in China, that means it’s bad, it’s dirty, it doesn’t have this sacred goodness of something that’s derived from this toad that lives in Sonora and estivates underground for nine months just like the period of human gestation. And there’s so much beautiful symbolism there. That, of course this is a transformative good experience, and how can you find that same beautiful symbolism in a synthetic compound?”
Well, what if you knew that the compound was synthesized by someone who cared, who did it lovingly, who is very dedicated to purity? I mean, you hear stories of Nick Sand clutching the flask of LSD as he synthesizes it and trying to project love into the molecule itself. You can do this to a synthetic compound if you want, and you can confer the same sorts of positive associations. You can have animist, essentialist attachments to anything if you want, if you choose. And that’s what I think is so funny when people say, “How dare you say that there’s no difference between synthetic and natural?” That’s actually not what I’m saying, I do believe that there is a difference, but I think we have control over that difference. I think that difference is a product of the value system that we have, and we could just as easily shift it if we wanted to.
Tim Ferriss: Furthermore, I would say, and this is also what I wrote in that piece at one point is even if we assume that some of these animal- or plant-derived options are 20 percent superior in whatever sense to a synthetic, I would find it hypocritical to inflict ecological damage or encourage increasing levels of ecological damage in the name of pursuing one’s own healing if other tools may be adequate. And for that reason, also if we’re just looking at this from a historical and cultural perspective, I think lots of people, and not to malign this, but they want to kind of put a stamp for every plant or animal experience into their psychedelic passport and I understand the drive, I’m a novelty seeker, I get it, but it’s hard to find, I don’t think I would say impossible to find, any single indigenous culture that has used the entire pantheon of psychedelics. It’s just not something that we see demonstrated by these traditions that are venerated by the very same people who then reject a synthetic. Let me ask you a question before I lose the thread for those people who might synthesize, because I’ve watched footage, whether it’s in your show or I do reading and I hear about the dumping of solvents and other things after illicit manufacture of different compounds, what would your advice be to someone who is synthesizing anything in terms of minimizing, how to dispose of their waste or otherwise to minimize damage? Are there any considerations? And I’m asking you this as a non-chemist; I’ve never synthesized anything.
Hamilton Morris: Right, it completely depends on what chemicals you’re using, because there are many things that are relatively innocuous. You could be using alcohol as a solvent, and then you could just evaporate it into the air and it’s just alcohol, it doesn’t matter. Or sodium borohydride might form various borate salts that are innocuous, and then you can do whatever you want with them, you can probably put them in your garden if you want. But other times you might be working with mercury salts that are deadly poisons. And in that case, it is your responsibility not to introduce them into the environment where they could hurt someone or enter the groundwater. And again, this is why having a regulated system is ideal because you don’t have to depend on the good intentions of every single person that’s making these sorts of things, you can leave it up to people that are professionally invested in doing the right thing.
That said, for every story that you hear about clandestine chemists dumping solvents and waste material into the environment, there are actually a good number of people who are aware of that stereotype, who go far out of their way not to be like that. Casey Hardison is this sort of controversial LSD chemist, who many people now have some problems with, but one of the things that he was most proud of was that in his entire LSD lab, all of the waste could be put in one trash can that he was extremely aware of, “I’m doing something that society says is wrong, so I’m going to go above and beyond to do it as well as I possibly can so that no one can accuse me of having damaged the environment in the process of creating this chemical.”
And I’ve known a number of other chemists who have the same attitude who actually not only do they do the right thing, they almost take neurotic pride in never doing any harm to the environment with their synthesis. And there’s a whole subclass of chemistry called green chemistry that is dedicated to finding the most environmentally friendly way of producing a given chemical or a given reaction.
Tim Ferriss: If someone, let’s just say, ends up with their garbage can of waste, I don’t know if this is something we can talk about, but hypothetically, how might they dispose of that in a responsible way, and I know it depends on the chemicals involved, but let’s just say some of them are toxic, while minimally identifying themselves as someone who is engaged in illegal behavior? Does that make sense? I think —
Hamilton Morris: Of course, of course. It’s a really good question. And again, I hate to keep saying this again and again, but it comes down to one of the problems when something is illegal is you could be somebody that genuinely wants to do the right thing. I’ve got a little bit of mercury waste, I don’t want to just pour this down the drain, I want to do the right thing and give it to a hazardous waste disposal company, but I’m afraid that in doing so I will incriminate myself and end up in prison and so I don’t want to risk it. This is another attitude that you find. And in those cases, I don’t know how to advise people. I would say that before you get involved in anything like that, make sure that you have a plan for absolutely everything.
I’m not suggesting that people indiscriminately start synthesizing these compounds, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that synthesis is an alternative to harvesting them from the natural world for chemists that are trained and want to do so. I do have a sort of utopian vision where more people are involved in chemistry because I actually think that one of the best ways to reduce problematic relationships with drugs is to have people make their own drugs and grow their own plants. And I think the same is also true of food, by the way. I think if more people grew their own food and prepare their own food, they’d have much, much healthier diets. No one would be eating gummi worms; there would be a lot less obesity. And it’s because we are detached from the process of manufacturing a lot of the things that sustain our life.
And if people grew their own mushrooms, I think that they would have a much better experience with those mushrooms because they would know everything that went into producing them. I think the same is true of cannabis. I think the same is true of mescaline containing cacti. And I think, although this is where it enters a slightly idealistic and unrealistic territory, I think that it’s also true of synthetic drugs as well. If you spend a year figuring out how to make MDMA and how to dispose of the waste effectively, there’s no way that you would abuse it by the time you were done, you’d have so much respect for what you had created and the work that went into creating it that you’d have to take it seriously.
Tim Ferriss: So to recap just for the benefit of this podcast and with the assumption that most people are not going to read the piece that I wrote, even though I’ll plug it again, there’s nothing for sale there. Well, actually that’s not true, there’s one link to your pamphlet related to 5-MeO and synthesis, but all proceeds from that go to supporting research related to Parkinson’s disease.
Hamilton Morris: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: So people can read this at tim.blog/conservation, but a few options in terms of lessening damage. And I say this, I should say, because we’re talking a lot about synthetics, as someone who’s very fond, extremely fond of whole plant-derived or fungi-derived psychedelics, whether they be psilocybe mushrooms or ayahuasca, which is a combination of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, and most commonly the chacruna or Psychotria viridis shrub leaves thereof. I’ve derived incredible therapeutic value from these things.
And I’ve had to accept the uncomfortable truth that a lot of the sourcing that is currently going on in the psychedelic world is just unsustainable, it is not scalable and totally unsustainable. So I’ll offer a few alternatives. For people who may be interested in peyote, I would say, please do not use peyote, reserve that for indigenous use. Consider, like you mentioned, other mescaline containing cacti; San Pedro regenerates much more quickly.
Kambo, I would say just don’t do it. Most civilizations have survived and thrived and developed deep spiritual practice without using toads of any type, psychedelic animals. So I would argue that you do not need to either, or you shouldn’t until you have exhausted all other options. The Sonoran Desert toad, Bufo alvarius, we talked about synthesis options that, I mean, the yield is pretty incredible.
Hamilton Morris: Oh, yes. I mean, this is the other thing is if you believe in this medicine and you want people to have access to it, this is the way to actually make it available. There’s no comparison to toads in terms of how much can be produced this way. This is how to actually get it out there. And there hasn’t been a lot of research published on how toad populations have been altered by their recent popularity, but I think it’s very telling if somebody is selling a product and they say it’s great, you have to really scrutinize the claim. But if someone has everything to gain and they’re telling that they’re doing something bad not to do it, you have to listen very carefully. So people that were making their living harvesting toad venom were telling me, “This is not sustainable. The populations are dwindling. “And they had every reason to lie about that. They could have just as easily said, “Don’t worry about it. There’s so many, they’re probably just hibernating,” but they did not say that, they said that there needs to be an alternative available to people.
And I actually see it as a source of inspiration. If you care about these things, then you can show your admiration by studying them and trying to recreate them synthetically to better understand them. I think that there’s a sort of tribute to nature in all natural product chemistry, where you’re recognizing this amazing feat of enzymatic synthesis that was conducted by a plant or an animal and you’re saying, “All right, that’s a great challenge, I’m going to see if I can do it as well. I’m going to see if I can do it.” And if there’s more in the venom, although I don’t actually think that there is all that much that is contributing, why not try that out as well? You can synthesize bufotenine, you can synthesize serotonin O sulfate if you want, you can synthesize any of these compounds and try them in different combinations and let that be a challenge and a way of showing your admiration to the toad.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s stay on 5-MeO-DMT for a little bit longer. Well, specifically the toad-derived, “toad,” as it’s often referred to. And I want to preface the question, and I’m going to ask, because it’s going to upset people, by saying I am in love with many of the traditions related to sacred plants in Central and South America. I’ve spent a lot of time in both places, I’ve read libraries full of books and have tremendous respect for these indigenous cultures and traditions. That said, let me ask the question. How much evidence is there to support that there is a long history of indigenous use of the Sonoran Desert toad?
Hamilton Morris: As far as I can tell, there’s absolutely no history whatsoever.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Hamilton Morris: And it’s a complicated point that I tried to make in my piece and I think I ended up confusing a lot of people because the history is that there was an anthropologist named Jeanette Runquist who had found a Cherokee midden pile that contained a lot of toads and had concluded, I think maybe even partially on the basis of some work Alexander Shulgin had done in her correspondence with Shulgin, that it was maybe possible that they were using it as a psychoactive drug. Which was a compelling hypothesis and it’s worthy of consideration, but subsequent investigations have shown that those toads could not have been Bufo alvarius, which is the only species that produces 5-MeO-DMT. And that there’s a really almost no way that it was any psychoactive toad, and that there’s very strong evidence that they were using the toads as food.
So you have no evidence of a psychedelic toad in that region and a history of using toads as food by those same people. It seems pretty clear that you can’t point to that and say, “This is evidence of ancient smoking of Bufo alvarius venom. It simply isn’t, but to make things more complicated, this misconception served as the inspiration for an independent researcher named Ken Nelson in the ’80s. So he read this article, which got a little bit of popular press in magazines like Omni, which were very, very influential in the 1980s, and he decided to investigate it himself thinking that he was rediscovering an ancient practice. But he wasn’t rediscovering it, he was actually discovering it for the first time, which is just a really, actually very confusing turn of events. But that is what happened. He is, according to known history, the first human being to smoke the venom of Bufo alvarius.
Tim Ferriss: I mean just the trial and error and balls and also intelligence that are encapsulated by Ken, I mean, it’s really mind boggling just how much he was able to do and document.
Hamilton Morris: Oh, yeah. I mean, I think it’s inspiring because it shows during the same period in the 1980s, when things were looking really, really bad for psychedelic research, how one person could make such an interesting and now culturally very important discovery just on the basis of their own curiosity.
Tim Ferriss: I’ll also add one more thing and please, Hamilton, call me out if I’m wandering astray and getting things wrong. But I think another element or aspect of this that might be confusing to people is I think what you’re saying, if I’m hearing you correctly, is that there there’s no compelling evidence to suggest indigenous or historical use up until a handful of decades ago of the Sonoran Desert toad as a source of 5-MeO-DMT.
Hamilton Morris: That is correct, yes.
Tim Ferriss: What you are not saying is that there’s no historical evidence of indigenous use of 5-MeO-DMT-containing plants.
Hamilton Morris: That is correct. Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that is the case. But if we’re looking at toad specifically, and I’m kind of beating this dead horse, folks, because I have seen how popular toad has become in psychedelic circles. And it’s very, very worrisome to me just in terms of scalability. So that’s why we’re spending so much time on this, which I should also say just as a caveat that I have, quite apart from the ecological impact, seeing some very experienced psychonauts get knocked sideways and untethered by a 5-MeO-DMT experiences, not to say that that is always going to be the case, but at least anecdotally among the circles that I know well, it has been alarming. How many examples there are people getting destabilized by their experiences. I don’t know if you have any thoughts on that.
Hamilton Morris: Oh yes. I mean, I think one of the unfortunate things about 5-MeO-DMT is its name so people think 5-MeO-DMT, that must be a version of DMT, it must be similar to DMT, but it’s more distant from DMT than psilocin and psilocybin, it’s a pharmacologically and chemically and experientially crucially different compound. It’s so different that I don’t even think the word psychedelic really fully captures what it is and what it does. It’s operating on a level that is different from any other psychedelic and I’m not just talking about its potency, there’s something else going on. It doesn’t cause visual hallucinations for most people. It dissociates you entirely from your environment; you become largely unresponsive at high doses almost as if you’ve taken an anesthetic, and it can produce very violent physical reactions for people as well. It’s really like a near death experience more than what people think of when they think of a psychedelic experience.
Tim Ferriss: For all of those reasons and more, folks, please consider other options or a synthetic route with respect to toad. In the new season, not to go from horror to horror, you explored xenon gas.
Hamilton Morris: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: So I think this is a useful place to talk about not necessarily risks of compounds, but risks that can exist external to the compound or even the dose of a compound itself. So we were texting about this a few days ago, but can you provide a little bit of background on why you have a gas in the most recent season, what some of its effects are, and then talk about what you observed in this clinic that scared the living shit out of me.
Hamilton Morris: Yes. Yeah. So for those that aren’t aware of xenon, it is an element, it’s on the periodic table of elements in a column called the noble gases, it’s on the right most side and at the top you have helium, which everyone is familiar with then neon, which again, everyone is familiar with then argon, which maybe a few less people are familiar with then krypton and then xenon. Xenon is the heaviest noble gas that is not radioactive then you have radon, which is unstable. And if you’ve heard of xenon, you probably only know about it in the context of lighting, it’s used in car headlights and projector lights and things like that.
And it’s very, very rare in our atmosphere. It’s 0.0000087 percent of Earth’s atmosphere. So there’s a little tiny bit in every breath that you take, but in order to concentrate enough of it to fill a tank, you need to distill millions of liters of air, you have to compress it and cool it down to a liquid and then fractionally distill off the nitrogen and the oxygen. And finally, after you’ve removed all the other gases, you’re left with a small xenon fraction, which is why it’s so expensive. A single breath of xenon costs somewhere in the range of $60.
And that’s unfortunate because for anesthesiologists that have examined xenon clinically, they’ve concluded that it has a number of attributes that make it essentially the perfect anesthetic. It is not metabolized in any way, it can be recycled indefinitely, it’s extremely potent, more potent than nitrous oxide. When it’s given to a patient, they recover very, very rapidly after the xenon gas is removed, within seconds. And the anesthesia also begins within seconds and it has no known toxicity, so it is arguably the perfect anesthetic and maybe even the perfect drug. It’s incredibly, incredibly euphoric.
But, and this actually goes back to again what I was saying earlier about how there’s so many different factors that determine addiction when people are talking about addiction potential, there could be the greatest drug in the world, but it doesn’t matter if a single dose of it costs thousands of dollars or it’s impossible to obtain. And I think xenon is an example of that. It is a drug that is extremely enjoyable, but it is just something that nobody has access to.
I never thought I would have the opportunity to use it and it wasn’t until I was visiting a chemist friend in New Zealand in 2014, I was on my way back to the United States, I was about to get on the plane and he said, “Before you go, I need to show you, I have this tank of xenon,” and I couldn’t believe it, it seemed so absurdly extravagant. It seemed almost on par with using gold or diamonds as a psychoactive drug. And I had that opportunity to inhale one balloon full of xenon, and it was a cherished memory of this one absurd extravagant encounter with xenon gas, which is a source of fascination for anyone that cares about the periodic table.
Tim Ferriss: Now, when you say balloon —
Hamilton Morris: It was a balloon of sorts.
Tim Ferriss: May or may not have been a condom. So you see you’re talking about this perfect drug, but I think you’re talking about it as a perfect drug from the standpoint of euphoria. I want you to correct me if I’m wrong, the first time that xenon ever came on my radar outside of hearing about it in passing, maybe in high school on the periodic table was as a possible performance enhancing drug at the Sochi Olympics for endurance. I think it was for biathlon or any number of other sports, but that it was being used for endurance enhancing properties as a performance enhancing drug. I don’t know if there’s any real plausible mechanism to explain that, but what are the medical uses of xenon outside of inducing euphoria?
Hamilton Morris: First as an anesthetic, but it’s not used for that in the United States at this time. It was used experimentally for a brief period by an anesthesiologist named Mervyn Maze, and a few others have investigated it, but it has not been approved by the FDA for that purpose and all use is experimental. There is a pharmaceutical company called Nobilis that’s trying to develop and release a xenon inhaler for PTSD. They actually sent me a prototype of it, which is the first time I’ve heard of a psychoactive drug inhaler for treatment of a psychological disorder. A very interesting idea. I don’t know if it will ever come to market, but it was really cool to see somebody looking into that.
In terms of performance enhancing, I think that it’s basically working as a sort of oxygen deprivation type intervention, where in addition to the anesthetic euphoria facts that conceivably could allow an athlete to get a little extra workout in, I mean, this is, I think among elite Olympic type athletes, it would be far too expensive to use under any sort of normal training.
And that was about it. I had this one experience, I wrote it up as a fun novelty that I’d never get to do again, and then somebody wrote to me and they said, “I was just in the sauna at the gym and some guy said that he owns a xenon clinic. What’s the deal with that?” And I thought, well, I don’t know what the deal is with that, I’ve never heard of a xenon clinic. And I said, “Can you get me this guy’s phone number? And could I talk to him?” And he said, “Oh, I’ll do what I can.” He sends me his phone number and we start talking and in the English language, there’s almost nothing about this. This is all happening in Russia, Czech Republic, India as well apparently. But if you look online, at least before I released my episode, there was almost nothing about xenon as a psychoactive drug. But these clinics are opening up where they give people xenon as a therapy for a variety of different ailments. And so I went and spent some time at one of these clinics and it was a fascinating and somewhat frightening experience.
Tim Ferriss: It was one of the most surreal, I would say, maybe that’s the word, surreal 20 or 30 minutes of television I’ve ever seen. I won’t ruin the surprise, but there is there’s xenon gas, there’s operatic singing, there are breatharians, in other words, people who claim to survive on “prana” alone without eating food, which ends up being particularly relevant when we get to the horror story that I hope you’ll share, and also the bizarreness of hearing how deep your voice becomes on xenon.
Hamilton Morris: Oh, yes, yes, yes. It’s really funny. It’s also funny, there’s a number of videos on YouTube of people inhaling xenon exclusively for the purpose of altering the sound of their voice. I think this is another example of this sort of puritanical attitude that people have. So if you inhale xenon gas to change the sound of your voice for a YouTube video, that’s totally fine. I upload a video of myself inhaling xenon gas, my voice has changed, but like everyone else, I get high. The only differences in the other videos, they want to change their voice, the highness is incidental. In my video, I want to get high and the voice change is incidental. But in my case, the video is demonetized.
Tim Ferriss: You bacchanalian hedonist.
Hamilton Morris: I think that is sort of emblematic of the way these things are carried out in our culture. Two people can inhale the exact same gas, but if you’re doing it with the intention of feeling euphoria, that’s unacceptable. But if you’re doing it to playfully alter the sound of your voice, then sure, that’s fine. We can advertise for that.
Tim Ferriss: Since I’ve been dragging this out with foreshadowing, what was the horror story?
Hamilton Morris: Okay. Okay. The horror story, yes. So in order to do the work that I do, I’ve had to cultivate a very nonjudgmental attitude. And I often get messages from people saying, “How could you possibly let this person say this?” Or, “How could you have talked to this or that sort of person?” But I think the best strategy if you’re trying to learn from someone else is just to listen and to not judge them. And I’ve never been the sort of person that wants to catch people looking their worst, I always want to give people the opportunity to be shown the way they want to be seen. And I certainly did not go to this clinic with the intention of making anyone look bad. The novelty of xenon being used as a therapy was more than enough for me and if people had had a perfectly good time and everyone had benefited, that would have been the episode.
Tim Ferriss: And there were some positive, there was footage of people for having positive experiences.
Hamilton Morris: Yes, my experience was extremely positive, but over the time that I was there, it became clear that there were some risks associated with xenon therapy. They were giving it to children — that I don’t think is inherently bad, but it does raise the bar in terms of medical supervision. A lot of the research that has been done in the use of xenon as an anesthetic has actually been done on neonates. So it’s not as if there’s something inherently bad about giving this to children or in that case infants, but you want to make sure that there’s someone with training, at least as an anesthetist, who is available should anything go wrong.
Then there was the issue with people potentially developing a problematic relationship, some sort of dependence. And again, you would never hear xenon discussed as an addictive drug because most people don’t have a tank of xenon. They could never hope to become addicted to xenon. But I think for some of these people who are working with it continuously, they may have developed a slightly problematic relationship with it.
And I even heard a rumor that is unconfirmed. So maybe I shouldn’t say it, but I heard a rumor that there was another xenon clinic operator in the Czech Republic who died as well. So this is an occupational hazard. The same thing is true of nitrous oxide. It’s a problem in dentistry that dentists and dental hygienists develop addiction to nitrous oxide because they have tanks of it available and it’s very easy after a stressful day to sit down in the dentist chair and unwind for a few hours. I mean, I spoke with one dentist who had pretty much lost everything because he enjoyed — he told me that he wasn’t addicted to nitrous oxide and he wasn’t addicted to Prince, but he was addicted to the combination of listening to Prince on nitrous oxide.
Tim Ferriss: Dangerous, dangerous cocktail for your professional future.
Hamilton Morris: Yeah. So, that’s something to avoid. But so the other thing of course is that when you’re administering an anesthetic somebody is by definition unconscious. And if they vomit while they’re unconscious, it can very easily be fatal if they inhale any of their vomit. So, you have people laying on their backs who haven’t fasted, which is standard before —
Tim Ferriss: In this clinic, you mean, fasting was not —
Hamilton Morris: It was not standard. Yes, but it should be —
Tim Ferriss: Required.
Hamilton Morris: Before the administration of a general anesthetic, someone should always fast because if you vomit while you’re unconscious, it can be fatal. So, they were not asking anybody to fast. This, ironically breatharian, someone who claims to never consume food, started to vomit while they were unconscious while wearing this mask, which is quadruple strapped to the face in order to prevent any leakage of the precious xenon gas. And it was absolutely terrifying. And that was a moment where I realized I don’t want to make anyone look bad. That’s not what I got into this to do, but I also don’t want to hide bad things that I observe because you can very easily hurt people that way as well. And it was a kind of difficult moment of realizing that there was something potentially dangerous going on. And I had to acknowledge it.
The final thing that was not captured on film and was not part of the episode is in this, because again, Xeon is so precious, it has to be recycled. When it’s recycled, it’s passed through a closed loop that contains calcium hydroxide, which scrubs the CO2. I wanted to film a time-lapse of this color change indicator in these calcium hydroxide beads changing just to show the passage of time. So I asked a producer that I was working with to just inhale into the calcium hydroxide repeatedly so I could film this color change reaction. And as he’s doing that, I’m filming the time-lapse. I go into another room to film something else. When I come back, someone who’s working at the clinic said, “Why don’t we just give him some xenon as well?” You know, he’s here, he’s sitting. And I said, “Oh, it’s very expensive. You don’t have to do that.”
He says, “Oh, no. I insist. I insist that we give him some xenon.” And I said, “Okay, well, that’s very generous of you.” And the producer wanted to try the xenon. And so he hooked him up to the xenon and I left again. And then, when I came back 20 minutes later, not only was this producer unconscious under the influence of xenon, the proprietor of the clinic was using xenon himself and was also unconscious and wasn’t watching him. He couldn’t wait to use it himself. And that’s when I thought, “Okay, there’s something…”
Tim Ferriss: That’s terrifying.
Hamilton Morris: There’s something terrifying going on here. And that same person tragically died shortly after we finished filming the episode. So I don’t want to claim that xenon is dangerous. I don’t even know that I think that those clinics should be shut down, but I think that it’s very clear that additional caution is required.
Tim Ferriss: You have a very interdisciplinary bent and interdisciplinary approach. You have a journalistic eye, you have scientific training, you are a practicing chemist, you are doing research, and you have become this figurehead magnet for all sorts of correspondence. So I think you have a very good 30,000-foot view of a lot of intersecting areas of interest and activity within the let’s just call it the psychedelic realm. Are there, does anything come to mind if I ask, what would you like to see more or less of in the psychedelic space?
Hamilton Morris: Yes. One thing that comes to mind that I don’t have a good answer for, but something that I’ve come to appreciate more and more as I’ve gotten older is when I first started researching the subject, I was a pure reductionist and I had very little appreciation for the ritual associated with a lot of these things. And the more I experienced these rituals, the more I came to respect them. And the iboga ceremony was the moment where I realized that the ritual could be as powerful as the substance itself. And the integration of that ritual could dramatically magnify the therapeutic properties of the drug. And the reason that I felt that way is because this is an endurance ritual. It’s five days of fasting, five days of almost continuous dance and drumming. And with the iboga, you start to appreciate things that are very difficult to articulate.
I had a rattle in my hand and I was tired at times. I didn’t want to rattle anymore. And I would think, “There’s 20 people around me that are rattling. Do I really have to rattle continuously all night long? Haven’t we rattled enough?” And then, it hit me that yes, I did have to rattle because my rattle motivated everyone else’s rattle in the same way that their rattle motivated my rattle and every single person’s movement played off of everyone else’s movement. And it was my responsibility no matter how tired I was to put every ounce of energy that I had into this ceremony because I was a part of it and because we were all connected. Now, that sounds like a pretty kind of new age idea, but it felt entirely logical. It felt completely rationalist to me. I am a part of this, everything that I do influences everyone else.
If I let my motivation slip for a moment, it could have an effect on someone else. It could have a butterfly downstream effect that diminishes the entire ceremony. And I can’t allow that to happen. I have to give this every ounce of energy and enthusiasm that I have. And that was part of it. The other part of it, I would actually liken bizarrely enough to breatharianism, which is I’ve watched some documentaries on breatharianism. And after this experience, I started reading about it and learning about it. And it’s very, very easy to make fun of breatharianism. I of course would have made fun of them because of course you need food to survive. Of course you need water to survive. Obviously.
This is one of the most obvious things in the world, but then I started thinking, well, wait a second. Is it really fair to just call these people idiots? Why might somebody do this? Why might somebody even think about the idea of breatharianism? And what I came to realize is that it’s a tremendously empowering idea to think that there are reserves of energy within you that you can tap into. And if you have enough will, enough power within you, you can subsist off your own life force indefinitely. And while there was no breatharianism in the iboga ceremony, I think that spirit of reserves of energy within you was a tremendous part.
There is no need to get tired because there’s more inside you. There’s no need to eat. You can keep going. There’s no need to drink water. You’re not going die of dehydration right there and then, you’ll be okay. You don’t even need to pee. You don’t. You can just keep going. It’s all within you. And that was a really empowering idea. And it doesn’t matter if you are addicted to drugs or not. It doesn’t matter if you’re religious or not. The idea that there are tremendous reserves of energy within is something that can benefit everyone. And I don’t know how that could be applied in our current medical practice.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. The translation of ritual. Although I suppose, we already have ritual in our medical practices. They just differ very widely from the indigenous rituals, right? We’ve got — there’s certain protocols and outfits and hierarchies. I’m not saying they’re unnecessary, but they are, they form in some ways their own codified set of rituals.
Hamilton Morris: And they’ve started to introduce them. Bill Richards does talk about things that are done at Johns Hopkins and they serve the psilocybin capsule, which of course is synthetic psilocybin, in a copal burner that’s sort of like a chalice. And they have a rose at the end of the session that people examine and which has become a sort of psychedelic tradition in 20th century psychotherapy in and of itself where people can see the rose at the end and in the petals, they can recognize their own mortality. So there are rituals that are being integrated, how widespread these will become is another question. But I think that’s actually as big a question as the chemistry and the pharmacology of these substances is how can we develop the best rituals to ensure that people are getting the best and the most out of them?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Set and setting, right? I mean, I want to pursue this same question a little bit further, but before I do, let me ask, given the multiplication of fly-by-night rent-a-shamans in South America and the fraud and disaster and sexual abuse and other things that can befall a tourist in South America, are there also fly-by-night operators who are dealing in iboga?
Hamilton Morris: Oh, I’m sure. And by the way, I am not saying this to make any sort of claim. Like you have to have a traditional Bwiti iboga ceremony. That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m really just trying to appreciate the power of some of these traditions. And I actually think that they can paradoxically be disempowering as well. If you think that you need someone else to give you this experience, that you have no intuitive understanding of your own psychology, that you need someone else to explain life to you, that’s a problem as well. There’s a balance.
And I actually think that it probably helped me a little bit that I don’t speak French. And so I was able to absorb some of the symbolism, I was able to absorb some of the rituals, but I didn’t fully understand any of it. And I learned what I could. I had a translator, I asked questions, but it would be a huge mistake to say that I fully understood their rituals. I just think that there’s a lot to be done in the way that we administer these substances and the cultures that have spent a few generations figuring it out. Some of them seem to have done a really remarkable job, but that’s not to say that people should invalidate their own intuition. And they should obviously be very, very careful.
Tim Ferriss: There are some really outstanding scientists who are going to be core, not first and foremost, psychedelic researchers who are going to be coming into this field, who I think will do a really nice job of looking at context and some of these inputs although they might not put transplanting of ritual on their initial list, they might be looking at olfactory cues and things like that, but Adam Gazzaley at UCSF is going to be stepping into this world. I’m really excited to see what he does. And I’m sure there are others.
Let’s talk about the ritual a little bit further. So I may get a little far from shore with the initial question, which was what would you like to see more or less of? So we can just bookmark that. I think it’s important to also — thank you. It’s important to also note, which you already described in part with this changing of Bwiti ceremony to address this new problem of, say, Tramadol addiction or addiction that they’re experiencing in their society or surrounding societies, that these traditions and rituals are not static in the sense that one shouldn’t feel that, in order to have the one and only authentic ayahuasca ceremony, they need to go find a certain person from a certain tribe because the real thing has been frozen in the ember. Ember?
Hamilton Morris: Amber.
Tim Ferriss: Has been frozen in the amber in a certain village in South America.
That is to say that people have been mixing and matching all along. So if you look at the traditional ayahuasca and by traditional, I mean, pre-Spanish inquisition kind of pre-Mestizo tradition ayahuasca ceremonies, very often it was only the ayahuasquero, only the shaman, although they wouldn’t call themselves that, who would drink for purposes of diagnosis or divination or whatever the purpose might be, prophecy. And that if you look at, even in the remotest parts of the upper Amazon, for instance, some of these ceremonies, you’re going to find elements of other languages, say certain types of Quechua that don’t occur natively in those regions. You’re going to find things like Agua de Florida, Florida water, which we both had experiences with, which was originally manufactured in the United States and is a very strong cologne. I don’t know how it made its way into the remotest parts of the Amazon. Maybe you do. I suspect it might have something to do with the rubber industry.
Hamilton Morris: That’s a great question. I’d love to know the answer to that.
Tim Ferriss: But you find it all over the place. Agua de Kananga, Kananga water also, at least one of the most common versions of it, initially manufactured in the United States. And so these kind of syncretic hybrids are found everywhere, which is to say, I think we should give ourselves license to continue to experiment with these new combinations.
Hamilton Morris: Oh, absolutely, yes. I mean, Christianity has permeated every great psychedelic tradition internationally. It’s part of the Bwiti tradition. You bow down to Christ, it’s part of Mazatec salvia and mushroom ceremonies. It’s part of the Native American church in the United States. It’s part of Huichol traditions as well. I don’t think I can — it’s certainly present in a lot of South American shamanism. So, I don’t think I can think of a single psychedelic tradition that doesn’t strongly include Christianity and Christian symbolism. So, that right there is evidence that these traditions are evolving. They evolve to reflect the environment, to reflect the best practices of the people who are engaging with these plants. And I think that we have a lot of room for growth and improvement.
Tim Ferriss: Is there anything else that worries you right now with respect to the explosion of attention and popularity and capital, the influx of new participants in the psychedelic space? Like what are you most optimistic about and what are you most concerned by?
Hamilton Morris: I’m very concerned by the hype phase that we talked about, that there’s a lot of people that are interested in the money, and that’s okay. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with money, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong from wanting to sell or profit from psychedelics. But it’s definitely a problem if that interferes with people’s appreciation of them. If they start behaving in corrupt or unethical ways. And journalists right now love to write positive stories about psychedelics because the pendulum of novelty has swung in the direction of describing psychedelics as something new and good and it’s fashionable to talk about how prohibition is a mistake, and these psychedelics are valuable medicines, and look at all these people at Johns Hopkins University — they just did this or that. So that’s the big new thing.
Well, what happens when that gets a little bit old, and what happens when, I don’t know, someone has a bad experience? Maybe a celebrity has a bad experience and they decide that mushrooms caused their psychosis. And then what? And we start writing stories about that. Maybe we went too far. Maybe someone has some kind of problem. I mean, historically that is the way these things go. They become very popular. Then Art Linkletter’s daughter jumps out a window or someone decides that Timothy Leary is crazy and he’s emblematic of the problems with psychedelics and that becomes the story. So I just hope that everyone will be responsible in their use, and will recognize that it is up to them to ensure that the mistakes of the past aren’t repeated.
Tim Ferriss: What books — there’s a long list. I’ve seen your library. You have a lot of books related to psychedelics. If you could assign required reading for anyone involved with psychedelics, whether using, administering, pursuing them in the form of a business. I know that’s very, very broad, but are there any books that stand out to you?
Hamilton Morris: Oh, of well, PiHKAL and TiHKAL are the two that I would say read those first. And thankfully they’re long enough that I think if people actually took my advice and read them by the time they got to the end, they wouldn’t need advice on further book recommendations, but those are the big ones with iboga and Bwiti religion there’s a very rare book that you can find PDFs of online by a U Chicago anthropologist whose last name is Fernandez. I’m trying to remember his first name. It’s called Bwiti. That’s the name of the book. Published in the ’60s or early ’70s. That’s a great book. That’s pretty much all that’s out there in English. Most of the Bwiti literature is in French, unfortunately. When it comes to psilocin, psilocybin mushrooms, obviously there’s Terence McKenna and Paul Stamets that have contributed really interesting books on the subject depending on whether you’re interested in cultivation or mushrooms in general. For mescaline-containing cacti, Douglas Sharon wrote a beautiful book called The Wizard of the Four Winds that goes into Peruvian cactus shamanism that I recommend.
I could recommend a lot of books. They might be a little bit on the technical side for the average reader — I mean, there’s a lot. It really depends on what you want to learn about. In some of these areas, there’s less literature. There aren’t many books that I would recommend on 5-MeO-DMT and Bufo alvarius with — and this is very self-serving, I’m aware — with the exception of this book that I am re-publishing right now. It’s the original book. It’s maybe 10 pages long, something like that, 15 pages long. It’s very short. But I think that it tells you everything that you need to know about Bufo alvarius written by the man who discovered that the venom could be smoked, Ken Nelson.
And then I expanded it a little bit to include some historical background. The whole thing is 30 pages long. It’s a booklet. Very, very short, but I think it’s good. And I think that the other books that are not scientific texts, like there’s a U Texas monograph called Evolution of the Genus Bufo, but that’s chemical analysis. I mean, it’s great if you’re a scientist who’s interested in Bufo alvarius, but in terms of a larger appreciation of 5-MeO-DMT, I mean, you have other books, but they tend to be a little bit more in the new age vein, you know?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. There’s a lot of garbage out there.
Hamilton Morris: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: On all of these things that we’re discussing. What is the URL again for the pamphlet?
Hamilton Morris: Yes. That is www.psychedelictoadofthesonorandesert.com. I wish I’d just gone psychedelic toad.
Tim Ferriss: Well Hamilton, we’ve covered a lot of ground. And we could go for another five hours, but maybe we’ll save a little in reserve for our next round. I don’t think there will be, even if we, even if I exhausted myself, I think we would still have lots of material.
Hamilton Morris: It’s about to get really interesting. I think there’s going to be a lot to talk about in the coming years.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, I think so too. I think there’s going to be an absolute cyclone of activity and also conflict, intellectual property being one of kind of the flagpoles that I’m going to watch very closely. And innovation, I mean, a lot of novel psychedelics being pursued by many for-profit companies, bigger and bigger players coming into the space, lots of research centers being established at various universities. And I’m thrilled that this appears to be a field that is more and more viable as a career path for researchers and scientists.
Hamilton Morris: Yes, me too.
Tim Ferriss: Is there anything else that you’d like to say to my audience? Requests of my audience? A haiku that you’d like to read? Anything at all?
Hamilton Morris: No, it was just great talking to you.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, you too, man. It’s good to see you.
Hamilton Morris: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: And a special thanks to the Red Baron who did many flybys in our audio verite conversation here in downtown Austin. And for everybody listening, we will put show notes at tim.blog/podcast with links to everything that we’ve discussed. And until next time, be safe, be open-minded, and try the Hippocratic oath when it comes to psychedelics. First, do no harm or if the very least do as little harm as possible. And thanks for listening.
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