Son of documentary maker Errol Morris has gone into the same line of work, albeit with added psychedelic frogs
When people ask Hamilton Morris what he does, he tells them he works in science. "I don't have any desire to explain myself," he says. Which is a shame, because if he did, they'd get a much more outlandish answer. Morris is a 24-year-old psychonaut – that is to say, an explorer in the realm of psychoactive substances. Another way of putting this is that he takes drugs for a living.
Resembling an even-more-attenuated member of the Horrors and talking in a distinctive, deep bass voice with long, drawled vowels that themselves sound narcotised, Morris travels the world in search of new highs. These adventures, which he undertakes with a mix of gonzo abandon and scholarly rigour, are chronicled in the vice.com video series Hamilton's Pharmacopeia.
The highlight is a six-part film called Nzambi, in which Morris travels to Haiti in search of the preparation purported to induce zombification and ends up having hypnagogic hallucinations about Jean-Claude Van Damme.
For Morris, the drugs themselves seem secondary to what his hero, ethnobotanist Wade Davis, terms "the cultural matrix": in other words, his desire to get off his face and out of his head is bound up with the noble spirit of anthropological enquiry. "Oh yeah," he agrees. "Absolutely. And that applies to everywhere and every single drug. I could guess you could call it ethno-chemistry."
We're drinking water out of jam jars and talking amid the spectacular chaos of his Williamsburg apartment – an exploded Wunderkammer of cultural matrices that would also support anthropological investigation. Books and journals are amassed in strata so deep that they look like the floor's naturally occurring geological eructations. Curios include a taxidermy anteater, a shrine of tiny coffins, and – lying open and empty on the floor – a suitcase so small and quaintly battered that it looks like a toy or a prop. But it's neither, having accompanied Morris on missions to the Amazon (in search of the psychedelic sapo frog), the Netherlands ("magic" truffles) and, more recently, Shanghai (to investigate its grey market drug factories, best known for producing mephedrone).
But for all the global adventuring, Morris claims that "the internet is the new unexplored jungle. This is the best time ever in the history of mankind to be interested in drugs because you have virtually every botanical psychedelic that's ever been discovered available from different ethno-botanical vendors on the internet. And on the one hand, sure, it's bad that people inevitably die, but it's also amazing in terms of everything that's being learned about toxicology as a result."
I must look a bit shocked because he concedes that last statement is more of a "detached view of things. It's tragic that people are dying but it's also amazing what's learned as a result of – things that would never be learned if everyone acted responsibly."
'My parents had a pretty rational position, which is that drugs are not bad, it's only bad to waste your time with drugs. Which I agree with'
I ask him what kind of a kid he was. Introspective? Nerdy? "Probably I was a nerdy kid, yeah. I certainly wasn't athletic." He thinks and then offers, "I was a pyromaniac," with a languid wrist gesture that says "weren't we all." "There was no serious damage to anything," he insists. "But I would spend hours stripping the phosphorous off the heads of matches and making different explosives."
Morris is the only child of Errol Morris, the documentary film-maker, and Julia Sheehan, an art historian. "My dad is a weird guy and always had a lot of 'characters' around – Holocaust deniers and robotics experts." His folks sound pretty lenient. "I think they had a pretty rational position, which is that drugs are not bad, it's only bad to waste your time with drugs. Which I agree with. I feel very lucky, very genetically privileged, that I have pretty solid control over my use of things. Drugs are too interesting, too much fun to use irresponsibly. I very rarely drink or smoke pot. But with something new, it's never recreational, and I try to mostly do new things."
Morris's first meaningful drugs experience came at age 13, "in my friend's Volvo, smoking salvia and crying tears of joy". He felt, he recalls, "just astonishment that those states are even possible, that anyone can reach them so effortlessly." And like a fastidious gourmand bemoaning the rubes who dunk ketchup on their souffles, he has little patience for "those people not having good experiences". Generally, he says, "it's because they're not doing it right". and he stresses the word with exasperation. "I don't even understand what is going on with these people, that are doing, you know, twenty grammes of mephedrone in a single night, because it's only going to result in misery. It does ruin it for everyone, a little bit."
He's never been hospitalised himself, but evenly recounts his best friend at university going "permanently insane" while they were tripping together. "He had such a severe psychotic break he did not recover. As in he is now schizophrenic as a result. So, I mean, I've worried about going insane. But I think a lot of people in their early twenties worry about going insane. I think that's just a general human worry, not necessarily a psychonautical worry.
"I would encourage people to not reactively think that these things are bad or to always point out 'Oh it could be dangerous'. Everything could be dangerous. There shouldn't be this weird attitude of being afraid to experiment with anything. The states can be so dramatic and can feel so terrifying or so unpleasant at a certain point that you wonder how could you ever recover from something so awful. Then you do recover, usually in the same day or the same hour. The resilience of the human mind is amazing."
I wrap things up by asking Morris if he thinks drugs have made him a better person. He doesn't hesitate: "Almost certainly."
Hamilton Morris's Doctor Coca premieres in June on vice.com
2 June, 2012
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