What's so bad about LSD?
Filmmaker Hamilton Morris explores psychedelic chemistry
“Those who consume their medicines rarely understand the risks that were taken to create them. In a society that has made their work a crime, the psychedelic chemist is an outlaw.” The smooth, focused narrating voice of Hamilton Morris carried through the crowded auditorium at the International Business School. On Feb. 13, the latest episode in filmmaker Hamilton Morris’ documentary series on psychedelic drugs for Viceland, titled “Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia,” was screened at the Sachar International Center.
On screen, Hamilton Morris approaches his research with an almost childlike curiosity. As both an accomplished chemist and filmmaker at age 29, he spends his time traveling the world investigating the effects of psychedelic substances, often testing these chemicals himself. This isn’t only a passion for him — it also pays. He is science editor for Vice Magazine and the director of “Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia,” which airs on Viceland. He is also the son of esteemed filmmaker Errol Morris, who is best known for directing “The Thin Blue Line.”
Unlike his father, Hamilton Morris is a constant on-camera presence in his documentaries. The episode that screened was titled “The Lazy Lizard School of Hedonism” and was the finale of the season. The 40-minute video focuses on the creation of MDMA (ecstacy) and LSD (acid). Hamilton Morris explores the creation of these drugs through the story of Darrell “The Lizard” Lemaire, a psychedelic chemist who, for good reason, had never been introduced to the public before.
Hamilton Morris explains that in 1966, Lemaire used dynamite to blast a chamber inside a volcano in Nevada to build a secret laboratory for synthesizing psychedelic drugs.
In the early 1980s, Lemaire — with the help of his of his partner in crime, renowned chemist Alexander Shulgin —synthesized MDA to create MDMA, which became known on the street as Ecstasy. Over the next five years, they produced hundreds of kilos of MDMA from their volcano laboratory. When the demand for psychedelic drugs soared in the 80s, it would have been easy for the two to charge a premium on their product, as they were its largest producers. However, Hamilton Morris was quick to point out that Shulgin and Lamaire were “not in it for the money; they truly believed in what they were doing.”
In 1985, the FDA placed MDMA on an emergency schedule drug list, meaning the government had determined that the drug was unsafe and had no acceptable medical use. This effectively made Lemaire’s work a crime. He decided that it was time to pass the torch on to someone younger who could continue his work creating the drug. That’s when Lemaire discovered a drug survey published in a magazine written by Casey Hardison, a budding chemistry student at the University of Nevada, that interested him.
Lemaire contacted Hardison, and within the year the two were working together in the underground lab. Lemaire mentored Hardison and provided him with lab equipment. The two started a club called “The Lazy Lizard School of Hedonism” for their friends to drop acid and, as Hardison put it, “experience their trips together.”
The users of psychedelic drugs in America have often found themselves outcasts in society. Morris explains that “traditionally, people who use drugs have been demonized, but drug manufacturers and suppliers are considered the absolute worst.”
He believes that “the government should not be involved in people’s drug use. Historically, it’s been a terrible strategy that has caused a lot of suffering and put people in cages for life unnecessarily.”
Hardison spent nine years in jail for working to supply MDMA, and he claims that our common understanding of psychedelics is completely backwards, saying, “There became a thirst for some meaning in this postmodern, meaningless world that many of us find ourselves in. There is a search for answers, like, what are we doing here? I think psychedelics can answer some of those questions.”
Today Hardison continues the work of his mentor Lemaire, who eventually sold his volcano and retired upon turning 90.
The ending scene of the episode shows Lemaire and his wife Jean Millay sitting on a couch with Hamilton Morris and Casey Hardison, watching a film made in the 1960s titled “The Psychedelic Experience.” As the screen flashes with bright neon rays of color, Hardison proclaims, “I can’t run around making acid anymore. It’s a very beautiful and wondrous molecule that allows us to be part of nature again. If one perecent of the planet can experience that, maybe we will transform, maybe we will have less war.”
Hamilton Morris admits that he told the story of Lemaire not just because he was interested in the subject, but because he wanted people to walk away from the show “with an appreciation of psychedelic and psychoactive drugs in general, and not to marginalize these drugs or the people who make them.”
He concluded, “The world needs healing and the medicines are known. The question is: Who is going to make them?”